On Odyssey of Iron

© Bob Heath

published in ANVIL Magazine September, 1998

The 1998 annual Iron Masters Conference was held this year in Falls Village, Connecticut, on May 16-18. There was a full day of lectures on the subject of antique iron furnaces in the Salisbury district, which is located in the northwestern part of the state. This was followed by two days of tours to sites that have been excavated and studied by industrial archaeologists. The "Iron Masters" is a subgroup of The Society of Industrial Archaeology, consisting of people who have an avid interest in almost all phases of old iron production methods and iron working. The trip was quite an odyssey for me -- I drove from my home in Jackson, Mississippi, and ended almost 4,000 miles of solo driving by car into some very unexpected encounters with mistress Iron.

The first stop on the way up was at Natural Bridge, Virginia, which I last visited in 1948 when I was a small boy. It was a sentimental stop for just a few minutes, down the path and under the huge arch which George Washington surveyed in 1750 and was later purchased by Thomas Jefferson as a rural retreat. It is a beautiful spot. A quick look was enough and I pulled away from the parking lot of the entrance with full intentions of making up for lost time on the interstate by taking the "short cut" to the north on a small side road. This road unexpectedly led to Jim Bryant's blacksmith shop, The Sweetwater Forge, located at the first bend in the road immediately past Natural Bridge. He had been set up for only a month in an old barn which is ideally situated to take advantage of the tourist trade at Natural Bridge. Anyone headed north toward the interstate on the way out won't miss his sign and shop.

Jim is honest, open, fiercely independent, and easy to talk with. He offered a root beer as we sat by his forge discussing his dreams, his projects, and his hopes for the future. I kept eyeing two really fine Peter Wright anvils in the shop and wondered how he had succeeded in finding such excellent ones. He has a solid setup with electric blower, good hood, and a large collection of tongs.

The siren's song of dame Iron was calling me, as Jim's forge smoke wafted into the air. If only there had been time to sit and talk awhile longer. It was difficult to draw away from Jim's place, but there was a schedule to keep if the first lectures were to be heard in Connecticut in two days.

Harper's Ferry, West Virginia, was the next encounter. It was here at the confluence of the Shenandoah and the Potomac Rivers that George Washington insisted on locating the trip hammers, anvils and forges that became the heart of the Southern small arms and musket arsenal for the original 13 American states. The Northern arsenal was established at Springfield, Massachusetts, very near that part of upstate Connecticut where the Iron Masters meeting was being held. Almost all the machinery and forges has been removed at Harpers Ferry, but there is much evidence remaining at the site to suggest an early industrial installation. A much-welcome rest was in store by pitching a tent on the high ridge overlooking the river valleys below where one can view the remains of the old town. That night over the campfire one of the nearby campers came over with his son to chat. He wore a grey Confederate kepi (soldier's cap) and said he and his son were on their way to Gettysburg from their home in Maryland for a three-day tour of the famous battlefield. That conjured up family memories that had been handed down for a hundred years through the generations. My mother's grandfather had help push the Yankees off that far hill in 1862, the one we stood looking at out over the Potomac.

It was not easy to crawl out of the sleeping bag the next morning and break camp for a tour of Harper's Ferry. But the excitement of seeing what might be down below was enough to speed things along. It was a little disappointing to find that the old gun-making machines and forges are gone, but the Park Service has done a good job in attempting to give the flavor of what musket production at a forge must have been like at the time of the Civil War. There are a large number of original buildings on the site which are now museums. There is a reconstructed blacksmith shop and a reconstructed machine shop which house some of the original machines used at the arsenal. There are a couple of Blanchard gun stock lathes, a milling machine, metal-turning barrel lathe and belt-driven shafts.

Gettysburg was too near not to at least take a quick peek at the battlefield. There is a very large and complete Civil War gun collection in the main museum. The collection seems to indicate that blacksmiths, iron workers and skilled workmen did a far better job of organizing their productive efforts into early industrial activity than we modern blacksmiths tend to credit them with. Many of us think of musket production in terms of a blacksmith and his helpers standing in front of an anvil. That is not the way it was during the Civil War, when relatively modern equipment that we are familiar with today was used in production. The forges were probably better than our present ones in our own workshops, but the machines were more primitive. A modern-day blacksmith has a very positive link back to these times. Iron doesn't change with time the way men do.

