|Charcoal burners making charcoal for the gunpowder.
This went on all along the creek.
If anyone has kept track of our columns, they would have noticed many of the
articles deal with charcoal. Charcoal kilns, ironworks, and now even
gunpowder. Technically, this column’s travel location is Hagley Museum and Library, an educational
institiution located in northernmost Delaware that preserves and
interprets the history of American enterprise. However, our real topic
is the manufacture of gunpowder.
Our topic could have been been the du Pont family in America, as this is
their ancestorial home, and
they located their gunpowder mills on the property. In 1802, Eleuthere
Irenee du Pont, a French imigrant, established his gunpowder mills on
the banks of the Brandywine Creek. This is “where the du Pont story
begins.” The location provided all the necessities for such a mill: a
water flow sufficient to power a mill, available timber of the proper
species (specifically willow, a tree that makes charcoal fine enough for
gunpowder), close proximity to the Delaware River and shipments of
sulfur and saltpeter (the other two ingredients of gunpowder), and
nearby stone quarries that would provide building materials.
time it grew into the largest black powder manufacturing firm in the
world—the E. I. du Pont Nemours & Company.
All along the river the cultivated
willows grew and still grow.
They were an integral
part of the process.
Our topic could have been the Brandywine Valley. There are many more du
Pont mansions and other museums close-by.
There is a discounted Brandywine Treasure Trail Passport that
will allow visitors into 11 museums and gardens along a 12-mile stretch
of road that follows the Brandywine Creek.
It gives a view of the how the American aristocracy lived.
Nemours Mansion and Gardens (another du Pont plantation) is one of the
eleven. The mansion has 70 rooms and the French
ancestry shows in a Louis XVI style of architecture and Versailles-style
But our topic is Hagley Museum and Library.
It has the original mansion and gardens. The mansion can be
toured and the restored French-style gardens are open. E. I. du Pont had
a love of gardening and it shows yet today.
Eleutherian Mills, the
Georgian-style mansion, was the original du Pont family home in America.
It was built by E. I. du Pont in 1803 and it reflects the tastes of five
generations of du Pont’s that lived there. Empire, Victorian, and
Federal periods of furniture are accentuated in the various room
settings. Inside are exhibits and demonstrations that highlight the
connections between early industrial technology and early American
industry. Exhibits also showcase personal stories of nineteenth century
DuPont Company workers, including everyday life and how lifestyles
improved with changing technology and new production methods in the
Mills – the first du Pont family
home in America. Courtesy Hagley
Enough of the worker’s community (Worker’s Hill) still exists to give an
idea of what life was like for the workers. A restored 1880’s machine
shop sits at the bottom of Worker’s Hill. Volunteers demonstrate the
machinery that is powered by whirring belts. Further up Worker’s Hill
the Gibbons House gives insight into how a powder yard foreman’s family
might live: what their
meals were like and what type of furniture and conveniences they had.
Even the old schoolhouse is nearby and one can see what their
lessons looked like. There
are interpreters in period dress that will explain how a normal family
lived and what their daily activities were. Belin House Restaurant is on
Worker’s Hill and offers a panoramic view of the estate. There is even a
store that sells tourist items located in a historic building once used
for cotton and wool picking.
The estate is large and the attractions are scattered enough that
a small bus will carry the weary from area to area.
The buildings that housed the gunpowder works were built for
safety, to endure an explosion. So, it should not be surprising that
most of the buildings in the powder yard are still there. There are
plenty of mansions and gardens in the United States, but few places to
an on-location historical overview of the gunpowder industry. Our
emphasis will be the du Pont Powder Yard. An earlier, smaller mill was
established upstream in 1803, and ten years later expanded demand for
gunpowder required a second mill. The second mill was built downstream
at Hagley and became the black powder mill in the world. There were 33
mills in the complex at the height of production.
The Powder Yard is on Brandywine Creek, so this part of the
has two highlights, the yard and the spectacular beauty of the creek.
Some of the mill buildings had additional
“blast barriers.” Everything was
constructed for safety.
buildings dot the edge of the creek. The side not visible,
facing the creek, is open and used to have a wooden wall.
The Powder Yard walking tour covers the mill grounds where du Pont
manufactured gunpowder and blasting powder at Hagley from 1814 until
1921. It covers the process
of making gunpowder and describes how it changed over the years. Each
step in the process is demonstrated (even ignition). The tour includes
an operational waterwheel that powers the equipment and an operating
Hagley mill race on the Brandywine River
Courtesy Hagley Museum
The mill race (a manmade canal) that supplied power for the waterwheel
is still there and adds to the beauty of the creek. One reason many of
the manufacturing buildings are still on the edge of the creek is that
they had very thick stone walls, but only on three sides. The fourth
side, facing Brandywine Creek, had a light wooden wall that could easily
blow away if the gunpowder exploded. Since the wooden side faced the
creek, the explosion would be carried away across the creek, far from
the other mills and grounds. Explosions were a constant threat; 40
people were killed in an 1818 explosion at the yards.
