Summer Saturday Guides

We at Beckley Furnace traditionally provide Summer Saturday guides from Memorial Day weekend until Columbus Day weekend, and we’re doing it again this year.  Here are the details:

WHEN:  Saturdays beginning at 10 AM, ending at 2 PM.  Guides generally leave promptly at 2 PM, so come a bit earlier if you think you’ll have questions.

WHERE:  You’ll dependably find our guides in the area in front of the furnace.  Depending on the day, you may also find a guide in the office building, but try the furnace area first.

WHO:  Our guides are members of the board of directors of the Friends of Beckley Furnace, the not for profit organization that researches, restores, and interprets Beckley Furnace.  All are knowledgeable; some are regionally and even nationally recognized as experts in the field.

WHAT:  Basically, we’re here to help.  Some people like to conduct self-guided tours, using the signage we’ve prepared.  Others like to be shown around by a guide.  Still others like to look around and then engage one or more of the guides in discussion of particular aspects of the furnace or the historic iron industry of the Upper Housatonic Valley.  It’s your choice!

HOW MUCH does this cost?  NOTHING.  It’s free!  No admission charge, no charge for the guide.

So, we hope you’ll come see us one Saturday this summer.  You can find a map and driving directions HERE.

Beckley Furnace Industrial Monument
Usually you’ll find the guides somewhere in this area.

Slag at Beckley Furnace

People generally know about pig iron.  Most visitors to Beckley Furnace have seen the signs about how the furnace worked, and how it turned iron ore, charcoal, and limestone into pig iron.  You may even have heard one of our hosts describe the process for you if you’ve visited when one was on duty.

However, fewer people know about slag.  If you’ve ever wondered where the stuff that’s left over from the iron ore and limestone goes after the iron is made and what happens to it, then you’re asking the right question — and slag is the answer.

In this video, Christian Allyn visits the slag pile (and it is a big one!) at Beckley Furnace and shows you what you would find there if you visited yourself.  And he tells you quite a bit about the stuff as well.

Just CLICK HERE to enjoy the video!

Thanks to Christian Allyn, our knowledgeable and personable presenter.  Thanks to Eleanore Jenks who directed the video and who did the video capture as well.  Between the Lakes Group is responsible for post-processing, as they call it in the video trade.

 

 

Roles for women and girls

Besides the obvious and prominent role of men at a blast furnace, women and children were also important in the workings. Perhaps surprisingly, without both women and girls in a supporting role the conditions would have drastically changed. They way the industry functioned might have even have been altered.

We’ll be having a series of posts on the subject of the roles women and children, particularly girl children, played in the iron industry, but this one underscores their role in the community that surrounded a blast furnace like Beckley.

Women 

Women didn’t really do much except cook and maintain the households. While you may think that does not sound very important, it actually was. The men working at the furnace had to be incredibly strong. To stay strong, they had to eat a lot of protein and good food. The women spent most of their time cooking to meet those needs.  We’ve seen estimates that a furnace worker, particularly one who worked in the casting shed, might burn an incredible 4000 calories per day, day after day, week after week, month after month.  That’s a whole lot of food to prepare, and in an age when there were no supermarkets, everything had to be cooked from scratch — and that’s a whole lot of work; a full-time job, in fact.

Children (Girls) 

The girls did mostly the same things as their mothers. A wife could not be expected to cook for more than one man (and her family) by herself. But that left plenty to do around the house.  The girls were usually involved in other small tasks as well, although they usually helped their mothers with the cooking. With their mothers occupied with cooking, the girls generally also helped with laundry, cleaning, and maybe took on some cooking herself if her mother had too much to do.  There was also a family garden to tend, and likely some livestock to take care of.  Virtually all families had chickens, many had a hog or two, some had a milk cow.  Each of these creatures took time to feed and care for — and usually this fell to the girl children according to their abilities. Of course there was school, too, although in many of the years that Beckley Furnace was active, an 8th grade education was considered more than enough, and, in an age before extracurriculars, girls had lots of time before and after school to do housework.

One unfortunate fact is that we have very little in the way of documents about the roles of females, and most of what we do know is second hand — someone, usually a man, mentioning what the women might have been doing. The rest? Well, we have had to examine the evidence and draw conclusions.

Also, it’s important to remember that while this may have been the life of females around a blast furnace, roles for women differed widely on the basis of their husband’s work. An ironmaster’s wife might have been expected to take an interest in the families of the furnace workers and offer hospitality when the big shots from Lime Rock visited. At a foundry, for example, there would likely be a whole middle class made up of molders and other skilled trades, and the roles of women there might have been different, too. And finally, there were the few women who were married to the executives and the owners — and their lives were still different, but no less demanding. Finally, this was an age when most middle class and all upper class families had household servants, most of them women, so their lives would have been different as well.

We’ll explore those roles in future posts…..

 

 

 

A new drone overview!

With thanks to Brian Wilcox, of www.connecticutphoto.com, here’s some very nice video footage of the Beckley site, with the leaves mostly off the trees, permitting a good sense of what actually is where.

It’s on the timeline on our Facebook page.

 

Some super views of the Blackberry River, too!!

