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.

A Different Angle…

Looking at things from a different angle…

We’re always looking for better ways to help visitors understand how Beckley Furnace worked.  Fact is that few of our visitors are intimately familiar with the process of making iron ore into pig iron, and putting all the pieces together can be a little problematical.  And, unfortunately, some pieces of the puzzle of just how the entire furnace worked are missing.  Sometimes, we’ve found, looking at things from a different angle can help with this.


As it turns out, Dick Paddock and Christian Allyn, two members of the Friends of Beckley Furnace, have recently been experimenting with our version of a drone — actually, a little remote controlled helicopter that can carry a camera — as a way to explain things better.

The photo above is one of their early efforts — this one, about 60 feet in the air, looking down at the casting arch.  You can see a portion of the exterior wall of the building in which the furnace was located on the left and right of the stack (and see the remainder of the outline of the casting house outlined in limestone elsewhere on this site.)

We think that viewing things from above suggests a lot of possibilities, such as showing the spatial relationship between the  turbine location and the furnace — and even the slag heap — in a single photo.  Stay tuned!  We’ll have more!!

And thanks to Dick and Chris for making this happen!

Topography of Beckley Furnace area

Topographical Map

We extracted this from an 1896 United States Geological Survey topographical map of the area.  We selected this particular edition of the map because the railroad was there (although not all of it — particularly the sidings) is reflected here.  There are clues on this map about why this site was selected for building Beckley and the other furnaces.  As well, 1896 was a time when three furnaces were active in the immediate area.

The Beckley Furnace complex is located on the Blackberry river, in the lower right hand section of the map, slightly to the west of East Canaan.


The iron ore that was used at Beckley Furnace came from an area about five miles west of the left edge of this map.  The limestone came from quarries within a mile of the furnaces.  The charcoal initially came from the mountain directly south of the furnaces, but ultimately it came by rail from as far away as Vermont.

Something to think about:  Why do you suppose Beckley and the other East Canaan furnaces were built where they were?  Why not on the mountain to the south?   Do the contour lines in the topographic map (see the close-up below) give you any clues?  

Notable on the map is the limited number of black dots indicating a structure.  One would expect that there would be more structures shown in an area that contained three working blast furnaces as well as ancillary structures, like charcoal sheds and houses for workers and their families.

Here’s a close-up from the map


In this view you can clearly see the Beckley complex, the site of East Canaan #1 (the Forbes furnace), but, oddly, Furnace #3, known as the “Furnace in the Field” is not shown on the map, although we know that it was in operation at that time.  We ascribe this to an error by those preparing the map.


Missing Pieces

The Missing Pieces…

Ever wonder if there was anything at the furnace when it was running and is not there today? Well there definitely are some “missing pieces”.  Several of them were essential to making iron.  Just what were these Missing Pieces?

Essential missing pieces:

1. There used to be a bridge running from the top of the furnace to the brick wall across it. That’s how they would get iron ore, charcoal, and limestone to the furnace.

2. There used to be a building behind the furnace where air was heated before being forced into the furnace.  Sometimes it’s called the stove.

3.  There used to be a big pipe that ran down the back of the furnace and into the stove.  This pipe captured hot gasses, largely carbon monoxide, at the top of the stack and recycled them into the hot air mix.

4.  There used to be “blowing tubs” up near where the turbine is housed now.  These devices, really two large wooden barrels about 6 feet in diameter, were powered by the turbine and compressed air, forcing it down to the stove to be heated and forced into the furnace.  The blowing tubs were the air compressor of those times.

5. There used to be a pipe or other kind of air container that ran from the blowing tubs to the stove.  It carried the compressed air to be heated and forced into the furnace.

6.  The furnace itself used to be in a building called the “casting shed”.  This building, with a sand floor, was where the slag and molten iron ran out of the hearth (when it was tapped, of course) into molds in the floor of the furnace where the molten iron cooled and hardened into “pigs” of cast iron.

Outside the basic set-up (but still important):

1. Above the charging wall was a network of sheds for storage of charcoal, limestone, and iron ore to be added to the furnace when needed.

2. Also above the charging wall were railroad tracks that connected to the Central New England Railroad, which ran through East Canaan.  Rail was the most efficient way to bring in charcoal (from as far away as Vermont), iron ore (from Salisbury and Lakeville), and whatever else was needed for the operation of the furnace.  (We think that the limestone came mostly from the quarry further down Lower Road).

3. A company store would have been an important feature of an iron refining community as large as East Canaan was, with three working blast furnaces.

