Resume of The Kent Iron Industry
By William Trapp Hopson (reprinted from The Lure of the Litchfield Hills Magazine, 1945/46)
The lure of the Litchfield County hills asserted its influence from the beginning of time. In our knowledge, this sentiment prevailed in 1738-1740 when the first settlers took up land grants in Kent and Cornwall. There was no cleared land at that time and heavy timber grew down from the hill tops to the river’s edge. Only men as hardy and rough as the scenery of this section of the State could overlook the obstacles to be surmounted before a house and sustenance could be taken from the ground.
Men who could at the same time visualize the glorious beauty of the hills, valleys, rocks, rills, lakes and streams that abounded in such varied arrangement. From this nucleus of men of strong character and untiring energy have descended those rugged individuals who have established the foundation and then developed the State of Connecticut.
Our forefathers scratched the surface of the ground as they cleared it; raised vegetables and crops by main strength and barehanded; raised sheep and cattle for food and clothing; and from primitive log cabin to house man and beast through winters of intense cold and deep snow went on through progressive steps into substantial houses and barns built from timber and impelled by the necessity of having strong tools for daily use, they dug beneath the surface of the ground until they found rich deposits of iron ore and ledges of pure limestone all about them and with an incalculable supply of wood for making charcoal, established a source of wealth and independence through the mining and smelting of iron not enjoyed to the same extent elsewhere in the State.
According to Atwater’s history of Kent, the Kent ore bed was opened and operated by New Milford men as early as 1736. Tradition has it that a forge for reducing the ore to iron was set up and operated by these men in Merryall evidently of small capacity. It is probable that when Kent Furnace was built that the Kent ore bed was acquired by Stuart Hopson and Company, composed of John L. Stuart, John Hopson, Burritt Eaton and Luther Eaton. In a later reorganization in ’64 by the Kent Iron Company, other stockholders were added probably to supply increased working capital. These were James Pierce of Cornwall, Donald J. Warner of Salisbury, George Church of Great Barrington and John and George Coffin of Vanduesenville, all men of high repute and considerable wealth. George R. Bull and John Roberts were probably added as stockholders at this time.
[Editorial Note: The above paragraph is incorrect. The Kent orebed had been taken over from Obadiah Wheeler of New Milford in 1736 by a group of investors: Alexander Woolcott of New Haven, Robert Walker and Daivd Lewis of Stratford, Elisha Williams of Yale, Jabez Hurd of Newtown and Jared Elliott of Killingly. Wheeler had owned and apparently worked the bed for a number of years. The officers and owners of Stuart, Hopson and Eaton as the first Flanders Company was known, later as the Kent Iron Company, were John L. Stuart, John Hopson, Burritt Eaton and Luther Eaton.
The Kent Iron Company did not own the orebed until 1854 when it bought the shares of the heirs of Samuel Forbes and John Adam of New Canaan. The strip mine had run out at that time and the Kent owners put in shafts for deep mining primarily to supply the Kent Furnace.]
The furnace at Bulls Bridge was built the same year as the Kent furnace (1826) and did a thriving business through the Civil War, but folded up soon after ’65 due perhaps to the fact that it was not located on the railroad which was built through Kent and through the Kent furnace property about 1845. Up to that time both furnaces shipped their product by team to Poughkeepsie and thence by boat. Bulls Bridge furnace evidently brought ore from Clove, just west of Pawling and from Quaker Hill just east of Pawling, on their teams’ return from Poughkeepsie. Charcoal iron made in the Housatonic Valley was the main source of the iron supply of the country for pig iron, wrought iron and steel up to about 1840 and there were at one time twenty-seven furnaces in operation in this section.
The quality of ore taken from Kent ore beds and melted in the Kent furnace was unsurpassed by any other found in this region, though all of the Salisbury ores and those from Amenia mines and Richmond, Massachusetts mines also stood very high. Kent ore ran close to 60% iron which was exceptionally high. At first only five or six tons of iron were cast per day but by rebuilding the stack twice, once in 1844 and again in 1864 the output increased to 10 tons per day and finally to 14 tons per day. After the demands of the Civil War were over the product of the furnace went to such substantial customers as the Rhode Island Locomotive Works, the Schenectady Locomotive Works, Builders Iron Foundry, Harris-Corliss Engine Company, Ramapo Iron Works, makers of engines and pumps in New Jersey and Farrell Foundry Company in Ansonia. These companies required the very best material for their product and evidently secured what they wanted from Kent Iron Company.
