Saugus Iron Works National Historic Site

Location: Saugus, Massachusetts

Webpage: National Park

General Description: While there were other marginally successful iron furnaces in the New World, the Saugus Iron Works was the first successful integrated production of cast and wrought iron.  The Saugus River site was chosen for its water power, water transport, woodlands, and bog iron ore.  By 1646 the Iron Works was producing iron products for Massachusetts and England.  However, by the 1650s financial problems beset Saugus from which it never recovered with the last blast in 1668.  In that time, it had demonstrated that demanding complex and demanding technology could be imported to the New World.  Not only was Saugus a bold attempt at the time, it also attracted settlers that were not Puritan.  Artisans were brought from England and Wales as indentured servants and the more skilled fairing well.  Indentured status could be worked off in 7 years as opposed to the more common 14 years or longer and could earn wages after becoming independent workers.  However, they were still not allowed to vote as free men without conversion to the Puritan religion.  It would take generations for their descendents to become assimilated into Puritan society.  Saugus did have an abundance of raw material including timber for the making of charcoal, bog iron in the marshes or pond bottoms, and gabbro which is a calcium rich ore that was used as a flux instead of limestone or seashells.  In addition to a blast furnace for the production of sow bars or ladled into buried molds for cast iron products.  Unlike other blast furnaces of the time, Saugus also went the next step converting pig iron into wrought iron by heating and pounding out the carbon using a 500 pound trip-hammer powered by water wheels.  This wrought iron merchant bar was the main product of the mill.  In the 17th century there was a huge demand for nails and the process of flattening and cutting the merchant bars into nails by local blacksmiths was laborious and time consuming.  Saugus sought to meet this demand with a rolling and slitting mill that could turn the merchant bars into bundles of rods of varying sizes.  These rods could easily be used to produce nails or other products needed by farmers such as iron tires.  Approximately one in eight of the merchant bars were turned into bundles of rods to be sold in the New World.  The Iron Works House is the only structure that survived on the site from the 1600s.  This was likely where the company agent lived while the iron works was in blast and was rescued and restored by Wallace Nutting in 1915.  In 1943 local community members formed the First Iron Works Association to relocate the original site, since only the slag heap was still in evidence.  Archeologist Roland Robbins began digging in 1948 and over the next few years unearthed the remains of the blast furnace, a large section of a waterwheel, a 500-pound hammer head, and the footprints of the other major structures.  From 1951-1954 the Saugus Iron Works Reconstruction project fully rebuilt the blast furnace, the wrought iron mill, and the rolling and slitting mill.  In 1968 it was transferred to the National Park Service who continues to this day to maintain these structures and water wheels in working condition.

Brochure

Impressions:

1) The Visitor Center is located in a separate building on the site of the Iron Works next to the Iron Works House.

VisitorCenter

2) The Iron Works House is now a museum with some great exhibits about the history of the Iron Works and how the products were made.  There are scaled models of the different steps in the operation with moving parts and sound effects that were helpful.  There is a short film about the Iron Works that we were not able to see since the room was being used for grade school students on a field trip.

3) While we did not get to see the film, the fact there were grade school classes there meant the Park Rangers were conducting tours that included releasing the water wheels so you could see the bellows and 500 pound hammer in operation.

SchoolKids

4) At all the other blast furnaces we have seen dating through the Civil War, the source of calcium to use as a flux to remove impurities was either limestone or sea shells.  At Saugus they used gabbro which is a calcium rich ore that was readily available on the Nahant Peninsula.

5) It was great to see a blast furnace and mills in working condition rather than the ruins we have seen at other locations.  In fact, they were currently replacing the two water wheels on the rolling and splitting mill while we were there.

IronWorks2

6) At the blast furnace you can see where they added the charcoal, bog iron, and gabbro at the top, as well as, where the molten iron would be released at the bottom to create the sow bars.  It was also interesting to see the bellows in action using the large water wheel for power.

WaterWheel

7) At the wrought iron mills you can see the three small forges used to heat the sow bars so they can hammer out the carbon to produce wrought iron.  The most impressive feature was the 500 pound iron hammer that was used to beat the sow bars into the merchant bars, especially when they released the water wheel to operate the trip-hammer.  It was certainly noisy and shook the entire building.

8) Unfortunately, the rolling and splitting mill was not in operation as they were replacing the water wheels, which made it difficult to understand how the two functions worked.  It took two water wheels for the rolling operation since the rollers had to move in opposite directions.

9) The slag heap extending out into the river is still the most distinguishable feature remaining from that time period.

SlagHeap

10) We also took the short nature walk along the Saugus River which is no longer navigable due to silting over the years.

SaugusRiver

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