 

Enjoy!!

Loeffel Turbine

People ask about the rusted machine…

that people see between the furnace and the dam.

Examining the Loeffel Turbine
Examining the Loeffel Turbine

It’s big.  It’s heavy.  It’s rusty.  And, unless you know that it’s a turbine, you might not recognize that it’s fundamentally the same technology as the gray machine displayed in the turbine house.

Both are turbines.  And both operated at Beckley Furnace at more or less the same times.

While the turbine in the turbine shed powered the blowing tubs — the air compressors that provided the blast for Beckley Furnace — this turbine had a more mundane function:  it powered a sawmill.

Fair question:  why might there be a sawmill at a blast furnace site?  After all, sawing wood and making pig iron would seem to be pretty much unrelated functions, right?

Here are some of the possible answers, and more than one could be correct:

  • There was a sawmill here because there was an opportunity to use water power twice — first, to power the blast for the blast furnace, and then, before returning it to the Blackberry River, to run this turbine to power a sawmill.
  • Wood needed to be sawed (or sawn, as they might have said a hundred years ago), and this was as good a place to do it as any.  There was water power, there was a place to put the sawmill (between the blowing tubs and the stove that heated the blast), there were people around who knew about turbines.  Wood was needed to build things — sheds, other structures — in the East Canaan works of Barnum and Richardson, or in greater East Canaan.
  • Wood played an important but often overlooked role in the iron industry.  Different kinds of wood were used for very specific purposes.  For example, in close-up photos of the main turbine, you’ll see a ring of wood near the bottom end.  This was a special wood, lignum vitae, imported from Africa,that was very strong and did not deteriorate in water.  This ring of wood — and what you see in the turbine today is over 100 years old, most of that time spend immersed in mud — served as the main bearing for the generator.  Another example would be the wood patterns used to create the molds in which railroad car wheels were cast at the Barnum Richardson Company works in Lime Rock.  This was another highly specialized wood.  We think it’s possible that this sawmill did very specialized sawing of unusual woods needed at various parts of Barnum and Richardson’s iron making and fabrication process.

Why do YOU think there was a sawmill at Beckley Furnace?

What plans to you have for this turbine?

After all, it’s a shame to see it rust away!

Currently under discussion are ways to conserve the Loeffel turbine, as well as ways to display it.  Some of the ideas currently under consideration include building a second turbine shed (like the one upstream) but more or less where this turbine is located.  Also we’re considering the possibility of displaying it recessed in the ground, so that people can see how it might have been positioned to operate.

Visit the site and let us have your ideas — or send in your ideas on the form below!

But we agree — we really don’t want to see it rust away!

 

 

 

Where was the water wheel

It’s not there any more…

In fact, the water wheel was replaced with the turbine sometime around 1875, give or take 20 years — we lack records for the period — and the turbine was replaced by a steam engine around 1910.

But, people ask, where was the water wheel when it was running?

Here’s the easy way to tell.

Go to the turbine house.  Look for the yellow safety tape (soon to be replaced with safety fencing).

Water wheel location
The water wheel was very close to the present turbine house — just beyond the yellow safety tape, in fact!

 

The pit on the other side of the safety tape was the wheel pit in which the wheel turned.

If you’d like more information about what kind of water wheel was used, understand first that there were three basic types of water wheels:

  • The overshot wheel, when the water was run into the wheel at the top.  Generally these were the most powerful wheels, but you needed quite a drop in the water level to power one that was of the size of the wheel at Beckley.
  • The undershot wheel, when only the bottom of the wheel was in the wheel race (where the water ran) (this was the least powerful type of water wheel).
  • The breast wheel, where the water was directed at the wheel right about the middle of it.  A hybrid of the undershot and overshot wheels, it was quite effective, but did not require the “head” that the overshot wheel needed.

At Beckley, as far as we have been able to determine from the records, a breast wheel was always used.

Beckley is a State Park

While Beckley is mainly the state’s Industrial Monument…

it’s also a park, and there are definitely park-like aspects to the place.

There are, for example, four picnic tables — and not so close to each other that one feels one is in a cafeteria.  Here’s one at the top of the dam:

Picnic table at Beckley Furnace
Here’s one of the four picnic tables at Beckley Furnace — this one overlooking the dam

 

There are two picnic tables in front of the furnace itself, in the area that once was the casting shed, and another on the lawn overlooking the new turbine house.

 

Dam and pool at Beckley
The dam — and the pool — are scenic attractions at the site

This section of the Blackberry River is also popular with anglers.  Frequently there are furnace site tours going on at the same time that people are actively fishing in the Blackberry just a few feet away.

Just on the other side of this wall, in fact:

Wall at Beckley Furnace
This attractive stone wall has separated the furnace complex from the Blackberry River for many years

Occasionally families take a dip in the pool below the dam — but the water is pretty cold, and there’s no lifeguard on duty.