4. Housing for workers.  You can see some remaining Barnum & Richardson worker houses on the north side of Lower Road a short distance further along it.  They are private residences today.

5. HUGE slag piles (we’re told that massive slag piles covered most of the south bank of the Blackberry River — the slag pile that remains is substantial, but small compared with what once was there.

Other things:

1.  We know that there was a sawmill on site, located between the blowing tubs and the stove, where the Loeffel Turbine currently sits.  That’s what the Loeffel turbine was for: to power the sawmill.  Why a sawmill?  Well, that’s addressed in greater detail in the Loeffel turbine post, but one possibility is to saw the various exotic woods used in the iron business, such as the lignum vitae bearing on the turbine and the molds used for casting railroad car wheels.  This is an incomplete chapter in our research of Beckley Furnace.

Have you spotted anything else missing?  Let us know about it!!


The Holes in the Rock

What are the five holes in the rock in the middle of the river?

holes in the rock
Holes in the rock in the Blackberry River at Beckley Furnace

The honest answer to this question is that we don’t know.  We don’t even know that they have a connection to Beckley Furnace, in fact.  The facts that they’re in a perfectly straight line, that they’re in the bedrock and not in a boulder that might have washed into this position, that they’re exactly the same width and the same depth all combine to make it pretty clear that they were man-made.

But why?   They represent a fair amount of work, and clearly somebody wanted them to be right where they are.

So, lets explore possibilities.

Were they part of the blast furnace or related processes?  Likely not; they’re a bit far from both the furnace itself and also from the blowing tubs farther upstream.

Were they part of a bridge foundation of some sort?  Well, we don’t have any historical evidence of a bridge at that location.  The likeliest possibility would have been a bridge to carry slag across the river to be dumped, but we’ve not seen similar holes elsewhere along our stretch of the river.  Also, they’re at a slight angle to both river banks — not what you would expect for a bridge support.

So we’ll leave our answer as “We don’t know” and ask you to suggest possibilities that might occur to you!

(The photo is by Helen, by the way!)

Women and Girls

Women and Girls in the Iron Industry

Many people, especially students, ask us about the role that women and girls played in the iron industry.  When a school group visits us, we’re about 99% sure that the question will come up.  Usually, students want to know what role they played at Beckley Furnace.

The simple answer is “Well, they did not make iron” but it’s a big topic; certainly bigger than that answer; maybe a huge topic; and the answer isn’t easy.

We’re going to be exploring the topic over several posts, so please stay tuned if this is a question that is meaningful to you.  If you ever think about the part gender plays in society today, then the answer to this question is probably going to be of interest to you.

What’s the gray thing ….

Just what is that gray thing in the shed, up near the dam?

It wasn’t there last year!


Well, you’re right.  We built the shelter for the gray thing over the winter, and we dedicated it this summer.  And the “gray thing” is NOT a bomb (as one visitor suggested) or a jet engine (which it also resembles both functionally and in appearance).  Instead, it’s a turbine.  A water-power turbine that was used for the final decades of Beckley Furnace’s active life to power the hot blast.  Actually, it’s one of two turbines at the Beckley site.  Read about the other turbine here.

The turbine has an interesting story, and we’ll be telling you more about it later on, but here are a few items you might find interesting right now:

–It was a “Hercules-type” turbine, of unknown manufacturer, probably installed when the dam was rebuilt in the 1870s.

–While it looks pretty massive on the display rack, it was considered a powerhouse for its day, generating (we think) about 80 hp.  (A nice thing about turbines — they can generate lots of power even when the water input is reduced due to drought.)

–This turbine had spend nearly 90 years buried in the mud in the pit where it operated.  It was evidently too heavy to be removed for scrap metal during the Second World War.

–After getting expert advice about how to conserve this rarity, we concluded that in order to preserve the interior we needed to cut a hole in the side.  Fortunately, that gives you a good view of the inner workings of the device.

–Yes, that wooden thing at the lower end of the turbine is just what it looks like: a washer.  It’s made of a tropical wood called lignum vitae that withstands the kinds of forces this turbine exerted, and to do it in water, too.

07-27-2014 silver 185_lignum_vitae

Making iron at Beckley Furnace

How they made iron…

Actually, several different techniques have existed for making iron over the centuries.  We’ll go into more detail about some of the others in a future post, but for the time being, let’s just consider how it was done at Beckley.

Beckley was a hot blast furnace — which means that (1) it was a blast furnace instead of a forge or another process, and (2) the blast of air that was forced into the iron mix was heated first.  (It’s that blast of air that was forced into the hot iron mix that gave its name to the blast furnace, by the way.)

