Beach Hill Road, New Ashford, Massachusetts 01237
Two well-known railroads, The Pennsylvania and the Chicago Milwaukee and St. Paul, used and highly praised the railroad car wheels cast by the Richmond Iron Works at Richmond, Berkshire County, Massachusetts, claiming they never had an accident traceable to a wheel cast by this company. Early steam, gas and auto engine manufacturers used Richmond iron for casting cylinder blocks claiming they outlasted blocks cast using other iron then available.
To most readers this may appear unusual as Massachusetts is not known as an iron producing state. In retrospect, for the first one hundred years of this country's history, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was the leading iron producing section. Saugus, near the coast, had in 1643 what was then considered a large furnace fired by charcoal and a large foundry powered by three water wheels; then as other areas opened more and more small furnaces, some with foundries started producing what was called charcoal iron (actually pig iron and/or wrought iron). The ore may be available and plentiful but without charcoal it could not be converted to iron as the use of anthracite, the Bessmer system and the famous Pittsburgh area did not start until after 1860. So charcoal making became a large and widely spread business from Colonial times up to 1900 then tapering off to or shortly after World War I.
I was raised in a charcoal-iron section of western Massachusetts. While the peak of activity was long before my time, I did witness the close-out and bits of history and hearsay were absorbed and are condensed in the following brief pictorial history. While strictly Berkshire County, they applied to similar areas and times through New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and the Carolinas, wherever the right combination of forest land, iron ore and limestone was found.
Photo #1. In our small town of New Ashford I know of the remains of four farm-type kilns as shown. I have one on my farm. Presently it is a circle in the forest, but if one kicks aside the vegetation, bits of charcoal may be found. The demand for coal was ever present. It took a cord of wood to make twenty to thirty bushels of coal and sixty to one hundred bushes to make one ton of iron. In the beginning it sold for five cents per bushel and the last for 30 cents per bushel.
Photo #2. About three miles from here the commercial charcoal kiln shown operated up to just before World War I. As a youngster I took this picture in the early twenties. Actually, there were two identical kilns. While one was burning and cooling the other was being loaded; the cycle took about two weeks. Notice the iron band where the kiln starts to corbel inward. This was quite a casting and was necessary to control the expansion and contraction and the occasional small explosions of accumulated gases. The opening contained two heavy cast iron doors and a heavy cast iron frame. The frames and doors were removed soon after they were shut down and re-installed in lime kilns in a nearby town; both kilns were dismantled for the brick in 1934.
Photo #3. Wagons of the type shown hauled the coal to the furnaces. I have heard several stories about this part of the operation. It seems that at all times they had to carry several buckets of water hung on the wagon, as charcoal in most cases was still warm and fire was always a hazard. It seems that one farmer loaded up his wagon, parked it in the barnyard, planning to haul it to market in the morning. The next morning there was nothing left but the ironwork of the wagon and wheels. Evidently a small spark remained within the load and it silently burned itself out during the night. History tells of several incidences of rivalry where loads were deliberately set on fire.
Photo #4. This is the Richmond Ironworks Furnace and Foundry in its prime. It started about 1800 and through various expansion stages operated until 1920 and was dismantled in 1923. This was exceptional as the large Pittsburgh area steel companies had slowly but surely forced out the small furnaces and very few operated beyond 1900. The reason this one kept going was because the car wheels and cylinder walls did wear exceptionally well. It appears nature gave this mining area just the right natural combinations of manganese ores with the iron ores so that the final product was actually a long wearing cast steel; however, the forest land for miles around was about denuded of trees and the last few years it did attempt to use substitute fuels so perhaps it was all for the best. Now I understand the modern large iron and steel companies are having difficulties.
The surrounding mines of both open pit and shaft and tunnel types used small steam engines for hoists and pumps and at the final close-out they were just shut off and left in place and soon flooded. Now there are numerous rumors, some greatly exaggerated, about these old machines and the various plans that collectors have to salvage them; however, I doubt if they will ever see the surface again as the stripping of overburden and wastes were piled at random and through years of erosion have settled to the bottoms covering this equipment making it difficult for divers to locate them.