Iron Production: Maryland's Industrial Past
Maryland's early economy and identity were based on slave-based agriculture. However, slaves were also employed in manufacturing iron, one of the first non-agricultural industries. Seeing how other colonies were successful in producing iron, the Maryland Legislature passed an "Act for the Encouragement of an Iron Manufacture within this Province" in 1719 to promote iron production both for local industry and for export to Great Britain.
One of the first producers of iron in colonial Maryland was Richard Snowden, who had emigrated from Wales in about 1658. In 1669 he and Thomas Linticum purchased "Iron Mine, a 500 acre plot of land located at the head of the South River," in Anne Arundel County for 11,000 pounds of tobacco. After his death, his son Richard along with some partners formed the Patuxent Ironworks Company at New Birmingham Manor which began operation in the mid-1730s and was owned by Richard Snowden and his partners. Later, his son Richard (known as the "Ironmaster") took over and built additional furnaces. Altogether, the Snowden family operated ironworks on their lands in Prince George's and Anne Arundel Counties for two hundred years.
Enslaved workers were involved in almost all phases of iron production in Maryland. They worked as foreman, founders, laborers and blacksmiths. The Snowdens were Quakers, a faith known for its opposition to slavery. However, tax assessments show that between 1760 and 1780, the Snowden ironworks averaged 45 slave hands per year. The Quakers' transition from slavery to anti-slavery took more than 100 years. For the Snowdens, and other Quakers, the business advantages of owning slaves may have outweighed moral considerations.
Excerpt from manumission documents dated 1781 in which Samuel Snowden lists 35 adults and 36 children to be feed. Courtesy Maryland State Archives.
An 1802 Maryland Gazette advertisement for a runaway named Isaac, placed by Richard Snowden. The slave may have worked at the Patuxent Ironworks. Courtesy Maryland State Archives.
This fireback was cast at Patuxent Iron Works in 1737. Despite the rust, Richard Snowden's mark is visible. Courtesy of Fort George G. Meade Museum.
Excerpt from "Act for the Encouragement of an Iron Manufacture within this Province."
The Ironmaking Process.
A colonial era ironworks required a source of iron ore, forestlands to make charcoal to fuel the furnace, proximity to a river for transporting iron to market, and a large labor force. Charcoal was made from firewood charred in earthen ovens. Colliers (charcoal makers) stacked cordwood around a central chimney creating a mound 30-40 feet in diameter. The fire was extinguished slowly and allowed to cool.
Iron ore was extracted from shallow surface mines and taken to a blast furnace by horse drawn carts. The furnace was a 30-40 feet high brick or stone stack with a long ramp for workers to carry ore and fuel (charcoal) to its top. Charcoal, roasted ore and limestone was placed in the top of the furnace and smelted. Slag, a by-product, was drawn off and the remaining metal was then cast into "pigs", crude iron bars roughly two feet by four inches. The bar molds resembled a sow nursing her piglets, hence the term "pig iron." Pig iron was used to manufacture items such as firebacks and cannon shot. Pig iron was further processed into wrought iron for a forge. Wrought iron was marketed to craftsmen such as blacksmiths and wheelwrights to make a variety of goods and tools.
Charcoal II,, illustrated by Denis Diderot, depicts a workman (figure 40) as he lights the furnace through the top and the combustion gets under way. (Fig. 5) As it proceeds more air is needed and vents are opened (Fig. 6). The fire must be tended constantly to regulate the rate (7, 8) until the process is complete, 1751.
The Blast Furnace V, illustrated by Denis Diderot shows workers on the left preparing a bed of sand into a mold for molten iron. When the mold is formed, the hearth will be tapped and molten iron will flow into it. The workers on the right cart away a "pig" that has cooled and hardened, 1761.
The Manufacture of Iron - Tapping the Furnace, by Tavernier and Frezeny, Harper's Weekly, November 1, 1873. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographic Division.
The Great Industry of Birmingham, Alabama. A Pig Iron Furnace, drawn by Charles Graham. Harper's Weekly, March 26, 1887.
The Manufacture of Iron - Carting Away the Scoriae, by Tavernier and Frezeny, Harper's Weekly, November 1, 1873. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographic Division.
The ore bank at Elizabeth Furnace. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographic Division.
A 1922 photo of the charcoal kiln at Muirkirk Ironworks. After the Civil War, brick kilns like this were used to make a charcoal from wood. Previously, charcoal was made in earthen mounds. Courtesy of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.
Furnace used at Muirkirk Ironworks. Courtesy of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.
Making the mounds for pig iron, blast furnace, blast furnace, Pittsburgh, Pa. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographic Division.
Carrying away and loading the pigs, blast furnace, Pittsburgh, Pa. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographic Division.