But let’s back up a little:

What were the ingredients?

The ingredients of iron here at Beckley were:

1. Iron ore (in this case, from the Upper Housatonic area)

2. Charcoal (initially made from trees in the general area, but as demand grew, from as far away as Vermont)

3. Limestone (there are quarries near Beckley — the closest is about a mile down Lower Road)

What was the process?

The process of making iron, once a hot fire was in place in the furnace, involved workers pushing wheelbarrows of iron ore, charcoal, and limestone across a bridge from the charging wall (you can see it on the other side of Lower Road), and dumping them into the top of the furnace.

At the same time, water power from the dam was driving rudimentary air compressors called “pumping tubs” that blew air into a large heating unit called a stove, and from there, blew the hot air into the hearth of the furnace.

The hot air was supplemented by hot gasses from the furnace, largely carbon monoxide, that were piped from the top of the furnace down to mix with the hot air from outside to be blown back into the liquid iron mix.

When a fair amount of liquid iron had accumulated in the bottom of the hearth, a two step process was started.  (1) Some of the liquid slag (waste material from the iron making process) was drawn off to solidify into sheets on the floor of the casting shed (it was then broken up with sledge hammers and removed), and then (2) the liquid iron was tapped to flow out into iron molds pressed into the sand of the casting shed floor.

The ingots of iron were (and are) called pigs (we’ll have another post about why they’re called pigs).  Once they cooled and solidified, they were carried out of the casting shed and stacked.

And, iron had been made a Beckley Furnace!  The process went on over and over, day and night, seven days a week, as long as the furnace was “in blast”  (which means in operation).

Housatonic Heritage

Housatonic Heritage

Beckley Furnace has a close relationship with Housatonic Heritage, the umbrella organization that represents the Upper Housatonic Valley National Heritage Area.

We’re proud to publish the Iron Heritage Trail map and brochure! It’s free, available at Beckley Furnace, at any area Historical Society, at most libraries, and at many hotels, inns, and restaurants in our area.  We are also proud that Beckley Furnace is the centerpiece of this set of tours around our area.

The Iron Heritage Trail makes it easy to see important elements of our industrial and social history via nine separate suggested tours.  Each tour is a reasonable objective for a morning or afternoon, and each also provides opportunities for more study.

Here are the tours suggested in the brochure:

Tour I:  Beckley Furnace (that’s us!!).  No driving in this tour; we believe there’s enough at Beckley to keep nearly anyone interested and involved for a couple of hours.

Tour II: Beckley Furnace to Norfolk and Colebrook, CT

Tour III: Beckley Furnace to North Canaan, Falls Village, and Amesville, CT.

Tour IV:  Salisbury, Mount Riga, and Lakeville

Tour V: Lime Rock to Sharon

Tour VI:  Sharon, Cornwall, Kent, and Roxbury, CT

Tour VII: Amenia, NY to Clove Valley Ironworks, Beekman, NY

Tour VIII:  Millerton, NY; Copake, NY; Chatham, NY

Tour IX:  North Canaan, CT to Lanesborough, MA

The brochure also includes convenient articles about the discovery of the so-called Salisbury Ore, the blast furnaces of the Salisbury Iron District, and the natural local resources that made the Upper Housatonic valley area a natural one for the production of iron.

So you can spot it among all the other brochures vying for your attention, here’s what it looks like:

Iron Heritage Trail brochure
Iron Heritage Trail brochure



Iron around the World

You and other people might think that the iron industry was only in the United States. But, it had to of come from somewhere right?

Where else was the iron industry?

-An iron blade was found in an Egyptian pyramid.

-By 5 B.C. there were small blast furnaces in China

-In Germany blast furnaces date to the 14th century

-In Spain forges date to the 8th century

-The Cranberry Bogs in Massachusetts was where they dug up bog Iron.

-The iron furnace in Kent, CT gave its’ name to the Kent Furnace in Kent, Ct.

-Sheffeild, England was where they invented crucible steel.

See? The iron industry most likely came here from Europe and Asia which was where it started.

This is America, not Europe!

The most likely reason as to why the iron industry started here was that the people that came to America from Europe brought with them ideas. One of these ideas probably was to start iron furnaces in the original colonies. If you’ve seen our ABOUT page, you’ll remember that John Adam Beckley originally set up the many Beckley Furnaces. Other people may have been inspired by him, or had already had other furnaces/forges which is how there were so many then and how there are still some around today.