Colliers of the Blue Mountain

Molly Caballero

The charcoal fueled iron industry in the Lehigh Valley bloomed and declined over the course of the nineteenth century. Many lives were greatly affected and shaped by this industrial landscape. One type of people were the colliers, or charcoal burners, who produced the fuel that enabled the iron furnaces to function. Although a singularly important job, not much is known of the colliers and their lifestyles. One scholar, Arthur Bining, says of the charcoal burners, “Thus the bleak and lonely charcoal burners’ huts were built in the silent forests or woods, far away from the plantation community were the rest of the iron workers lived” (Bining, 1938). In a Christmas story written by Florence Seannell and published in a Lehigh newspaper in 1874 “although he worked very hard, he was poor, barely gaining enough for the wants of his wife and four children” (Seannell, 1874). Thishese illustrative prose gives the impression that the colliers of the Blue Mountain were solitary, isolated and poor.

Figure 1. An image of a charcoal pit. From Diderot and D’Alembert 1762.

The Lehigh Valley Iron Industry in the nineteenth century flourished under the control of a few influential families. The Balliets were one such family that owned and operated three the two furnaces our research focuses on, the Lehigh Furnace, north of Allentown, south of the Blue Mountain, and the Pennsville Furnace just north of the Blue Mountain in Carbon County. The Blue Mountain, the divide between the two counties fueled furnaces to its north and south. In order to supply each furnace with fuel, the colliers would take to the Blue Mountain, where there were ample sources of wood. After chopping the wood for production, the colliers would create a flat circular space called a “charcoal pit” (Figure 1). The wood would be laid in the pit in a circular beehive formation around a central pole, leaving space in the center to ignite and maintain the burn. After the pit was covered with dirt and hay, it would be light and maintained. The entire process took about 8-14 days and needed skill. For this reason, the colliers had to live near their pits and often built temporary structures in the woods.

Our data was primarily collected from US census records, which we digitized, from the years 1860, 1870, and 1880. This enabled me to identify specific colliers and follow them through census years. I also utilized maps collected for census purposes atlases and wall sizes which allowed me to see whether a collier owned landed and where he might have lived. Finally, some newspaper articles were found to understand more fully how colliers were viewed by the populous.
In contrast to Arthur Bining’s simplified view of solitary and poor colliers, I found that each collier listed in the census had a unique and variant story. In our three years of census data, I found and followed nine men who were listed as charcoal burners or colliers, their names and occupations are found in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Chart listing charcoal burners and occupations listed on the census

John Bachman, whose large family goes againstis contradictory Arthur Bining’s view of the collier lifestyle, was not the only collier who was likely employed by the Balliets was one of many colliers in the area. When originally studying the lives of the colliers, I assumed that charcoal burning was a lifelong pursuit, one passed down from father to son, as the skill requires training, practice, and much expertise. Another collier, Joseph McFarling, or McFarland, is similarly found in only one census record. In 18670, he and his sizable family are listed, with himself “burning charcoal”. However, in 1880 he is found as a Keeper at a Furnace, clearly able to work his way up within the industry. From other records found within marriage and birth records, it appears that Joseph was born in Pennsylvania, moved to Ohio at a young age, grew up, married, and moved back to Pennsylvania. After this point he disappears from record, so his occupation is difficult to solidify.

The Neff family was a large and extensive family according to our census collection. There is even a small town north of Allentown named after the family. Aaron Neff  (see Figure 3) worked in many fields throughout his life. In each of our census records, Aaron had a different occupation. Aaron Neff’s occupation went from that of a teamster, or horse and cart handler, to working in slate quarry, to burning charcoal. Although consistently a laborer, Aaron Neff appears to have jumped around industries. (1880, 1870, 1860 Census).

Figure 3. Map of Washington Township drawn by Aschbach in 1862. The image shows the homes of D. Handwerk and Aaron Neff, both north of the Lehigh or “Balliet” Furnace.
Aschbach, G. A. 1862. “Map of Lehigh County, Pennsylvania: From Original Surveys.”
Philadelphia: M. H. Traubel, Lithographer.

What is even more interesting is that his son appears to have jumped around changed occupations with his father. Although Francis was too young in 1860 to have an occupation, in 1870 and 1880, he appears to have the same occupations as his father.Clearly, there are similarities between Aaron and his son, Francis and their occupations. Whether this means that the Neffs found it useful to have similar occupations, Francis clearly no longer lives with his father, so it is interesting to see that the two are working in the same field. Perhaps, Francis Neff and his father preferred to live near each other, therefore held similar jobs.

There is a similar familial story with two other colliers, Hiram and Nathan Kolb. Although not directly related, not brothers or father and son, they are somehow each other’s extended family, possibly cousins. Both of these men are listed in the 1880 census as charcoal burners and are 38 and 40 years old. Although Hiram is listed as a “laborer” in the 1870 census, which could mean anything including burning charcoal practically anything, Nathan cannot be found and is likely among the many pages of that census that have been lost the section of the census we are unable to read. Hiram Kolb is an interesting collier as he went from a “laborer” to a “charcoal burner” to a “woodchopper”. This is particularly interesting because charcoal burning, as has been said, requires a fair amount of skill. It is interesting that in 30 years Hiram Kolb would go from a charcoal burner to a woodchopper, which is considered a lower skill occupation. One reason for this might be the downfall of the charcoal based iron industry and the decrease in demand for charcoal. A final interesting thing to note about Hiram Kolb is that he appears to have never married and in 1910 is found in the house of an older man and his daughter as a boarder. Nathan Kolb also switches occupations from burning charcoal to a “day laborer” at 60 in 1900. It is likely that he never owned land as his name cannot be found on any maps. His extensive family shows that charcoal burners were more than “lonely” and not altogether isolated from their communities.