To appreciate the value of our local iron industry, we should consider that iron when melted into pigs contains other ingredients than pure iron, some of which add to its values if found in reasonable quantities, and there are other ingredients that detract from the value if they exist in any great amount. Manganese adds immensely to the value of the metal, increasing its strength and tenacity. Slight traces of manganese in the lime used went into the iron during the melting process. Carbon increases the strength of the iron and closes the grain, making the metal difficult to work if found above 3%.
Higher content of the carbon makes the metal suitable for steel if the pigs of iron are remelted and treated in a puddling furnace or by modern Bessemer furnaces, wherein “Spiegeleisen,” a rich iron found in Norway and Sweden, is often added to produce high grade of steel. Wrought iron and steel from this process is forged into shapes suitable for building and other domestic purposes for which pig iron is unsuitable. Pig iron with low carbon is known as “white iron.”
Silicon softens the iron making it suitable for general foundry purposes but should not exceed 2-1/2 to 3%. Sulphur and phosphorous in excess of 1% lowers the value of cast iron through brittleness in castings made from it. Kent iron was free from excess of any of these ingredients and could be used to build up a mixture with iron of lower grade or with heavy scrap iron, and its judicious use in this maneuver would produce any grade of casting required, giving a wide range of strength and tenacity as its use might indicate. Kent iron was graded No. 1, very soft, to No. 6, very hard, and only suitable for producing great strength in casting made from it.
Kent Ore Mine was dug into the side of a mountain east of the highway which runs from South Kent over the mountain to the “Cobble.” Entrance to the mine was kept on a level or slight upgrade from the highway into the hill until an excavation was made 600 feet to 800 feet in diameter and 150 feet high against the hill. These seams of iron ran out about 1850 and a deep shaft was dug with galleries led off and worked as iron was found. There were several levels opened and worked with radial galleries in all directions from the shaft. All ore and much of the refuse had to be hoisted to the top of the shaft, and pumps were kept running to free the mine of water which continually seeped through the ground.
At its best this mine turned out 15 to 20 tons of ore per day and this was carted to the furnace six miles via South Kent. Teams went over the mountain to the mine as that route was a third shorter, but the grade most of the way was at least 30%. Ten to twelve teams were then employed making two trips per day, leaving the furnace barn by 6:00 a.m. and returning at 6:00 p.m., bringing in about 1-1/2 tons of ore per trip. On arrival at the “bank” each load was weighed and dumped near the furnace. Large chunks of ore were separated from small pieces and in the early days were broken up with sledge and hand power. In later years a crusher was used for breaking up ore and lime.
With the advent of the railroad, with a switch to the furnace, other ores were brought in from Salisbury, Connecticut, Amenia, New York and Richmond, N.Y., the latter being close to the terminal of the Housatonic Railroad at State line. These ores probably cost Kent Iron Company less than their own ore from Kent ore bed, but the mixture employed produced first-class iron.
The stack in which the ore was melted was approximately 25 feet high from its bottom and where the melted iron was drawn off to the charging floor where charcoal, lime, and ore were dumped in at about half hourly intervals or less. This necessitated building the stack on a side hill affording two levels, the lower for the casting house which covered about 100 feet by 250 feet and the upper level for a charging floor of about the same area, but the upper leveled out to the “bank” and covered about two acres of ground. All materials for the furnace came to the “bank” for immediate use or temporary disposition.
There were six to eight loosely built structures for housing charcoal for storage against weather and they were usually filled during the summer weather as little or no wood used was “coaled” during the winter, during which season the wood for coal must be cut while free from the sap.
The stack was approximately six feet in diameter at the bottom and four feet at the charging floor. “Haswell” tells us that 138 bushels of charcoal, 432 lbs. of lime and 2612 lbs. of ore melted in the stack should produce a ton of iron, but this depends somewhat on the quality of the ore, lime, and charcoal use, also on the blast of air supplied to maintain perfect combustion. “Haswell” again says that for a stack of our capacity, 14 tons per day, approximately 5200 cubic feet of air should be supplied per minute at about 5 to 6 inches of mercury pressure.
