Iron Augury


Unfortunately, Winthrop chose a site in Braintree, south of Boston, for the first furnace, and it proved a costly failure when supplies of iron ore and water proved inadequate. Winthrop had so many other responsibilities that he was unable to give his full attention to the project. The company, deciding it needed new leadership, brought over Richard Leader, who had a thorough knowledge of the iron business.

While not abandoning the Braintree site, Leader chose to develop another site, north of Boston, in what was then Lynn and is now part of the town of Saugus. It was ready by 1647 but got off to a rocky start. Dr. Robert Child, one of the original investors who was visiting Boston, wrote Winthrop that “our Iron works as yet bring us in noe considerable profit.”

Surviving records report frequent accidents and other troubles that came about as the request of a “want of experience in the Minerals in most of our workmen.” Even the workers who had been brought over from England for their experience were a major problem. Because they had been chosen solely for their expertise, not for their religious convictions and personal behavior, they did not easily fit into the semitheocracy that was Puritan Massachusetts. A steady stream of ironworkers and members of their families appeared in the courts of Lynn, charged with drunkenness, adultery, nonattendance at church, contempt, and violation of the sumptuary laws (which regulated who could wear what types of clothing).

A Saugus blacksmith’s “engines for mills to goe with water” may be the first example of “Yankee ingenuity.”

Still, great progress was made, despite the fact that, as one investor explained, “Every new undertaking hath its difficulty.” By the end of the summer of 1648, John Winthrop the elder wrote his son that “the furnace runnes 8 tun per weeke, and their barre Iron is as good as Spanish.” Moreover, the workers were showing a marked habit of adapting old ways to new conditions. As early as 1646, Joseph Jenks, a skilled blacksmith at the Saugus site, received a patent on an innovation described as “engines for mills to goe with water,” for manufacturing edged tools, such as scythes. It is perhaps the earliest example of “Yankee ingenuity.”

But while the Saugus ironworks turned out increasing amounts of both pig iron and products made from it, what it did not produce was a profit. The stockholders, not a bit different from stockholders today, kept pressing for changes that they hoped would lead to a return on their investment. As the losses mounted, the financial situation went from bad to worse. In 1653 the troubles exploded in a blizzard of lawsuits that reached as high as the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell.

Ownership of the ironworks fell into the hands of its creditors. But during the period when production was interrupted by legal troubles, the works deteriorated and many of its skilled workers drifted off to other places.

The Saugus ironworks never recovered. By 1676 the works were in ruins, and the town was petitioning for the removal of the dam across the Saugus River so that alewives could once again run up it to spawn.

Still, if the first industrial-scale ironworks in North America was a failure, the idea behind it—that one could make money producing iron in the American colonies—was sound. By the end of the colonial era, the colonies were producing one-seventh of the world’s pig iron supply.

Archeological work at the Saugus site began in 1948, and a wealth of artifacts was found, including the five-hundred-pound hammer used to pound impurities out of the iron after it was smelted. Today, fully restored, the Saugus ironworks is one of the major tourist attractions of Massachusetts and a national historic site, run by the National Park Service. It fully deserves that status, for it is a memorial to the spirit that created it, a spirit that contributed as much in its own way as did the spirit of liberty to making this country what it is today.