Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A Picture Tour of the Saugus Iron Works

Dozens of these b&w signs were placed along
Massachusetts roads in 1930.  Many have since
disappeared, though some remain.  There's a
great photo collection here and a book about the
project here.  This one is preserved in the
museum of the Saugus Iron Works.
Last November when I visited the Lowell Mills I noted how special it was for someone interested in the history of technology to live in New England, the epicenter of the American Industrial Revolution.  In fact, I probably haven't taken advantage of location the way I should; in particular, I still need to head west to the Springfield Armory, south to the Slater Mill Museum and the American Clock and Watch Museum, the north to the American Precision Museum, just to name a few.  But last weekend I was able to sneak over to the Saugus Iron Works, a full 18 minutes (not including the 25 years I've lived here) from home to spend a couple of hours visiting the first successful, integrated iron works in the New World.

From 1646 to 1668, "Hammersmith" (as it was called) produced cast and wrought iron products for the American colonies in a state-of-the-art facility along the Saugus River.  When the company disbanded, the site was abandoned and eventually buried by time and the river.

Hammersmith was rescued in 1946 by a grass-roots organization called the First Iron Works Association.  With funding from the American Iron and Steel Institute, the Association hired archaeologist Roland Robbins (also known as the man who found Thoreau's cabin at Walden and who excavated Shadwell, the birthplace of Thomas Jefferson) to investigate and reconstruct the site.   His work is fascinating; this 15 minute video, worthy of dimming the lights and a bowl of popcorn, shows Robbins in action.  You'll be able to compare what he accomplished (at the end of the video) with what's happened to the site since then in the pictures below.

The reconstructed plant was opened to the public in 1952 and prospered for a while but ran short of funds in 1968 and was donated to the National Park Service.  In April of that year the site was renamed the Saugus Iron Works National Historic Site and today is, like everything the NPS does, positively first class.  (When I am old and broke and unwanted, I don't want to go to a nursing home; I want to go to the National Park Service.)

Here's a recreation of the original Iron Works:

And here are a few stills from Robbins' work, including our hero with one of the original trip hammers:

Here's the official 2012 introduction to the Site.

And here's a tour of the site from last weekend:

A tactile model of the Site for kids.  And me.
This is the approach to the charging hole of the blast furnace.
The charging hole.  The furnace interior held three tons of ore, 265 bushels of charcoal and two tons of gabbro (a fluxing
agent).  The ore and gabbro were reduced to liquid and the crucible was emptied.

Bog ore.
There was a model in the museum of how it all worked.  (Sorry I couldn't get a better angle on the glass!)
This is where the cast or pig iron flowed.
 Let's head into the casting house, where the gents above are standing.
This is a waterwheel that drives one of the giant bellows at the casting house.  The foundry is in the background.
The aforesaid giant bellow.

This job, of pulling near molten sows from the channels would have been fun for about 3 minutes.
Here's a sow that'll head over to the foundry.
This will be beaten into wrought iron.
Here's the 500 lbs. trip hammer that'll do it.  I knew that trip hammers were important in the Ames Shovelworks but had never seen one in action.

Until now. . .

This is the interior of the third structure, the slitting mill.
Here's what the slitting looks like.  Imagine this completed for the entire length.  The result is called nail rod.  Bring some
nail rod over to the village blacksmith next door. . .and. . .he will make you a nail.

This is the ONLY job at the entire Site that most of us could stand to do for more than an hour.  The rest of the work was incredibly dangerous, dirty and (near the trip hammer) deafening, at least by modern standards.

My nail!  (And the limits of my camera.)
When Hammersmith closed in 1668, many of its skilled workers moved to other parts of New England, launching what would one day become America's iron and steel industry.

A few shots of the grounds.  Like I said, the National Park Service knows what it's doing.

A great visit.  The Cub Scouts I tagged along with loved it too.  A tribute to colonial Americans, and to the National Park Service.

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