Coal, lime, and ore were loaded into special two wheel dump carts in the top house each holding the proper amount for a charge, and were dumped into the stack as previous charges settled down. Charcoal carts held about forty bushels, and ore and lime carts in a proportion of 125 lbs. of lime and 750 lbs. of ore, charges being made half hourly. The bottom of the stack and immediate sides were lined with heavy granite blocks of stone on which melted iron accumulated for six to eight hours at a time, at which intervals the iron was drawn off through an opening above the “hearth” temporarily stopped with fire clay baked in.
The “tapping” was done with a long iron bar and the iron ran out through a trough in the dirt floor to a bed formed out of a fine grade of sand found in places along the river. This bed was made with long strips of wood extending from the furnace to the end of the casting house, tamped firmly in sand moistened to hold their shape and then removed.
This long strip was called the “sow” and lateral branches about 3 feet long were taken off the side of the “sow” and for obvious reasons were called pigs. As soon as the iron cooled sufficiently the sows and pigs were broken up into short lengths pulled out on the casting house floor and carted out in ox teams to be piled along the railroad ready to ship, carefully sorting and making each grade by itself. A by-product of no value was produced in melting the iron and this was known as “slag” which floated above the iron in the stack, being much lighter, and its flow was constant, running out from the stack onto the casting house floor where it cooled rapidly, was broken up and carted out to be dumped on waste piles about the furnace.
Two ox teams and men with two-wheel dump carts were in constant daily use, removing iron and slag from the casting house. Incidentally, slag made excellent road beds and was applied to a considerable extent on the nearby highways. The stack above the hearth was lined with firebrick, much better heat resistant than the stone with which the stack was built. The stone hearth, although two feet or thicker, and the firebrick lining had to be replaced about every two years, during which period of a month or two the furnaces stood idle. Cast iron melts at 2450 degrees and the temperature in the bottom of the stack was probably 3000 degrees or more and neither stone nor brick, with erosions due to the melting process, could stand these high temperatures for any length of time.
The air supply was created by a water wheel about 12 feet in diameter and 10 or 12 feet wide. Water came to this wheel from the dam in the river a short distance away, through a flume which delivered the water against the “breast” of the wheel at half its height. The weight of the water in the buckets of the wheel turned it down and the water was released at the bottom and returned to the river nearby.
A long beam attached to a crank on either side of the wheel drove a piston back and forth in two large wooden cylinders one on either side of the wheel, all built of wood but the piston was undoubtedly covered with leather making it a tight fit. A large metal air duct connected the cylinders with an oven built above the Top House floor and charging space in the stack.
The oven was built of brick 20 feet or more high and square, the air passing through U-shaped cast iron pipes assembled in the oven. The heated air was then led down to the bottom of the stack and was blown into the stack just above the hearth, through four small openings. All these openings had to be protected by coils of one-inch pipe bent into a cone shape, through which water pumped to the furnace from the same cranks as furnished air, and the wastewater ran back to the river. There is a phase of this wheel and water operation that is little understood by most people but was a constant menace to furnace operation in cold weather. The “flume” is about 16 feet wide and 6 feet deep, with only a slight current towards the wheelhouse. At certain stages of the winter when the ground gets very cold a “mushy” ice will form on the sides and bottom of the flume.
This is called “anchor ice” and is literally half frozen ice, which detaches from the ground under water and floats to the top. Should this occur in great quantity the flume next to the wheel and the wheel buckets might become a frozen mass of ice in which case the wheel would stop turning and no air would be supplied to the furnace. In order to avoid the stoppage of melting in the furnace for lack of air, “blank” charges of charcoal are dumped into the stack omitting lime and ore so that all melted material can be drawn off before complete stoppage occurs. This same course is followed whenever it is found necessary to stop the furnace for any reason.
The “bank” was the dumping ground for loads of charcoal, ore, and limestone coming daily except in winter at the rate of 40 to 50 loads per day. Charcoal was brought to the bank in the wagons built especially for the purpose which would hold 120 to 140 bushels of charcoal. The bottoms of these wagons were made of wood slats 8 or 10 in number running the entire length of the wagon.
