Charcoal and Iron / Part One

Could a woodchuck be responsible for the most transformative event in the history of the South Taconics? There’s a story that surveyors laying out the town of Salisbury in 1728 noticed bits of iron in the diggings around a woodchuck hole. If that critter hadn’t opened a hole there, then, could the entire history of the mountains …

No. No chance the iron veins running through these mountains could have gone undiscovered. Those early surveyors were likely looking for it. In 1686 Robert Livingston extended his manor holdings into a “spur’ thrust into Connecticut land. Why claim land whose title, predictably, sparked a struggle? A good guess is that even in the 17th century, a notion was abroad that the Taconics might contain extensive iron. (Iron rust is visible in some of the schist that forms the base of the mountains.)

Iron, of course, has always been a raw material that industrial civilization depends on. For early Americans, everything from nails to horseshoes to plows to weapons was iron made. But it wasn’t practical to ship great amounts of heavy iron objects from Europe to the New World, so the search for ore began almost as soon as settlement.

What those Salisbury surveyors stumbled on wasn’t just any common sort of iron, however. High in manganese, low in phosphorus, Taconics iron was peculiarly strong — someone at the Smithsonian even described it as “perhaps unexcelled in the world.” Its durability under repeated shock allowed cannons, high grade plows, ship anchors, and locomotive wheels to be fashioned from it. Those flecks found by that woodchuck hole led, in time, to forty blast furnaces within reach of the mountains, a thriving town built on the crest of the mountains (Mount Riga). an industry-fueled population boom, and the steady depletion of the Taconics forest.

In the 21st century the deafening, hammering noise, around the clock flames and smoke, worker villages, open pit mines, railroad sidings and towering stone stacks have vanished. I love to swim in the “ore pit” in Copake Falls, but without the name (and a historical marker) I might not realize that for over a century this deep spring-fed swimming hole once was an ever-widening opening in the earth, swarmed by miners. To the south lies Weed Mines Pond, where forgotten machinery can be found if you’re willing to thrash through some brush. South of this, by Belgo Road, lies another deep water-filled ore pit, and the ruins of a blast furnace concealed by sumac and blackberry. Traces of iron are everywhere — maybe modern day woodchucks still dig up bits.

Remains of Weed Mine operations — built 1870s?
Copake Iron Works — late 19th century

At first the iron was worked in forges. One 1731 source describes the ore from Ore Hill in Lakeville “carried in leather bags to Ousatonic [sic], MA to be worked in forges.” But the Livingstons had an Ancram furnace in blast (producing pig iron) by 1743. By 1762 a furnace in Lakeville (then known as Furnace Village) produced two and a half tons of iron every 24 hours. This operation was partially owned by Ethan Allen, of Revolutionary War fame, and became so important to the rebel cause that a Council of Safety took over management, making sure a steady supply of cannons and guns was churned out. A furnace opened in Lenox in 1780, and the unique Mount Riga furnace began operations in 1810.

In 1820 an engineer named Benjamin Silliman travelled through northwest Connecticut and left behind a vivid description of the industry he found. Ore Hill (probably the area’s largest and oldest mine) had been worked for seventy years at the time, but there was “no indication of the ore being exhausted.” It resembled a stone quarry, open to the sky, without shafts or galleries, with “carts and wagons driven freely in and out.” (By 1904, when its useful life ended, underground shafts had reached 247 feet below the surface. Today it’s a very deep pond surrounded by homes.) At Falls Village, Silliman saw a “vast bellows, rising and falling alternately to the action of the water” which “threw in torrents of air, at the bottom, while at top, the workmen were almost constantly occupied by putting in the ore, with charcoal and limestone in successive layers.”

Silliman watched the demanding, dirty, and ferociously hot process of ridding iron oxide of its impurities, and producing usable iron. A blast furnace looked like an enormous stone chimney with a vast fireplace opening at the base. The iron ore, charcoal, and limestone dumped into the top of the chimney met a blaze, bolstered by pumped air, near the bottom. Oxygen is the number one impurity, so, in temperatures reaching up to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, the oxygen in the ore combines with carbon monoxide in the fuel, and is expelled as CO2. The height—typically around sixty feet—of the stone stack allowed more time to entirely melt the ore. The limestone combined with other impurities and drew them off. What flowed out through runnels at the base was — once guttermen had skimmed off the slag — iron, pure as it could be made. Connecticut resident Fred Hull remembered a furnace from his childhood: “When the iron flowed out it was white hot, almost terrifying to me. It was dazzling, just like looking at the sun.”

