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The Business of America

Iron Augury

June 2024
5min read

It was a bankrupt ruin by the 1660s; nevertheless, the Saugus Ironworks foretold America’s industrial might

In the last quarter-century the American steel industry—once the very symbol of American economic power—has undergone wrenching change. While steel production has declined somewhat (from 131.5 million tons in 1970 to 105.3 million in 1996), employment in the steel industry has declined much more. There were 457,000 workers in the industry in 1975. Thirteen years later there were only 169,000. Today there are 162,000.

This painful example of the “creative destruction” of capitalism resulted from two factors. The first was that lower shipping costs (and, often, disguised government subsidies) made it increasingly possible for foreign-manufactured steel to compete with domestic steel in the open American market. Even more important was the spread of “mini-mills,” which process scrap steel instead of iron ore and use electricity to power their furnaces. They were able to produce many kinds of steel far more cheaply than the oldline steel mills dating from the Carnegie era.

While brutal for both the steel-workers who lost their jobs and the stockholders who had to write off billions in assets, the result has been an American steel industry that is once again as efficient, and profitable, as any in the world.

But if it’s difficult to restructure a great industry, it is, at the least, equally hard to start one from scratch.

Metal has been used by human beings since at least 7000 B.C. But the metal was copper, not iron. Iron is almost never found in the pure state because it is highly reactive (the reason it rusts). Further, it has a high melting point. So separating pure iron from other elements requires both very high temperatures for melting the ore and massive hammering techniques for expelling the other elements. While artisan-ready copper can be obtained with technology available to any Boy Scout troop, iron requires an industrial enterprise.

But once the techniques were developed, by about 1400 B.C. , iron’s superiority as a material was decisive, and it quickly became indispensable to civilization.

When the first settlers arrived in what is now the United States, they had no choice but to import all the iron goods necessary to carry on life as they knew it. This made iron and the things necessarily made from it—horseshoes, pots, nails, weapons, plows—extremely expensive. The New World, after all, was a full two months’ upwind sailing from the nearest iron foundry.

That state of affairs did not continue for long. Indeed, what is perhaps most remarkable about the early days of the American iron industry is just how very early they were. Only eleven years after the Arbella had sailed into what would become Boston Harbor, John Winthrop the younger headed back to England to arrange for the creation of an ironworks in his adopted land.

The elder John Winthrop, a Puritan lawyer as well as a landowner, had agreed to become the first governor of Massachusetts and sailed on the Arbella . It was aboard her that he coined one of the great enduring phrases of the American lexicon, when he wrote in his Modell of Christian Charity that “wee shall be as a Citty upon a hill, the eyes of all people … upon us.”

The son, also trained as a lawyer, was deeply interested in both science and commerce. Having arrived in Massachusetts the year after his father, he soon set up a saltworks to manufacture another indispensable commodity that was very expensive to import.

But to make iron, he needed something America did not then have at all, capital, and he sailed to England in 1641 to get it. Why, one might well wonder, would any capitalist be so foolhardy as to invest in a major industrial enterprise three thousand miles away in a wilderness? The answer lay in something that America did have in indescribable abundance and that was in short supply in England: wood. Charcoal was as indispensable to iron smelting as ore, but England’s forests were being rapidly cut down. America, however, had well over a million square miles of forest.

So Winthrop was able to argue that combining America’s cheap raw materials with England’s capital would produce a product that could be sold at a profit not only in Massachusetts but in England as well. By all accounts he was a most engaging and persuasive man. Certainly he was able to persuade many people to invest. He initially received a thousand pounds from investors, but before all was said and done, they would put up no less than fifteen thousand pounds. To get a sense of how much money these sums represented in the Massachusetts of the 164Os, consider that the highest salary in the colony in 1648 was the ninety pounds paid to the Reverend Zechariah Symmes of Charlestown.

Winthrop returned to Massachusetts in the fall of 1643, after a nightmarish fourteen-week voyage. He brought with him tools and materials for the ironworks as well as some skilled workmen and spent the winter scouting sites from Maine to Cape Cod. The government granted the Company of Undertakers, as the enterprise was known, a monopoly on iron production for twenty-one years, an exemption from taxation, and the right to export iron once local demand was met. Obviously, cozy relations between government and industry is not a twentiethcentury phenomenon in this country.

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.

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