The team drawing the wagon was taken off the front end, pulled out the slats one at a time and by the time the last slat was out in less than ten minutes, the entire load was on the ground. The Bank Superintendent and Teamster then appraised the contents of the load and the amount agreed upon between them was credited to the Teamster and to the Collier.
Charcoal was made on all the mountains around Kent even to Warren and Merrill on the east side of the river and all over the Dover Mountains and Nodine Hollow on the west. The best charcoal is made from the harder woods, hickory, oak, maple, and beech, but as chestnut prevailed on these mountains at that time, chestnut wood was chiefly used. The woodcut in traditional four-foot lengths was staked up endwise in a closely assembled conical shape on a pit prepared for the purpose at ground level. Size of a cone ready to “coal” was about 20 feet in diameter and 12 feet high.
Air passages were constructed all through the bottom of the cone with a vent at the top, and the entire cone was tightly covered with sod in order to keep drafts of air from burning the wood instead of “charring” it. This was carefully watched during a month or more until the charring process was completed, when the sod was removed, any fire was put out and the “coal” was ready for delivery at the furnace. Great care was taken in handling charcoal to prevent undue breakage, small pieces would be worthless.
The Colliers who were specialists in making charcoal were nearly all foreigners who learned their trade across the water before coming here. Four names occur to the writer, Beauchetti, Pleasants, Xavier, Cribley, and there were others. A few natives made charcoal on their own land and delivered it at the furnace. These Colliers constructed log cabins to live in while “on the job” and they lived principally on salt pork, beans, and potatoes, probably with an occasional deer or other game.
Mt. Algo and the Dover Mountain was especially infested with rattlesnakes so that “medicine” had to be kept on hand with the natural result that snake bites were frequently anticipated by several days. On the whole, however, these men and their crews were competent and reliable and eventually made good citizens. [The “medicine” was a shot of whiskey, and the men would help themselves, using the excuse that they might get bitten soon.]
Limestone was to be had near the furnace, and was broken out easily in small pieces and delivered into the top house and loaded into two-wheel carts ready for the stack. Ore and lime were both weighted for each charge proportioned to the cart of charcoal.
A Gristmill and a Blacksmith shop were both necessary adjuncts of furnace operation. About fifty acres of land adjoining the furnace were cultivated to produce hay, oats, corn, and rye with which the twenty or more teams of horses and oxen could be fed. Other grain was brought in by carloads. A special feed for the animals was prepared in the mill of mixed corn and oats roughly ground.
Hay was cut into small lengths by a hand machine and a ration of hay, corn, and oats, well moistened was made up fresh for each feeding. Wheat and rye flour was ground fine and bolted in the mill. Grain was brought in by local farmers who paid in tolls for the accommodation. The mill also ground plaster from limestone, for use on some farmland, by the furnace and local farmers, as fertilizer.
The mill was built over the flume which carried water to the wheelhouse for air supply to the furnace and used the same water supply in turbine wheels. The mill equipment was first class for those days and was always maintained in good order with daily operation, to the benefit of the community.
A blacksmith was in constant demand to keep the horses and oxen properly shod and to make and repair all tools for furnace and farming use. The Blacksmith had to be an expert in his line, and was one, except when certain lapses occurred in mental and moral activity.
There was at one time the third furnace in Kent situated on Macedonia Brook about one-fourth mile above the bridge over the brook leading up to Fuller and Skiff Mountains. This furnace was probably owned and managed by Charles Edwards of Kent. Mr. William K. Stone, an old and prominent resident of Kent, is authority for the statement that he remembers this furnace in operation, when a small boy, with a man named John Wilson as an agent.
The counting house and scales used by the furnace were located on the site now occupied as a home by John Peters, also an old-time resident. Macedonia Brook is formed by the union of Nodine Hollow Brook and an outlet from what was known in those days as Fuller Pond. There was a dam at the outlet of the pond with a gate to control the outflow of water to Macedonia Brook. It would appear therefore that the water power available from the brook was limited, and that the output from the furnace was small.
This furnace brought ore from Salisbury, Sharon, Amenia and Kent ore bed. A peculiarity mentioned in Atwater’s History is that no limestone was found west of the Housatonic River for this furnace and that it had to be carted over from Kent. Charcoal was made for this furnace, probably, in Nodine Hollow and iron was undoubtedly sent to Poughkeepsie as did the other Kent furnaces. There was, however, a Puddling furnace on this same brook, situated just below the turn of the highway north at what might be termed Peters Corner, situated on the Ross property. [It was located south of the highway on the brook below Peters Corner.]
