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No. 635:
An Old Iron Furnace

Today, iron rises out of the rain -- then vanishes again. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Our new America, formed from English colonies, needed iron to become a real nation. We finally found that iron in Western Pennsylvania after 1790. But, for now, we had to make do with small iron deposits along the Eastern seaboard.

As foundries sprang up in Philadelphia, they cried out for iron. A Philadelphia businessman, Joseph Widener, learned about deposits of bog iron along Nassawango Creek in Maryland. So, in 1788, he bought land along the Creek and built a smelter.

He hired Irish immigrants and freed slaves. He built Furnace Town in the wet forest. At its center a great stone cupola rose among windowless huts. Lines of diggers took ore from under a foot of swamp water. In the woods that isolated Furnace Town from the rest of America, axemen felled trees to make charcoal.

Finally, investors bought Widener out. They bought up 5000 acres of forest around the swamp. They formed the Maryland Iron Company. Furnace Town grew to 500 people.

After 1830 the Company built a forced draft system to raise the temperature in the cupola. They built a water wheel to drive it. They were now putting out 700 tons of pig-iron a year.

It's been said that there's nothing like success to guarantee failure. So it was with Furnace Town. By now the town was a great rumor mill feeding the world outside the forest. Iron users in the settled coastal towns told about wild nights in Furnace Town -- about gambling dens and murder.

Furnace Town might have survived the rumors, but now better iron was available. The company went bankrupt.

New management took over in 1837. They improved the smelting process further. They cleaned up the facilities. For a decade Furnace Town was alive and well again. Then it ran into the one failing for which there was no cure. By 1848 Furnace Town had taken all the iron from the bog.

Abruptly, after 60 years, Furnace Town became a ghost town. The people left, and the forest grew back over it. Now walk that forest in the rain with me. Gaze through the moss-green air at rust-red, stone-gray glints of glory gone. Let the smoke and racket echo in your imagination.

Our new nation was made of wood and iron. You find the stark remains of the old iron-makers all over America. They made us what we are. Now change has left them behind. There's great beauty in the moss-grown memory. Maryland has rebuilt Furnace Town into a tourist site. But surely it is a site best seen in the renewing wash of fresh spring rain.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Harr, D.N., The Story of a Lost Village: Furnace Town -- Fact and Legend. Snow Hill, MD: Furnace Town Foundation, Inc., 1983.