Renfro Valley Bugle
History of Great Saltpetre Cave – Part II
(David Singleton, who was raised in the vicinity of the Great Saltpetre Cave but
now lives in Tarlton, Ohio, had an article in the last issue of the Bugle on the
history of the cave as he knew it from neighborhood tradition. He promised an
article this month on the primitive manner in which gunpowder was made at this
and other caves and here is that article. J. L.)
Saltpetre, in its natural state, abounds in the silt and claybeds of caves and other partially dry protected areas where the movements of air could pass over these beds for a long period of time, depositing an element of nature known in chemistry as sodium nitrate. Without this element of nature, deposited first in the air by the sun rays and them from the air into the clay and silt beds, this nitrate, whether sodium or potassium when contained in the air is one of the factors in maintaining life, both animal and vegetable, on earth as we now know it, and is our chief element of fertilizers.
This energy was in days gone by extracted from this silt and clay by leaching with water by the old-time hopper method. The water containing this chemical evaporated by boiling in kettles until it was a mushy residue in the kettles, a composite chemical of approximately 96% sodium nitrate, 3% calcium chloride, and 1% potassium cyanide. This condensed element of nature is highly combustible and must be slowed down to a lower combustible power. This is done by mixing 75% of this product (sodium nitrate) with 15% charcoal and 10% sulphur. The process of mixing and drying and grinding must be done with wooden tools to avoid setting the composition off by friction or a static spark. After this mixture is hardened into cakes, or clods, it must be reduced to the right sized granules to fire in the old hand made rifles of pioneer days. This was done on small scale operations by crunching the material between two rough boards, or puncheons, into different sizes. The right size was selected by a siever sifter then called a riddle. The large and very small grains were again ground or reprocessed. On large scale operations the powder makers resorted to the old water mill. The burrs for the powder mill were made from a beech or an ironwood log and placed on top of an eight-cornered post which was centered in a stationary water wheel designed to cause swift-flowing water to go into a whirling motion , causing the millpost to turn at a moderate rate of speed. The right sized granules of powder when possible were glazed by graphite or a special charcoal made from a special kind of wood. The frontiersman that settled and civilized the Wilderness, in order to survive, must have gunpowder and salt. Here the old salt kettle could serve a two fold purpose; condense water from the saline springs, and condense leaching from the saltpetre beds of the cliffs and caves.
Scanning and OCR work done by Andy Niekamp
Article Courtesy of Renfro Valley Entertainment Center