It is stated that this Puddling furnace was operated and owned by Charles Edwards of Kent, possibly by others, which led the writer to assume as stated above that Mr. Edwards was no doubt interested in the iron furnace further up the brook, as they were close to each other, used the same water power and the output of the furnace undoubtedly was a feeder for the Puddling furnace.
A Puddling furnace is a much smaller structure than a furnace which transforms iron ore into pigs, and is in fact, a refinery for remelting pigs of iron cast in a furnace. The furnace is built of iron sides, top, and ends, approximately six feet wide, six feet high and twelve feet long, lined with refractory brick calculated to withstand very high temperatures. Fuel (charcoal) was fed into one end with a bridge wall a short distance from the firing door, and the far end was contracted to about two feet in width, from which a chimney took off gas and fumes and the bottom of the chimney let out the accumulation of slag.
The process of Puddling consisted of stirring up the melted mass of pig iron with iron bars, and hooks, much as a woman might stir up a pudding. A strong blast of air, very much more in amount and pressure than a furnace requires, was continually brought into the puddling process with the melted iron for the purpose of removing all impurities and undesirable elements in the iron and especially carbon.
If this refining process is thoroughly carried out, the character of the metal is entirely changed and becomes wrought iron, which can be, and is, pounded by heavy drop hammers or squeezed to force out slag or other undesirable ingredients and then passed several times through rolls while still hot. The result of the process produces wrought iron shaped into bars or rods of different sizes, wagon tires or structural shapes.
Our early supply of nails was made from this product and are found today in any old house built 150 years ago. The operation of a puddling furnace, therefore, was a most useful and valuable adjunct to a pig iron furnace, as it produced a metal that could be used where cast iron was unsuitable. Unfortunately, the Puddling furnace, with its buildings, was destroyed by fire in the 1830s and was not rebuilt, probably due to the limited amount of power from the brook and the small output from a plant which involved a considerable amount of expensive machinery. This must have been a distinctive loss to the community, as it meant that pig iron from Kent furnaces must be refined elsewhere and brought back again, in many useful shapes.
The Puddling furnace was operated by Eber Peters, grandfather of the present John Peters, now living alongside the brook as above referred to. Eber Peters came to this section from Albany (Eber Peters came from Petersville in Warren in 1830. He had been active in an Ironworks on the Shepaug River in that area formerly owned by his father), and besides operating the Puddling furnace, had in operation on the site, well known to most of us, a saw and shingle mill, as well as a cider mill, just at the turn of the road, north. Mr. John Peters, son of Eber Peters, carried on these same industries, except the Puddling furnace, as long as he lived.
Personnel of the furnace has not especially been referred to. They are entitled to comment as being responsible for efficient service in their respective positions. From the beginning of Stuart Hopson Company to the final blast of the furnace under the Kent Iron Company, the direction, and management of all operations was in the hands of John Hopson, who was Treasurer and Executive Director of the Corporation. John Hopson, Jr., for a term of years, was in charge of the office, but withdrew about 1880, to found and manage a business of his own. George R. Bull then took over the office management as Secretary of the Company.
John Hopson, Sr., had learned the details of making iron the hard way, without the assistance of chemical or mechanical engineering assistance. He knew most of the answers and worked out those he did not know. He was a driver, but of himself first and always, and he had the faculty of selecting and keeping men employed in the various branches of the workers who knew what was expected of them and who had intuitively that degree of loyalty and cooperation that made them key men for dependence and reliability.
James Barker was an outstanding example. A big strong, healthy individual who watched carefully the quality of ore, lime and charcoal from which high-grade iron was expected, the operation of the water wheel, the careful grading of the iron produced and the oversight of the men in the casting house and top house all came under his jurisdiction. He probably missed but few occasions of tapping the stack for each casting. In later years his son, Walter, equally efficient and reliable, succeeded him.
“Hank” Waldron was equally as good a man in charge of the men and operations on the “Bank.” He had charge of all material arriving at the bank and saw to it that the several kinds and quantities were ready at all times for delivery at the stack. There were 20 to 25 men with horse and ox teams under this direction engaged in steady routine in supplying the furnace. Even the men in common labor were specially selected as dependable in knowing what to do and when to do it without let up and in all weather.
