Rivers were the circulatory system for human settlement. The Saugus River flows from Lake Quannapowitt in Wakefield to the Atlantic Ocean just south of Nahant. The river feels its first influence of the tides at the site where the iron works was built. The contour of the land at that location provided a sharp drop that was conducive to the construction of large waterwheels to power machinery.
It is likely that one of the first construction projects at the original iron works was the building of the bulkhead and warehouse. These structures were a vital link from water to land. Tools and labor landed here to begin construction. A dam was built upstream that altered the course of water and stored it to power the water wheels of the Saugus mills. A shallow waterway was cut from the resulting 230 acre pond to a smaller holding pond located just behind the iron works. After the water provided its power through the wheel, it vented back to the river through the tailraces of the iron works.
Once the iron works was in operation, shallow draft boats would bring gabbro from Nahant, and additional tools and labor to the iron works. Cast iron pots, salt pans, merchant bars, flat bar and slit bar were all shipped outbound from the dock aboard the same boats for local coastal trade. Other times cargo could be loaded from the iron works boats directly on to larger ships or to a Boston warehouse bound for more distant locations such as London or Barbados.
With today's concerns about fossil fuels it seems like water power might be the solution to some of our problems. In the 17th century the iron works dam was fraught with controversy. Agreements were made early on that the level of water was not to go any higher than a predetermined point on a reference rock in the pond. Despite this, under new management, the dam was built higher by the iron works. The additional stored water flooded more farmland and floated a bridge that resulted in a horse falling through it and then a law suit. The iron works was forced to pay the farmer for the flooded land.
Also, when the initial dam was built, it immediately terminated the run of anadromous fish, especially alewives. Settlers up river used the fish for food and manuring their fields. When the iron works ceased operation, the local community petitioned the authorities to have the dam removed with no success. They took it upon themselves to remove the dam in the dark of night with the assistance of a dog and some others to act as lookouts along with a signal musket. Over the course of two attempts they re-established the natural flow of the Saugus River. When the time came to delineate the former flooded lands, the fencing was expensive. Since much of the landscape had been deforested for building material and making charcoal, wood for fencing was scarce so stone walls were built instead.
Last updated: October 19, 2016