However, it’s not always necessary to be doing something active.  Beckley today offers something that it most assuredly it did NOT offer back in the day when it was an active iron blast furnace, with all the noise, bustle, and confusion that accompanied it.  With the waterfall as background noise, the Beckley Furnace site is also a place to be contemplative — to be alone with your thoughts…

With the roar of the waterfall in the background, it's a place to be alone with your thoughts...
With the roar of the waterfall in the background, it’s a place to be alone with your thoughts…

What you will NOT find at Beckley Furnace:

Yes, Beckley is a State Park.  However, please be aware that:

  • there are no public rest rooms at the facility
  • mentioned above but worth saying again: there are no lifeguards on duty
  • while there is a good cellphone signal at the site, there are no public phones
  • during most hours there are no rangers or other park personnel on duty
  • BUT there are no admission fees or other charges for visiting the facility!

 

 

 

 

How did the turbine connect to the dam?

Water needs to reach the turbine…

in order for it to operate.  In modern hydroelectric facilities today, one sees penstocks — huge iron or steel tubes that carry the water from the dam to the turbine.  There is still a penstock at Beckley Furnace, although it’s no longer operating:

Penstock at Beckley Furnace
The penstock takes water from the dam to the turbine

 

In the photo, you can see holes in the dam where this penstock connected — or did it?  Research — and old photographs — reveal that the penstock did NOT connect directly to the dam!

Instead, it connected to a wooden water chest that was mounted on the face of the dam.  (the water chest is long gone, and was long gone before the dam was reconstructed a few years ago).  While we don’t know exactly why the water chest was used, we suspect that it had to do with further controlling the flow of the water.  While there was a valve on the dam to control the flow through the pipe that ultimately fed the penstock, we think that possibly both holes in the dam could have fed the water chest, thus providing the ability to fill it more rapidly.

But the fact is that we don’t know!

 

 

Salamander? Furnace bear?

I thought this was a blast furnace, not a zoo!

Different kinds of problems at a blast furnace leave different kinds of evidence.  Two of them — related, but not the same thing by far — are called by the imaginative names of furnace bear and salamander.

What was a furnace bear?

In the smelting process, occasionally a glob of molten iron would adhere to the inside of the stack.  There were ways to deal with the problem when one was detected (they involved men at the top, trying to pry the glob loose from the inside of the stack using 40 foot long iron poles — hazardous and difficult work).  However, they didn’t always work, and sometimes the glob hardened and was removed when the furnace was next shut down.

Furnace bear at Beckley Furnace
A furnace bear at Beckley Furnace

Here’s a furnace bear that was at some time removed from the stack at Beckley.  Does this look like a bear climbing a tree to you?  It did to the people who worked at the furnace over a century ago!

And how’s that different from a salamander?

Well, if you think of a salamander as the whole hearth of the furnace turning into a congealed disk of iron, unmelted ingredients, and a few bricks from the hearth itself, you would be pretty much correct.

They tended to happen on two different kinds of situations.  First, when a furnace was shut down for major maintenance.  There was always likely to be some molten iron left in the bottom of the furnace that solidified and created a salamander.  The second case was more serious.  It occurred when there was a failure somewhere in the smelting process and a whole mass of iron, unmelted/unburned ingredients, and pieces of the furnace floor and wall, congealed into a solid mass.

A salamander at Beckley Furnace
A salamander at Beckley Furnace

Here’s a particularly ugly one.  We’re told that the furnace had to be partially disassembled to remove a salamander, and that it would take several teams of oxen to pull it out.

No, it doesn’t look like any salamander we’ve ever seen, but evidently it did to the furnace workers of a century and more ago!

How did the iron ore get into the furnace?

How the did the iron ore get into the furnace?

That’s an interesting question!

The simple answer is that iron ore, charcoal, and limestone were dumped into the top of the furnace, but there’s more to it than that.

The way it got to the top of the furnace was via a bridge that ran from the top of the furnace across Lower Road to the top of the “charging wall”

Charging wall at Beckley

The charging wall the high stone wall you see on the north side of the road, across from the furnace. Workers pushed wheelbarrows of iron ore, of charcoal, and of limestone across that bridge to the furnace.

charcoal cart
Charcoal cart, used to dump charcoal into the top of the furnace

(Here’s a photo of a charcoal cart — it could hold a lot of charcoal.  The carts for limestone and iron ore were smaller because limestone and iron ore are heavier.)

Beckley_Furnace_old
Photo of the bridge between the charging wall and the top of the furnace

You can see the bridge in this photo — it’s one of the missing links in the reconstructed furnace.  It was enclosed (to keep the charcoal, iron ore, and limestone dry, not to mention the walkway where the men wheeled the wheelbarrows) and you can see it running from the charcoal sheds in the upper left to the top of the furnace on the right.

Before they could dump it in, the blast had to be stopped briefly — and when that was done, the workers had to hustle to get the wheelbarrows dumped before the blast restarted. If the blast was stopped for too long, the liquid iron and slag already in the furnace would solidify. If the blast wasn’t stopped long enough, the workers with the wheelbarrows could have been asphyxiated by the carbon monoxide from the furnace forced into the room where they were dumping their wheelbarrows.

Something to think about:  Today we  have machines that handle feeding blast furnaces, usually operating under computer control.   Yet at Beckley Furnace people did that job using wheelbarrows.  What might have caused the change in methods over the years?  What have been some of the effects of this kind of change?

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