Margaret S. Carter

The book can still be purchased from:
Southwest Graphics, Box 96, Darlington, WI  53530  

From Diggings to Smelter
Pages - 31-33

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Until the Black Hawk War, miners had been content to take from the ground only what lead was easily available. Two men, as an example, noticing, perhaps, a remarkable growth of vegetation running in one direction, might suspect a crevice and sink a hole. If they discovered a vein of ore close to the surface, they might dig it out in masses or chunks, these chunks weighing sometimes as much as 300 to 500 pounds. If the hole they had dug was not deep enough to require the use of a windlass and tub, they loosened the ore with pick and crowbar, shoveling or throwing the mineral out upon the surface. Sometimes, if the ore "made" in a 'gash vein" or "open clay crevice", they could work down to the water. But when they hit either hard rock or water, the miners were apt to move on to other diggings.

In the early thirties, the horse pump was introduced to pump water out of the diggings. This pump was a primitive affair. The horse had to walk a circle of 24 feet in diameter to make one stroke of four feet in a six inch working pump. The miners used the horse pump with varying degrees of success. Some attempted to use pumps run by steam engine. However,  "ladits" or "levels" proved to be the most efficient means of draining, whenever the lay of the land made this method feasible, until the time that pumping machinery was introduced. Adits or tunnels built below the water level allowed the water to drain from the mine at a point beneath where the miners worked.

When obliged to go any distance below the surface of the ground, the miners dug a shaft, 'timbering" it to prevent slides. From the bottom of the shaft they 'drifted" out along the vein in either direction to remove the ore. One miner manipulated the windlass at the top of the shaft, letting down the empty tub and hoisting the ore, while his partner loaded the tub. Since the drift extended away from the foot of the shaft. the partner used a wheelbarrow to move his lead from where he worked to the foot of the shaft. (In later years, mules were used to pull carts along a track.) For light, the miner carried a candle stuck unto a gob of clay, which adhered to any surface. A hand drill and blasting powder supplemented pick, shovel and crowbar.

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William Field's first entry in his journal for 1834 dealt with his mining activities. It read:
          1834 March 11 Wm Strawbridge & Co
          Recieved of I Place 10524 of mineral for
          which he is to pay me fifty cents on the thousan
          above what he paid me in lead what leaves in my
          favor 5.37 1/2

This seems to mean that Field took to a local smelter 10,524 pounds of raw lead for which he was given 'pig" or "bar" lead at the regular rate, (at this time it was $20 per thousand) with the promise of a fifty cent bonus on each thousand pounds. This transaction is more easily understood when it is realized that "pigs" of lead were as much a medium of exchange at the time as specie, due to the scarcity of the latter, I and that competition among smelters led to the practice of offering an additional fifty cents on the thousand pounds of raw lead. '

The miners themselves sometimes smelted limited amounts of lead in a crude type of furnace, 'about as complicated as a camp stove ". (3)   This 'smelter' was a hopper dug into the side of a hill, lined with rock, and provided with a rock grate. The ore and wood were piled into the hopper and fired; the melting mineral ran down through the grate into a hole beneath the grate where it hardened into chunks or 'pigs'.

For the most part, however, the miners took their raw lead to the licensed smelters, who smelted it in their "log" furnaces, usually built, for economy's sake, in pairs or 'batteries". The smelting process was in the hands of the comparatively few men who could afford to bond themselves, build the furnaces, and engage laborers to help in the manufacturing process. The Gratiots at one time had batteries of six or eight log furnaces in operation at Gratiots Grove, about two miles east of New Diggings. Over on the Fever, Charles Gear and the Murphys operated smelters which were "places of resort for miners and others." In the village of New Diggings, Champion and Dering smelted near the Branch; near Council Hill, Wm. Strawbridge and Company operated; while 'on the road between New Diggings and White Oak Springs", Robert A. Drummond, inventor of the Drummond furnace, was in the smelting business.

The log furnace then in use consisted of three enclosing walls of stone or brick with a trough formed in the sloping bottom. At the lower end of the trough was an opening called an 'eye" which 'permitted a draft to enter the furnace and also allowed the lead to flow out into a receptacle on the outside beneath the eye where  

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it was allowed to harden into plats of pigs, or was ladled while hot into molds. The furnace was 'charged" by placing logs across the trough, filling spaces with smaller pieces of wood, then covering this with ore and piling wood around and on top, thus covering the ore with fuel. It was then fired. The process, requiring about 24 hours, was slow and wasteful. Forty to fifty per cent of the ore was wasted. The 'slag" or waste material was sometimes partially recovered in an "ash" furnace which repeated the smelting process.

The 'pigs" or 'plats" of lead from these furnaces were loaded into wagons and taken to Galena, - or to Dunleith (East Dubuque) on the Mississippi, or to Helena on the Wisconsin -where the ore was loaded on to flatboats and floated down the Mississippi to St. Louis or New Orleans. 'Three four-horse teams making regular trips to town (Galena) every other day could hardly supply the demand or transport the lead, smelted night and day, " wrote Mrs. Gratiot of the period preceding the Black Hawk War. By 1834, teams (sometimes three teams to a wagon) were making their way overland to Milwaukee.

Robert A. Drummond, one of William Field's neighbors with an inventive turn of mind, took note of the immense waste resulting from the use of the log furnace. This smelter, whose land when- entered in December, 1835, joined Field's toward the east, set to work to remedy the situation. The Drummond furnace was the result. This invention allowed the heat from the fire to pass over the top of the 'charge" as well as underneath it. This blast-type furnace, using a water wheel to drive the bellows, recovered much more lead from the ore and consumed considerably less fuel than the older type. Entries in Field's books suggest that Drummond did not profit by the invention, although it was soon being widely used.

As this development was taking place, few smelters, if any, were paying the 6% rent lead to the government. Since the rules and regulations were not being recognized, miners could hold back their lead for higher prices; sell their permits to dig; hold two discoveries at the same time. Smelters could charge unreasonable rates, make use of timber reserved by the government, outbid one another to obtain the miners' lead. Both miners and smelters, in other words, could and did do about as they pleased. The result was that by the time the land office opened for business in 1834, no one was in a position to know which lands were ore-bearing and should be reserved, and which were not. (4)

A "Land Office Business"  Pages 34 - 40

  "New Diggings on the Fever 1824 - 1864"       Lafayette County Homepage

County Coordinator  Dori Leekley

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