The Saugus Iron Works


Story by Phil G. Parsons




One of the wonders of the New World made the earth shake and the Indians marvel in Saugus. It was the Iron Works, where bog iron ore was transformed into pig and wrought iron.

In her book "Pioneer Iron Works", author May Stetson Clarke of Millrace and illustrator, Joshua Tolford of Carlisle, tell the story of iron making and life in the village of Hammersmith, now Saugus, three hundred years ago. Pots, kettles, shovels and axes and other tools and utensils were shipped to the Massachusetts Bay colonists. Iron rods were sold by the bundle. In farmhouse kitchens householders heated, cut and hammered the rod into nails. Perhaps as important as the actual production of iron, the Hammersmith enterprise trained men in iron-making and they fanned out trough the other colonies. This was rugged business, making iron from scratch!

Mrs. Clarke states, "Many a husband returned home from work with burned or crushed fingers. Deafness was not uncommon among those working near the great hammer. The Iron Works were like a powerful tyrant that controlled the lives of all the village inhabitants. Processing iron ore provided the big action at Hammersmith: the furnace, the forge, and the firing mill. Sparks and smoke billowed out from the stack. At times flames spurted forth. In the dark New england countryside, where candles, betty lamps, and hearth fires provided only scattered pinpoints of light, the red glow of the furnace was like a colossal beacon, visible for miles around."

Seven water wheels furnished power. They were operated by water of the Saugus River, controlled by a dam a short distance above the plant. Pig iron from the blast furnace was the chief product. Most of this crude iron was converted into wrought iron at the forge. The remainder was shipped by water to a forge at Braintree. A good yield for a week's production was seven tons.

A principal reason for locating the Iron Works at Saugus was the nearness of abundant forests for woodcutting in the 1640's. At one time fifty or more Scots were employed as woodcutters. They averaged a cord or a cord and on-half per day per man. These were prisoners of war taken in Oliver Cromwell's victories over Royalist forces who were indentured for seven or eight years to the Iron Master. In the spring the wood was "cooked" into charcoal. Charcoal making, incidentally, rated the highest pay at the Iron Works.

The ore used was largely bog ore formed when soluble iron in water flowed into swamps where it was changed into an oxide. Such oxide collected as a scum on the surface, then sank to the bottom, layer by layer, forming a deposit of bog ore. To rid the bog ore of its impurities, a dense igneous rock called "gabbro", found on the most seaward point of Nahant, was drilled and scorched along the shore.

Operations ceased in 1675, "Due not only to mismanagement but also to governmental restrictions on selling prices, competition of iron imports, difficulties with local authorities, shortages of raw materials and the almost impossible task of keeping skilled workers in a territory where land was cheap and labor high. Possibly, the scale of operations was too grand for a newly settled area."

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