Dan Handwerk is another collier found in the census data. Clearly a landowner, shown in the map below (Figure 7)r by map evidence, it appears that he, like the Neffs were part of a larger family in Washington Township, as many Handwerks are found on the census data. Dan Handwerk, like the other colliers, had multiple occupations. and Llike Hiram Kolb, he is listed as a “laborer” in the 1870 census,. which could mean that he was burning charcoal. This makes it likely that he was still burning charcoal in 1870. The land he owns is just south of the Blue Mountain so it is likely that Handwerk was burning charcoal in 1870. However, unlike Hiram Kolb, in 1900 when the charcoal based iron industry was in decline, he was already a landowner and likely already a farmer and therefore had the ability to start a farm and was t therefore able to be self employed. Hiram Kolb on the other hand had to resort to chopping wood for subsistence as he owned no land.

In an interesting twist, a different collier by the name of Abraham Moyer, another prominent family in the Lehigh Valley common family name in the Lehigh Valley, was a farmer and then turned to burning charcoal in 1880 at the age of 63, after being listed as a farmer in 1870. In 1870, Abraham Moyer is listed as a farmer, at age 56. Ten years later in the 1880 census, at age 63, he is listed as a charcoal burner. (1880, 1870 Census). As a landowner and an aging man, it is somewhat confusing that Abraham Moyer would have chosen to take up burning charcoal. Not only is burning charcoal a difficult task for an older man, but in 1880, the charcoal industry is diminishing significantly and Moyer was already established as a farmer and landowner. This must leave us wondering what, if anything happened to make Abraham Moyer take to the Blue Mountain. . This question that could be investigated in the future.

The final collier found was Edwin Loch. Although missing in the 1870 census, he appears in the 1860 census without a jobas a young man of 14, and in the 1880 census as a “charcoal burner”. After this, not much can be found on Edwin Loch. It is clear that he married and lived in East Penn. One thing that is very interesting about Edwin Loch is his family in 1860, as a young man. Clearly, as they have a different last name, Loch is either a worker in the household or a boarder. Another thing to note about Loch is the his clear presence in the Union Army. Many pension records were found with Loch’s census information, so it is clear that he served in the Civil War.

Contrary to the their representation, each collier did not appear to have stuck with the occupation for very long. Not a single collier was listed as such in two years of the census. And only one appears to have had the solitary life described by Bining. Hiram Kolb, unlike the other eight colliers found and listed, never married, and lived out his days after the decline of the charcoal based iron industry in the late nineteenth century, as a boarder in an older man’s home. Each of the others had relatively large families, John Bachman had 11 children, and had other occupations, some within the iron industry, others out. Some, such as Dan Handwerk, and Aaron Neff were landowners (you can see their names and land on the map in Figure 1), which gave them the flexibility that others, like Hiram Kolb, did not have, The ability to be flexible within a such a booming industry illustrates the complexities and variations that were available to the colliers of the Lehigh Mountain. The Blue Mountain Men were immersed in their communities, their families, and their occupation, which was only sometimes charcoal burning.

This overall complication of the lives of these men shows that every life is complex and layered. This project shows that the trend of oversimplification leaves the humanity and the reality out the big picture and that is what anthropology attempts to do on a global scale. Hopefully these projects will broaden ideas about life in the Lehigh Valley in the nineteenth century and show that history can be exclusive.

Works Cited.

Aschbach, G. A. 1862. “Map of Lehigh County, Pennsylvania: From Original Surveys.”
Philadelphia: M. H. Traubel, Lithographer.

Bining, Arthur Cecil. 1938. Pennsylvania Iron Manufacture in the Eighteenth Century. Harrisburg: Publications of the Pennsylvania Historical Commision.

Diderot, Denis and Jean le Rond D’Alembert, editors. 1762. “Agriculture and Rural Economy – Charcoal.” The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2010.

Seannell, Florence. “A Christmas Legend.” The Carbon Advocate [East Penn] 26 Dec. 1874: Page 1. The Carbon Advocate (Lehighton, Pennsylvania) at Pennsylvania Collection. Accessed April 18, 2017.

Straka, Thomas J. 2014. “Historic Charcoal Production in the US and Forest Depletion: Development of Production Parameters.” Advances in Historical Studies 3 (2): 104–14. doi:10.4236/ahs.2014.32010.

“United States Census, 1860,” database with images, FamilySearch ( : 24 March 2017), Pennsylvania > Lehigh; from “1860 U.S. Federal Census – Population,” database, ( : n.d.); citing NARA microfilm publication M653 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.).

“United States Census, 1870,” database with images, FamilySearch ( : 22 May 2014), Pennsylvania > Carbon; citing NARA microfilm publication M593 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.).

“United States Census, 1880,” database with images, FamilySearch ( : 24 December 2015), Pennsylvania > Lehigh > Washington > image 31 of 44; citing NARA microfilm publication T9 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.).

“United States Census, 1900,” database with images, FamilySearch ( : 5 August 2014), Pennsylvania > Carbon > citing NARA microfilm publication T623 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.).

“United States Census, 1910,” database with images, FamilySearch ( : 11 November 2015), Pennsylvania > Carbon > East Penn > citing NARA microfilm publication T624 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.).