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Determining the Facts

Reading 1: An Ironworks in New England

The Saugus Iron Works has been called the forerunner of American big business. It was an iron factory that converted raw iron ore into finished cast- and wrought-iron products. The process used to make these products was complicated and involved many separate steps. First, the raw materials for making iron were gathered near the blast furnace (see Drawing 1), which operated day and night. Colliers converted acres of trees into charcoal for fuel. Miners collected bog iron ore from nearby swampy areas and ponds. Flux, a mineral that rids bog ore of its impurities, was shipped from Nahant.

Charcoal, bog ore, and flux were dumped into the top of the stone furnace by workers called "fillers." The furnace was fired up, or "blown in" as the ironworkers called it. Beside the furnace rumbled one of the seven waterwheels at the ironworks which operated 18-foot bellows that helped to heat the furnace to a temperature of 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The liquid metal collected at the bottom of the furnace. Ironworkers had to continually skim the slag floating on top of the molten iron and dump it into the river. Once or twice in every 24 hours, the furnace was tapped by the "founder," the man in control of the furnace. The molten iron ran into trenches in the sand where it hardened into long cast iron bars. Smaller bars were poured off at an angle from the long bars. The configuration looked much like a mother pig feeding her piglets, so the long bar was called a "sow" and the smaller ones "pigs." Pig iron is another name for cast iron. Not all of the iron was cast into bars--skilled moulders were employed to make molds of items such as pots, pans, and kettles. Workers ladled liquid iron into these molds, which were buried in the sand floor of the casting shed. Cast iron is limited in use because it is brittle. Therefore, the cast-iron sows, which were the main product of the furnace, were taken to the forge (see Drawing 1) for refining.

With three fires crackling, four of the ironworks’ waterwheels turning, three sets of bellows whooshing, and the 500-pound hammer crashing repeatedly on its anvil, the forge was the busiest and the noisiest of the ironworks buildings. There some 10 to 12 men worked to convert brittle cast iron into malleable wrought iron, a complicated process that required a high degree of skill. First, "finers" melted and refined sows. Repeated heating and hammering pounded many impurities from the iron. Flying sparks and pieces of hot metal constantly threatened men working in the forge. The noise of the 500-pound hammer cost many workers their hearing. The bulk of the iron at the forge was made into "merchant bars," three inches wide, one-and-a-half inches thick, and four to five feet long, which could be made into tools and used for building materials.

The rolling and slitting mill (see Drawing 1), situated just down the hill from the forge, contained the most advanced technology of all the machinery at the ironworks. It was one of only a dozen slitting mills in the world at that time. Its essential machinery consisted of a pair of rollers for flattening the merchant bars into sheets called "flats" and a pair of slitters for slicing the flats into thin strips of rod used to make nails. The rollers and slitters had to turn in opposite directions in order for the bars to pass through them. The "mill wright," who operated the waterwheels, made sure the rollers and slitters operated at the same rate of speed. One waterwheel directly turned the lower set of rollers and slitters; the second waterwheel used gears to turn the top set. Flats produced here were used for making wheel rims, barrel hoops, and for repairing machinery at other ironworks. The nail rods provided the material for handmade nails, a valuable commodity in colonial America. These products were stored in an "ironhouse" or warehouse (see Drawing 1) until being loaded onto boats and shipped to either nearby American ports or to England.

Although the Saugus Iron Works operated for about 22 years, it eventually went out of business, a victim of mismanagement, high production costs, fixed prices, and competition from imported iron. The Saugus Iron Works produced respectable quantities of bar iron, but could not return a profit to its shareholders, who finally refused to advance more capital to the failing enterprise. The company’s debts became so great that creditors brought suits to recover their loans. Court decisions caused production to decline and skilled workers to leave.

Records show that some ironworkers moved to different regions of New England where they continued to work in the iron industry. For example, James Leonard, who had been a forge worker at Saugus, became the manager of a forge in Bromingum in 1671 and a freeman (landowner) in 1688. Joseph Jenks, Jr., the son of a skilled craftsman, also worked at Saugus, beginning in 1649 when he was 16; in 1672 he erected his own forge at Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Others found jobs at established ironworks in New Jersey. Thus, it can be said that although Saugus Iron Works ultimately failed as an individual enterprise, it helped to lay the foundations for the iron and steel industry in the United States.

Questions for Reading 1

1. What were the three structures where ironmaking took place?

2. What were the saleable wrought-iron products manufactured at the ironworks? What would these semi-finished wrought-iron products be used for?

3. Why did the ironworks go out of business? What happened to the workers?

4. What influences did Saugus Iron Works have on the Massachusetts Bay Colony? Did the impact reach any further?

Reading 1 was compiled from the National Park Service’s visitor’s guide for Saugus Iron Works National Historic Site, 1981; E.N. Hartley, Ironworks on the Saugus (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1957); Mary Stetson Clarke, Pioneer Iron Works (Philadelphia: Chilton Book Co., 1968); and William Gray, "Saugus Iron Works National Historic Site" (Essex County, Massachusetts), National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1975.

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