Around the clock, for most of the year, the furnace roared and blazed. Every half hour, into the top of the furnace, workers dumped four to five hundred pounds of ore, thirty to forty pounds of limestone, and fifteen bushels of charcoal. With no gauge, it was up to the iron master to judge whether the temperature and mix of ingredients was proper. Twice a day the molten iron would be “tapped off,” flowing into a channel in sand, and then into side channels at right angles to the main. These side channels reminded someone of suckling piglets, hence “pig iron.” Poisonous gases were drawn off through a vent, where they burned in the air, according to one observer “like a mystical oriflamme…serving at night like a beacon, lighting up the countryside.”

Copake Iron Works 2022

Imagine the workers, usually immigrants, watching over these rivulets of molten metal, directing them with long poles, doubtless praying that their feet wouldn’t slip. Imagine the intense heat, potential explosions (too much water in the mixture?) dust and carbon monoxide from the smelting. Inside the casting house, where the iron was shaped into “pigs”, temperatures could hit 140 degrees in the summer. Backs were strained and injured from lifting the heavy iron pigs. What if the flow of molten material slowed or got stuck? Would you want to be the one who had to poke it from above? Heavy use of beer, rum, brandy and cider helped make this life more tolerable. Often, a barrel of beer with a dipper waited near the furnace. Pay? In the 1860s, supervisors and skilled workers in Copake Falls made $1.50 to $1.65 for a ten hour day. Laborers might earn $1.00 – $1.25 for their ten hours. In an era when flour was about four cents a pound, and a company house might rent for $3.00 a month, these seem respectable wages. Perhaps the working conditions explain why many of the workers were refugees from the Irish famine.

Iron pigs, Copake Iron Works museum

The waste, or slag, was oddly pretty. Silliman thought it showed “often very gay and beautiful colors” and wondered that it had “the strangest resemblance to the glass produced in volcanoes.” When they were small, my children gathered bright blue slag from Bash Bish brook, where it washes down from a long-closed furnace dump.

Iron slag, collected from Bash Bish Creek.

Company towns grew up around the furnaces. Franklin Ellis’ History of Columbia County, New York states that in 1845, just before the establishment of the Copake Iron Works, there was “not a dwelling house” in Copake Falls, and “two old shanties were the only buildings.” But “now” —- in 1878 — the town held forty dwellings, two stores, one hotel, a train depot, two churches, and two hundred people. A railroad 3/4 of a mile long connected the works to the depot; another train brought ore across Bash Bish Creek from the nearby pit. Each year the furnace consumed 8,000 tons of ore, 1200 tons of limestone, and 450,000 bushels of charcoal. Each year, it produced 3,750 tons of iron.

Maybe the most remarkable of all the furnaces around the Taconic mountains was the one built on top. Mount Riga furnace operated for thirty seven years and produced everything from iron cauldrons to ship anchors, but sparks the question: why there? Why build an elaborate blast furnace a thousand feet above and five miles away from the nearest sources of ore and limestone?

Restored Mt Riga furnace 2020

The answer is that ore and limestone were only two of the necessary ingredients for iron production; just as important are timber and water power, and Riga offered the abundant Taconic forests, as well as a steady flow from South Pond.

A forge was built at the pond outlet in 1781. An 1801 attempt at a furnace went bankrupt a year later. But in 1810, Joseph and Seneca Pettee, along with Luther Holley, put a successful operation into blast. Ore was hauled up from Ore Hill by pack horses; limestone from quarries to the east. When the furnace was rebuilt in 1845, the mountain boasted a thirty foot tall stack and a bosh with a sixteen foot diameter. Water rushing over the South Pond dam powered a water wheel and bellows and, downstream, two forges, one making tools such as hinges and kitchen ware, the other turning out cauldrons, plows, even ship anchors. The story goes that the anchor for the USS Constitution was fashioned at Mount Riga. It weighed twenty tons, was dropped from a hundred foot tower to test its strength, and had to be hauled off the mountain into Copake by a dozen oxen.

At its peak, Mount Riga was a village of 700-1000 citizens. They grew wheat, flax, rye, potatoes, and garden vegetables around their homes, and supported a school that in 1821 had 71 students. (It was also the school at the highest elevation in Connecticut.) The largest department store in northwest Connecticut had a $150,000 inventory and four clerks. It enticed ladies to travel up from Salisbury to shop for items including silk dresses. Luminaries such as Governor Morris and John Jay were visitors to the furnace on the mountain.

In 1847 molten metal was mistakenly allowed to cool inside the stack and “froze,” creating a blockage known as a salamander. At this point the mountains were already getting logged out. The school closed when the teacher and students came down with measles, never to reopen.

By 1890 the village had entirely vanished, leaving behind only a few “raggies” who scratched out a living with small farms and lumbering. But a Mrs. Thurston, interviewed in the early 1900s, could remember looking out her window as a girl and seeing “two hundred men on their way to work.”