The car rumbled on through Pennsylvania and finally into Connecticut. Upon reaching my destination at Falls Village, I learned that there were 117 people in attendance from as far away as Oregon and Mississippi. There were industrial archaeologists, college professors, teachers, businessmen and women, historians and writers in attendance. They all came to learn from some of the most knowledgeable people in the world on the subject of the early industry of iron production in the United States. The Salisbury Iron District of Connecticut produced some of the highest quality iron that has ever been produced on this side of the Atlantic. Much of it was shipped to Springfield Armory as the material from which muskets and cannons were manufactured.

The first speaker Saturday morning was Dr. Robert Gordon, who is a professor at Yale University. He has written several books on industrial development and has conducted numerous archaeological excavations at industrial sites. He has analyzed recovered material from places like Eli Whitney's factory and has extensively researched many industrial themes. When I learned that he would be speaking at the conference, it was the deciding factor that induced my trip to Connecticut. His work is important because we live in an age that is shedding off many of the processes that were developed over the years which were not recorded. Blacksmiths these days are interested in learning how Samuel Yellin forged things or how renowned blacksmith Francis Whitaker of the Colorado Rocky Mountain School still works them. Dr. Gordon and others are following that theme of iron, just as blacksmiths do, only on an industrial scale.

The papers presented covered topics such as cannon production for General Washington's army during the Revolutionary War, the preservation and restoration of old furnaces, the development of iron production methods in America (from the time of the establishment of Jamestown through the year 1900), and the differences between bloomeries, furnaces and forges. This last topic was interesting because it cleared up a point that confuses a lot of blacksmiths. A bloomery was a rather small affair, no larger than 10 feet high. Antique stone block furnaces, which many of us call bloomeries, were actually true furnaces that produced only cast iron pigs, which were later refined into blooms of wrought iron in a finery forge.

The next day, there was a bus tour of three old furnace sites: the Ames Iron Works, which was once an important installation that explored new techniques and uses of iron, the Beckley Furnace, and the Richmond Furnace. There was not much left standing above ground at the Ames sight to observe. The furnace was torn down years ago. The Beckley Furnace and the Richmond Furnace still stand tall in all their glory. Archaeologists have recently uncovered the foundations of beehive-shaped charcoal kilns at the Richmond site near the furnace.

There was an additional tour of three more sites scheduled for the next day, but I decided to head on back south and try and get back to some places that I knew had more to do with blacksmithing and ironworking. After a quick stop at the military academy at West Point, New York, on the Hudson River, it was on to Richmond, Virginia, where the famous Tredegar Iron Works still stands. This was the ironworks and foundry that kept Robert E. Lee's army of Northern Virginia supplied with munitions during the Civil War. It is closed now, but there are plans to open it to the public in 1999. It is amazing that this place still stands after all this time, considering the destruction that occurred during the Civil War. It is impressive, just looking from the outside, and tantalizing to try and imagine what the forges and foundries must be like on the inside.

A few miles to the south at Petersburg, Virginia, the Appomattox Iron Works is located in the old part of town. This is another one of those amazing places that somehow has survived from the time of the Civil War to the present day. The antique iron works, machine shop, blacksmith shops, and foundry cover an entire city block and it is chock full of the real stuff that we blacksmiths drag around in trailers or get at swap meets -- only this stuff has remained here, almost like a blacksmith's time capsule, for 130 years. It was a disappointment to learn that this place, too, has been closed for the last four years after a tornado damaged some of the buildings. They are just now having the finishing touches put on them, however, and this facility is also scheduled to reopen in 1999.

There was a sympathetic business operator who had a back door to the iron works, and was kind enough to allow me to have a quick but thorough tour of the entire facility from the ground level only. It literally is still all there and intact.

I didn't want this trip to end as the route came closer to home. The signs pointed the way to the old Tannehill Furnace and blacksmith shop near Birmingham, Alabama, which beckoned me. Although the furnaces were similar, this visit allowed an immediate comparison of the New England sites with those of the deep South. The photos speak for themselves. Tannehill is a wonderful place for lovers of iron.

My long odyssey was completed. I had seen many wonderful, historical sites, which added to my knowledge of early American craftsmen who were dedicated to the craft of iron work.

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