The mill race is behind the mill buildings, making them even more
isolated in case of an accident. A single spark could produce a
catastrophe. Safety was a huge issue.
Horse wore leather booties over their horseshoes; men could not wear
shoes with nails: and the small narrow gauge railroad had wooden rails
held down by wooden nails. Any worker caught with a match was
The remaining mills illustrate the process of marking black powder; so
they stress three processes: purification, crushing, and mixing and
three ingredients: charcoal, saltpeter, and sulfur. Later glazing and
corning (reducing particle size) are discussed as part of the process.
The entire manufacturing process is the essence of the tour, but
the buildings also include a blacksmith shop, machine shop, quarry, and
steam plant and powerhouse. There is also a sulfur storehouse, dry
tables, and the press house. The making of metal powder kegs is even
included. Anyone with an industrial/mechanical interest had better plan
for at least a half day just for the power yard.
William Carr described the du Pont process well in
The du Ponts of Delaware: “In the mills by the Brandywine the
dangerous work of making powder was carried on steadily. In the stamping
mill, saltpeter, sulphur and charcoal—the ingredients of black
powder—were moistened and pounded and thoroughly mixed. Next the powder
was taken to the press room, where it was forced into compact cakes from
which moisture was squeezed. The third step was in the graining—or
corning—mill where the cakes were broken up and the powder passed
through sieves to produce the various sizes of gunpowder. The last step
took place in the grazing mill; here the grains of powder were moved
about in barrels of graphite to make each grain rounder, drier, and
coated against dampness.” The powder line is illustrated and discussed
as the tour moves through the mill buildings.
The two eight-ton grinding wheels.
Probably the most dramatic demonstration is these
being moved by the power of the creek.
Recall we discussed charcoal production at Hopewell Iron Furnace in an
earlier column (located at
Just like charcoal was produced for iron production, it was produced for
gunpowder production. Pit production was used, where wood is piled on
level ground, then covered with dirt to prevent air from reaching it,
and “burned” so as to char, leaving nearly pure carbon, with the
moisture and volatile gases expelled. Charcoal was the foundation of
many early American industries.
Fine grade charcoal was the foundation of the gunpowder industry.
Charcoal quality greatly impacted gunpowder quality. Better charcoal
produced more heat or more consistent heat. For gunpowder production,
charcoal quality was critical, as it controlled much of the powder’s
consistency, moisture retention, and ignition properties. If du Pont
wanted superior gunpowder, he must have superior chemicals, including
charcoal. Charcoal for gunpowder is of best quality when made from a
light, spongy wood, with minimal mineral substances. Very rapid wood
growth was preferred, as it tends to make wood lighter.
Willow was the preferred wood. Other woods commonly used for
gunpowder were alder and dogwood. These tended to produce long grains
that made better charcoal. Willow and alder might to 4-5 inches in
diameter and dogwood about an inch in diameter.
They were purchased in pieces 3
feet long. The wood had to be straight, perfectly sound, and bark free.
Most was felled in the spring of the current year.
It would be air-dried before charring.
Charcoal production involved colliers who were trained to do the burning
and many woodcutters to produce the wood for burning. Gunpowder
production required clean wood, both dirt- and bark-free. Most charcoal
was used to produce heat in furnaces. Bark made no difference for that
purpose. So another group
of laborers were necessary in producing gunpowder charcoal. Bark peelers
stripped the bark off the willow stems cut the wood into equal sizes for
uniform burning. Thus, the
culture of willow was a necessary practice along this section of the
Brandywine and it was constantly being processed into wood for charcoal
pits. We could not help but to include a simple photograph of willow
along the bank. It is all over the streamside and most visitors probably
never have a clue it is an important part of the equation at the powder
emphasized as a technology-based road trip, stressing early American
industry and enterprise, the gunpowder industry, and the charcoal
industry. But there is much more here. The mansion and gardens are a
second trip to themselves, and they are just a part of a set a mansions.
Various museums are part of the Brandywine Valley and they all have
different themes. We just described the tip of a very large “iceberg,”
in terms of road trip potential. This little part of Delaware should not
For more info:
Hagley Museum and Library Homepage.
The Hagley Library, including on-line exhibits.
Brandywine Valley treasures.
Tom Straka is a forestry professor at Clemson University in South
Carolina. His wife, Pat, is
a consulting forester. Both
have a keen interest in history.
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