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Saugus: how to make iron

Saugus: how to make iron
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In the 1600s, on the banks of the Saugus River, something extraordinary happened. Here, in the New England wilderness a group of men and women were struggling to create a new way of life in a harsh and uncertain world. In pursuing their goal, they build the foundation of an entire American industry. They built an ironworks.
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‘We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all the world are upon us’.
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By the early 1630s thousands of religious dissenters called Puritans had abandoned England believing their country to be far too corrupt. ‘For what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness, and what communion hath light with darkness‘. Unlike many European colonisers who ventured to the New World with dreams of gold and riches the Puritans came to the New World in search of something far greater than wealth. They came to purify their church and build a new moral society based upon strict Christian beliefs. To realise their dream, they needed a metal more valuable than gold.
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They needed iron.
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No one knew this better than the Governor of the fledgling colony, John Winthrop. ‘If we are to build a perfect republic in the wilderness subject to no other power than ourselves, we must have a constant supply of iron. Iron will enrich our community’.
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The industrious Puritans used iron in farming and cooking. It was traded with Native Americans and with other colonies.
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It held together their homes, fishing boats, meeting houses and indeed their entire economy. But in this remote land, iron goods could only be imported from England and Governor Winthrop desperately wanted his commonwealth
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to be self-sufficient and independent. So John Winthrop and the Puritans set out to build an ironworks on the edge of the Wilderness.
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Using funds from sympathetic Puritan investors in England they first built a blast furnace south of Boston in Braintree. The location however, was poorly chosen and as expenses mounted, the impatient investors sent over an engineer -a non Puritan named Richard Leader- to try again.
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Arriving in 1645, the energetic Leader searched for the ideal site for the ironworks. He found it on the banks of the Saugus River, here in a place where Native Americans had lived, fished and hunted for ten thousand years.
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Nature provided everything he needed: a river’s endless supply of energy, a profusion of iron ore in nearby bogs, trees as far as the eye could see, and a harbour ideal for transporting material in and finished products out.
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The optimistic Leader was determined to transform the natural environment of the New World into a marvel of European technologies. ‘That parcel of land shall be overflowed by a pond of water, sufficient to erect a new water course’. He dammed the river, channelling its raw power into a sophisticated system of hydraulics.
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The surge of water drove enormous wheels providing energy to run the ironworks.
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He built a huge blast furnace to smelt iron ore. Giant water driven bellows fanned the fires to a raging 3,000 degrees.
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‘A torrent of liquid fire is made so very fluid by the violence of the heat. When it is let out of a hole at the bottom with a long poker, it runs the distance of the furrows and it stands boiling in them for a considerable time’.
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Once the iron cooled, labourers carried it next door to the forge where skilled workers purified it. Using a 500lb trip hammer they transformed the brittle cast iron into malleable wrought iron ready for the market place. Finally, Leader built a slitting mill; one of only a dozen in the world. Here, his men engineered a complex process for rolling out rods for nail making; nails that would help build the Puritan colony.
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To feed the ironworks’ insatiable appetite for fuel men felled entire forests and processed them into charcoal and poured it into the blast furnace along with bog ore and the purifying mineral, gabbro.
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The process at Saugus was so sophisticated that Leader had to recruit highly skilled workers from Britain to run the ironworks. ‘The ironworks requires many ingenious heads and hands. Men skilful in the contriving of water courses. Stamping mill, engines for driving waters, refiners’.
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The investors, always looking to trim costs sent Scottish Prisoners of War against their will to perform unskilled labour. The hundred or so men and boys who laboured in the ironworks were tough and hardworking and because they were non-Puritans they were considered outsiders in the eyes of the tight religious community.
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Every day they risked their lives, working long gruelling shifts in this loud and dirty place. In the blink of an eye, a limb could be burned or crushed.
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‘It is important to drain away the moisture from the furnace; should any drop of water blow into the metal it will blow the furnace and metal will fly about your ears’.
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But within this hazardous crucible of earth, air, fire and water, John Winthrop saw his vision materialise. ‘The ironworks goeth on with more hope, the furnace runs eight tonne per week and the bar iron is as good as Spanish’. By 1650, Richard Leader’s ironworks in the New World was operating at a level of production that rivalled any in Europe. Day and night, for months upon end, the Saugus blast furnace roared, making enough iron to make the colony more independent of England. But it was also generating something that the Puritans hadn’t bargained for.
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Nearby in the company town of Hammersmith, the labourers who worked hard, also played hard.
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They drank, fought, failed to attend church and dared to dress like wealthy Puritan gentry. Their unruly behaviour and social aspirations clashed with rigid Puritan morals and they paid a price. ‘Richard Prey is fined ten shillings for being drunk’.
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‘Esther, wife of Joseph Jenks, is fined for wearing silver lace’. These people had been hired to make the Puritan society self-reliant. Now they were challenging the Puritans’ vision of social unity and religious purity. Meanwhile the ironworks had its own problems. Despite being a manufacturing success it failed to turn a profit. Richard Leader and the owners fought repeatedly. ‘Every new undertaking has its difficulty. Ours has met with much. The Company are much discontented and do not use me as I have deserved’. Leader finally left. Under his successors, debts mounted and fraud was alleged. ‘Instead of drawing out bars of iron for the country’s use, there was hammered out nothing but contention and lawsuits’.
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Until in 1670, after years of mounting losses and litigation the great blast furnace went cold. Never to be used again.
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The Saugus Ironworks had survived barely two decades, but as the former Saugus workers fanned out across the countryside, they and their descendants opened new ironworks, laying the foundation for the American iron and steel industry. By the revolutionary war, America was producing one seventh of the world’s iron and by the 20th century the industry had become the backbone of the most powerful national economy in the world.
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The Saugus Ironworks however had long since faded back into the earth, lost to the passage of centuries.
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It wasn’t until the 1940s that a handful of preservationists began to excavate and pieced together fragments of the original buildings.
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Then in the 1950s a replica of the original ironworks was constructed.
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Today as you visit the Saugus Ironworks you can explore the beginnings of an American industry and reflect upon the Puritans’ dream of self-reliance that still shapes our lives nearly four centuries later.

This film, made by Saugus Iron Works National Historic Site, shows the working environment and conditions experienced by the Scottish prisoners who went to the Hammersmith Ironworks at Lynn in what was then the Massachusetts Bay Colony. We highly recommend making a visit to Saugus if you are nearby. It will give you the best impression of the sights and sounds of their new landscape.

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