Black Powder Production
The making of black powder was quite dangerous. Sixty-six men and one woman were killed in explosions at the Hazard Powder Company over its 77 year history. Some of these explosions killed as many as 11 people at one time.
Experts in the making of black powder were brought over from England to lead the manufacturing efforts. These men were experienced black powder mixers and they quickly established an apprentice program. To endure the apprenticeship, a man would have to put aside his fear of death and subscribe to a lifestyle of mundane and uncomfortable work. At the time it was very difficult to find employment, so in spite of the risk and discomfort the jobs were highly sought after. Many measures were taken to assure the safety of the workers but some still faced an unfortunate fate despite these efforts.
Gunpowder is a mixture of charcoal, sulfur, and potassium nitrate also known as saltpeter. The varying coarseness and size of the grain of the resulting powder mixture determines whether it is best for small arms, cannon, or blasting. At its height in production during the Civil War, mill worker John Bridge notes that the company had “over 125 buildings at their main works in Hazardville and Scitico, extending over a mile and half in length and half a mile in width.” Each of these buildings performed a specific task in the process of black powder production. In addition to the river, a series of canals, holding ponds, and dams supplied the power for the machinery.
Before black powder can be manufactured, its raw ingredients must be properly made and the quality of the ingredients was crucial. The process would begin in three separate types of facilities. The first was the sulfur refinery. To refine sulfur correctly the material is closed into large iron vessels called retorts and heated. This process converts it from a liquid into a gas where it was purified. As it re-condensed and cooled it would gradually become a solid.
The saltpeter was heated by placing it into large vats and boiling it along with a small amount of glue. This process allowed the impurities to be skimmed off the top and allowed the unwanted salt to sink to the bottom. The rest of the liquid was decanted and cooled. The resulting purified white saltpeter would then be washed and was ready to go to the next stage.
Charcoal was the only ingredient that was domestically acquired. It was made in a large controlled burning house. Alder wood, the preferred type for gunpowder, was locally grown in the surrounding area of Hazardville. The smoke that came out of the burning houses was often thick and would carry up into the streets of Hazardville helping Southview Street earn the nickname “smoke road”.
Jobs in any of these initial stages of production would have been difficult or highly sought after, depending on the season. These jobs were performed in some of the few buildings where the process involved heat. You can image that this was nice in the winter, but probably quite hellish in the summer. Still, because they were manufacturing raw ingredients, it was unlikely to ever explode.
In the mixing mills the initial ingredients of saltpeter, charcoal, and sulfur were mixed separately. The raw materials would be mixed in a large barrel full of zinc balls (steel balls might have made a spark), smashed with a mortar and pestle system, or pulverized under the giant wheels of a wheel mill. After this initial mixing of the individual ingredients was finished, each would be sifted through a screen in a process called bolting to make sure that they were all of similar size grains.
Once in a granular form, each ingredient was taken to a stamping or pounding mill. This is where they are mixed according to the appropriate ¾ X 1/8 X 1/8 formula. When these three ingredients are mixed together, they become dangerous. Water is added into the mortars along with the ingredients and the pestles would begin their fourteen-hour stamping process. Men would be in charge of filling the mortars properly, keeping the mixture wet, and then removing the mixture to move it to the next stage.
Mixing was also done in the rolling mill also called the wheel mill. These had two large vertical rolling mill stones or cast iron wheels placed on top of a large bedplate with a trough around it. These large wheels would turn in a circle around the bed, crushing and mixing the ingredients together under their great weight. Used for larger amounts of powder over three hundred pounds, Rolling mills would run for about three hours per fifty pounds of material. The rolling mills in Powder Hollow used two sets of eight-ton wheels to pulverize the mix. These were operated initially by water wheels and were later converted to water turbines or steam power. In this process, men would carry the various ingredients to the beds for crushing. Other workers would wet the ingredients with water in a process called liquoring. It was very important to keep the humidity and moisture correct to assure the safe initial mixing of ingredients.
After the mixing of the initial composition, the material was taken to a press house. Here the moist “powder cake” mixture was placed in a hydraulic or screw press where heavy pressure is applied to make it denser and to remove moisture. The result makes a square piece of material called “press cake,” roughly two feet square by two inches thick. The operator would need to judge the amount of pressure needed remove as much water as possible. Press cakes were placed in “angel buggies” and pushed to the next building.
Hot House or Drying Tables
After being pressed to remove the initial water, the moist powder is placed outside to dry in the sun on tables. On a wet or snowy day it was taken to the drying house and placed on racks. Men in these areas would be in charge of laying out the powder to dry and stirring it from time to time to ensure it dried thoroughly.
The next stop was at the graining or corning mill. At this location the cakes were broken up into smaller chips by wooden hand mallets, or by running them through zinc rollers. The resulting pieces would be sifted by workers through screens and then classified for various uses depending on how fine the grain was. This is where the process was once again would begin to be dangerous. At this point the material was drying out and often dust was created. The dust would be sent back to the press mill for use in another batch, but it was highly flammable. It might have been a particularly dusty work shift that led to the death of Jas Bisker in 1849. Witnesses say that his clothes caught fire and consumed him.
For high quality powders, like sporting powder, the powder would go through a process called glazing. Basically, it would be put into a glazing barrel for a number of hours and rotated. The rotation would create heat and the heat would further dry the powder. A later invention added graphite to the mixture and resulted in making the powder more water resistant. It also gave the powder a nice glossy sheen that could be easily identified by the consumer, marking it as a good quality powder.
At the end of the manufacturing process one of the most dangerous materials known to man is now being handled. In order to make the gunpowder safe for transportation to the various customers it would need to be stored in containers. The powder, in all of its various grades, was taken to the packinghouse where it was put into barrels or kegs made out of wood at the cooper shop, or in canisters made out of tin. Some larger iron kegs were also used later on.
There were many supporting buildings that were used just for storing the powder. These buildings were called magazines. There was a limit as to how much powder was allowed to be stored in a single magazine, as an explosion in one of these buildings would wreak chaos if they exploded. The tolls on both human life and on the economic stability of the company depended on dispersing the risk around Powder Hollow so if something did explode, everything would not blow up at once.