There were three Johnsons, “Pedlar,” who brought back a crooked leg from the Civil War, a teamster, also Dwight and Fred in various capacities. There were other Waldron besides “Hank,” but not related. There were Bartons without limit, farmers and teamsters. Elmer, Thompson, Charles, Egbert, and Joseph. John Barton, a son of Elmer, was at one time a clerk in the furnace store and so was tied up with the industry.
John Barton was for many years a civil service agent of the Federal Government and delivered mail R.F.D. from the Kent office, an honest and faithful executive who retired only a few years since due to age restrictions and still living in Kent to the writer’s last knowledge.
There were Charlie Drake and David Gambon in charge of the top house except on the 4th of July and such occasions when temporary substitutes might be required. There were at least eight to ten cottages near the bank occupied for the most part by operators who might be on night shifts or for emergencies. These families had gardens of their own, most of them raised a pig each year and some of them kept a cow. There was Alfred Limburg, for many years the miller, succeeded later by his son, Edward, who had, up to his father’s retirement been a teamster. The last miller was a Mr. Benedict, a fine character and competent millwright as well as miller.
A daughter of Mr. Benedict married George R. Bull and their descendants are still living in Kent. The furnace store was owned and operated by George R. Bull and John Roberts. All kinds of merchandise and supplies were kept at the store and sold to employees of the Furnace and Colleries. Though other people traded at the store and employees could trade at Kent stores if they preferred to do so, there were no restrictions, but employees could and did secure credit at the furnace store if circumstances required it.
The Kent Ore Mine was first operated by a man brought over from New York State by the New Milford owners, moreover, he was a “Count” from some foreign country. Stuart Hopson & Co. had a man named Hart, from a fine Cornwall family, in charge of the mine and shaft about 300 feet in depth and ran out laterally to find ore deposits. Branch was a very competent miner and a good manager of men. He probably had twenty or more men under him. The success of the mining and furnace operations was due to a great extent to the fidelity and efficient service of these men in various positions.
The making of pig iron was not so simple as might appear on the surface. Constant watchfulness and good judgment in emergencies were required, and in view of the reputation of the Company through a long term of years, it is apparent that skill and initiative were not lacking. But there came a day when reckoning with economics could not be put off.
The volume of Pennsylvania and southern irons had grown enormously, dwarfing the output of charcoal iron furnaces into a fraction of the total iron output of the country. Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Alabama and Lake Superior ores are found in prodigious seams almost on top of the ground and can be dug out and handled largely by machinery. All but Superior ores are near bituminous coal fields where coal can be “coked” in kilns of concrete and brick that can be used repeatedly. In manpower coke costs less than charcoal, takes up less room and will melt faster, without adding much if any carbon to the iron.
Charcoal iron was probably selling at that time at about $40.00 per ton, while southern iron could be bought for $20.00. Southern and Pennsylvania iron could be built up by judicious mixture with machinery scrap, broken car wheel scrap, steel scrap, and spiegeleisen to meet any requirements met by charcoal iron up to that time, so the handwriting was on the wall and could be readily interpreted.
In consequence, one after another Housatonic Valley Furnace ” blew out” for good. Ashes of the old furnace fires and of the men who dug the ore and tended these fires are now at rest in the hills and valleys that they exploited so successfully and creditably for 150 years. There are still, however, a few descendants of these pioneers who recall with pride their characteristics and experiences handed down by succeeding generations, hence these reminiscences.
The review of the Kent Iron Industry may also be of interest to those of the present generation who are or will be working out gainful undertakings in other new and important fields of industry or action. They may profit by the struggle of past generations, and the appreciation of those qualities that led to their success, integrity, thrift, and endurance under difficulties. This paper is reminiscent rather than historical. The writer has made use of data found in the historical records of Atwater, Bolles, and Miss Newton, and in confirming their statements, which the writer believes are quite correct, he acknowledges with great appreciation their interest in the subject. The writer has added some details that he hopes will be of interest to appreciative readers.
The Lure of the Litchfield Hills, December 1945, Vol. VII, No. 4. The Lure of the Litchfield Hills, June 1946, Vol. IX, No. 1.
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