Questions: Iron History

Frequently asked questions: about iron history:

In this section we’ll provide some short (and some long) answers to your questions about the history of iron globally, in the United States, and here in the Upper Housatonic iron area.  There are also some articles that you might find useful — for example, we’ve got a page all about the history of Beckley Furnace, and links to some outside sources with other answers.

When did the iron industry start in the United States?  Here in Northwest Connecticut?

Not long after the first European settlers arrived in Virginia in the early 1600s they began to try to make iron.  The early efforts there were unsuccessful, and today we consider the early iron industry at Saugus, Massachusetts to be the first successful iron production in what is now the United States.  The industry grew from there to include early efforts in Rhode Island and elsewhere.  Iron in our area was first produced in Lime Rock around 1730, using ore from the former Ore Hill mine, and by the time of the American Revolution there was a blast furnace operating in Lakeville, which was then named Furnace Village.  This furnace, located as it was in what was considered remote wilderness, was able to continue operating throughout the war and produced significant armaments, including cannons for the American side.  Subsequently blast furnaces were built by entrepreneurs where manageable sources of water power were available, including here in East Canaan.

Who were Barnum and Richardson?

The short answer is that their company was the owner of Beckley Furnace for most of its active life, as well as eleven other blast furnaces in the general area, plus foundries and forges in Lime Rock where iron goods, especially railroad car wheels, were made.  The company, and its affiliates, also had operations in Buffalo, Chicago, West Virginia, and Michigan, and not only supplied many of the major railroads in the US with car wheels but also many railroads internationally.  They had started out in Lime Rock as one of many smallish businesses in the iron industry, but ultimately became the largest and most important force in the iron industry in this area, and a significant presence nationally.

Was the Barnum in Barnum and Richardson a relative of P.T.Barnum, the showman?

Yes, William H. Barnum was a third cousin once removed of P.T. Barnum.  They knew each other, and during P.T. Barnum’s very short career in politics, William H. Barnum defeated P.T. Barnum for Congress.  They were not friends, and would usually deny that they were related if they were asked.  While P.T. Barnum had considerable success as a showman, William H. Barnum not only built a large iron business, but also became a U. S. Senator from Connecticut, and served as the longest-serving Chair of the National Democratic Committee.

Why did the iron industry in the Upper Housatonic Valley go away?

There were several reasons.  First, the iron industry in our area was very slow to upgrade and make improvements, preferring to specialize in their high quality iron made the traditional way.  Only after 1900 were major technological improvements aggressively pursued, and there were significant management errors made in this process.   Second, demand shifted (particularly demand from the railroads) from iron to steel.  At the same time, the steel industry was innovating and growing rapidly.   There were no doubt other factors, but those were the two most important ones.  Essentially the iron industry in the Upper Housatonic Valley had vanished by the early 1920s.