Tariffs – and Beckley Furnace

Beckley Furnace made pig iron, way up in East Canaan, CT, right?

What could that possibly have to do with international trade and tariffs?

As it turns out, a fair amount!

You’ll recall that Beckley Furnace was owned for most of its useful life by the Barnum and Richardson Company.  They used the output of Beckley largely to manufacture railroad car wheels at their Lime Rock foundries.  Barnum and Richardson also effectively used a marketing technique called “product differentiation” to make its pig iron and its railroad car wheels different from the pig iron and railroad car wheels manufactured by others at that time.

“Salisbury iron” was advertised to be different from other iron — so much so that Barnum and Richardson named their iron mine in Michigan the “Salisbury Mine” even though it was mining an entirely different kind of iron ore for use in their Chicago wheel foundry just to permit them to attach a shred of honesty to their claim that all their car wheels were indeed made of “Salisbury ore”.  (Since Beckley used almost entirely ore from the Ore Hill mine and another mine in the Township of Salisbury, calling it “Salisbury ore” was not a problem for the Beckley output — it was this other ore from Michigan that required a little bit of poetic license.

Back to the tariff:

Senator Barnum, a principal of Barnum and Richardson, was politically a Democrat, and in business terms a robber baron.  He was disposed — both for his own economic interests and politically — to favor high tariffs on imports, especially imported pig iron and railroad car wheels, and for the most part high tariffs were in effect during this period.

Then along came a new Democratic presidential candidate, Grover Cleveland — and Senator Barnum, in his role has Chair of the National Democratic Committee, was expected to support the candidate’s policies, which happened to favor low tariffs.  Senator Barnum, a good party man, swallowed his pride, subordinated his economic interests, sucked in, and supported the Democratic platform, upon which Grover Cleveland was elected President of the United States.

Where was the payoff for Senator Barnum?

Well, when Barnum died in 1889, during the four years that elapsed between the two terms that Cleveland served as President, Cleveland attended Barnum’s funeral at Trinity Church in Lime Rock.  It was, presumably, a duty call — the press of the day reported that Mr. Cleveland left immediately following the services.

It would be an interesting exercise to track Beckley Furnace production against various tariff schemes in effect during the years it was functioning, and perhaps someone will eventually do that.

However, it is reasonably clear that export of Barnum and Richardson railroad car wheels, particularly to Latin America, continued strong through most of this period.  It was said that as recently as 1975 Barnum and Richardson car wheels were still turning on railroads in Latin America — perhaps the last continent in which they were still in use.

Henrico Coal Company

The Barnum and Richardson Company has been mentioned many times on this website already, and for good reason:  Barnum & Richardson owned Beckley Furnace for most of its useful life.  There’s a lot more to be said about the Barnums and Richardsons, however, and particularly the Barnum family.

US Senator William H. Barnum was not only a principal of Barnum & Richardson, he was an entrepreneur in a golden age for entrepreneurs — so much was it a golden age for entrepreneurs that it is known today as the Gilded Age, and the entrepreneurs were known as robber barons.

Here’s a historic document.  It’s from the papers of the Henrico Coal Company (in Richmond, Virginia) showing both Senator Barnum and his son, William Milo Barnum, a New York City attorney, as officers of that company.

Another Barnum venture, Henrico Coal Company
Another Barnum venture, Henrico Coal Company

(You can see this as a larger PDF file by clicking 51038)

The source of this document is a microfilm of a portion of the papers of William M. Barnum in the Library of the University of Washington — located in the Library of Virginia, in Richmond, VA.  Interestingly, another company’s records also appear on that microfilm, the minutes book of the Kanawha Improvement Company (1887-1890), which was actually a railroad company in West Virginia.

We’ll be documenting more of these outside connections in future posts.

The Fire of 1896 at Beckley Furnace

The Fire of 1896

The fire of 1896 put Beckley Furnace out of commission for three full years.   Interestingly, this may also have been when the decision was made to raise the height of the furnace to 40 feet. We do know that Barnum and Richardson encountered many difficulties  in getting the furnace back in commission.

Friend of Beckley Furnace Richard Paddock has studied the Fire of 1896 in considerable depth.  In addition to more readily available sources, he searched the local newspapers of the time for events occurring  during the period the furnace was out of commission.  You can read his complete report by clicking on The Fire of 1896

Thanks to Dick for this study!  We will be following it with additional studies that are intended for those who are interested in Beckley Furnace, the Barnum and Richardson Company, and the iron industry in the Upper Housatonic Valley at a level that goes beyond the casual.

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