Santa Cruz County History - Making a Living

The Charcoal Retorts
by Barry Brown

Photograph of Louis Abraham Manseau at the CPW
Louis Abraham Manseau at the California Powder Works
Photograph Courtesy of the Museum of Art & History @
The McPherson Center, Santa Cruz, CA

The man in the photograph is Louis Abraham Manseau who came to work for the California Powder Works in 1863. When this picture was taken in 1898, he had become "Boss of the Retorts." The retort process turned wood into charcoal which was one of three ingredients used for the manufacture of gunpowder, the other two being sulfur and saltpeter (potassium nitrate). Madrone and Alder were used for blasting and low grade powders. Willow was used for the better grades of sporting powders used in shotguns.

The Santa Cruz Surf, May 12, 1893, described the operation:

In this building there are two rows of cylindrical "ovens" - each holding one-fifth of a cord of wood - there being ten ovens in a row built horizontally into heavy brickwork each head being exposed. In the middle of each row is a furnace, the heat from which in about eight hours converts the wood in the cylinders into charcoal. Upon being withdrawn from the ovens the charcoal is put into large tight cans to cool and after forty-eight hours, is carried to the grinding mill. Some 1500 cords of wood are consumed each year in making charcoal for these works besides the redwood used for fuel.

The Manseau's had four daughters and four sons. Their eldest, William, who had worked at the Powder Works since he was a boy, was killed in an explosion here in 1907. (see Historical Marker #12).

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View similarly tagged articles:

dynamite, powder works, San Lorenzo River


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