Forging History in Colonial Massachusetts: A Marvel of European Technology Along the Banks of the Saugus River

A mere 9-1/2 miles south of the historic Hawthorne Hotel can be found the Saugus Iron Works National Historic Site - the birthplace of the iron and steel industry in America. Located in a quiet residential neighborhood in Saugus, the nine-acre National Park includes waterwheels, forges, mills, an historic seventeenth-century home surrounded by a recreated seventeenth-century herb garden, and a lush river basin with nature trails along the east side of the Saugus River for visitors to leisurely stroll along.  Open daily 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. from April 1st to October 31st, both admission and parking are free.

So what, you may ask, is the Saugus Iron Works and why is it interesting to historic travelers? Good questions! Simply put, the recreated Saugus Iron Works illustrates the critical role of iron-making to 17th-century settlement and its subsequent legacy in shaping the early history of the nation. Built at a time in history when only a dozen such high-tech plants existed in all of Europe, the impressive iron manufacturing facility along the banks of the Saugus River, which has been called, "the forerunner of America's industrial giants", was built by the Puritans just sixteen years after they settled in Boston in 1630. A pretty darned impressive feat in 1646!

Not only did the site serve as a center for technology, innovation and invention as it served as a training ground for skilled iron workers for what would become America's iron and steel industry but it provided the settlers of the new country with much-needed iron tools and utensils: axes, saws, hoes, nails, pots, and kettles. Most colonists brought some iron tools and utensils with them when they migrated from Europe but as the population grew so did the need for more iron products; having their own Iron Works would mean the colonists didn't have to send to Europe for more tools and utensils when their old ones wore out or additional ones were needed. Instead, for more than 20 years those needs were met by the Saugus Iron Works.

Upon arriving at the park which is operated by the National Park Service, your first stop should be at the Information Center/Gift Shop located to the left of the main entrance in the 1680s Iron Works House to pick up a brochure and map of the park before heading into the museum to watch the 12-minute orientation film Iron Works on the Saugus in the museum's auditorium - or you can watch it at the end of this post being that I was nice enough to include it here to really pique your interest in visiting the National Park!

Should you choose to watch the film in the museum - and you should! - you may start the film at your convenience; it's an excellent place to start your visit as it provides an overview of the history of the seventeenth-century iron works production on the site and the archeological dig and reconstruction of the site in the 1940s-1950s.

In addition to the film, the museum has exhibits explaining how John Winthrop the Younger, son of the Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, formed the "Company of Undertakers of the Iron Works of New England" in 1642 in an attempt to bring the most advanced European technology in iron making to the new world before failing at it and being replaced by Richard Leader, an engineer from Europe and a man “with skill in mynes and tryall of metalls.” The Massachusetts Bay Colony gave the Company of Undertakers exclusive rights to iron manufacture in Massachusetts for twenty-one years as Leader set out to find a site that was more conducive to iron making than was Braintree where Winthrop the Younger first tried and failed to set up an Iron Works. The location that Leader chose, along the banks of the Saugus River, was the ideal spot to try again as the area offered the steady supply of water needed in iron manufacturing, lots of forests for wood to make charcoal, and bog ore in the swamps and ponds.

Additional exhibits tell how, in 1650, 61 Scottish prisoners of war who had been captured at the Battle of Dunbar in Scotland and then shipped across the Atlantic, were brought to Massachusetts as indentured servants to work at the Iron Works in an attempt to ease the high price of labor and chronic shortage of laborers at the Iron Works.

Along with other displays, the museum contains many of the artifacts from the 1940s and 1950s archeological dig of the area which includes parts of the original 17th-century Blast Furnace waterwheel and the anvil base from the Forge trip hammer along with many tools and household items as well as Native American items.

With the exception of the 1680s Iron House built approximately ten years after the Iron Works shut down and which was restored in 1916 by Wallace Nutting, a famous antiquarian who was part of the preservation movement forming in America in the early 1900's, the buildings on the site are not original but reconstructed as the Iron Works was only in operation from 1646 to 1668 before it closed down and the land was used for something else. The Blast Furnace, Forge, Rolling and Slitting Mill, Warehouse, Blacksmith Shop, and Docking Area have all been reconstructed on original sites and are based upon extensive archaeological excavations done between 1948 and 1953 by the pioneering but controversial self-taught historical archaeologist Roland W. Robbins who began his archaeological career with the discovery of Henry David Thoreau's cabin on Walden Pond in 1945.

Hundreds of court records, inventories, and accounts of the original Iron Works were consulted to produce a full-size model of the seventeenth-century Iron Works. Since there were no sketches or diagrams to show how this particular Iron Works looked, archeologists had to rely on their knowledge of what elements would be found at a typical Iron Works therefore the reconstruction, which was completed in 1954, was necessarily mostly conjectural .  Between 2005 and 2008, the Saugus Iron Works underwent significant renovations during which time the 1917 museum building (a chicken coop turned blacksmith shop turned museum) underwent major restoration work and new exhibits were installed during the winter of 2006-2007.

A schedule of daily Ranger Guided Tours of the Saugus Iron Works is available online though they may be subject to change. If you're planning a visit and want to be there at time when an Industrial Site Tour (which may include operation of the waterwheels along with the 500-pound hammer and blacksmithing demonstrations) is being conducted, please call 781-233-0050 to make sure the times haven't changed.

If you're there when no tours are being conducted, like on the sunny Sunday when Nathaniel and I stopped in, you can take your own self-guided tour by simply following the pathways (which are handicap accessible) that lead you through the recreated Iron Works beginning near the Blast Furnace.

It was here at the Blast Furnace, which operated day and night for days on end sometimes for a year or longer, that the raw materials needed for making iron were gathered. Colliers converted acres of trees into charcoal for fuel, miners collected bog iron ore from nearby swampy areas and ponds, and flux, a calcium-rich mineral that rids bog ore of its impurities, was shipped from nearby Nahant Peninsula. Once the materials were gathered, the charcoal, bog ore, and flux were dumped into the top of the stone furnace by workers called "fillers." The furnace was then fired up, or "blown in" as the ironworkers called it, as one of the Iron Works' seven waterwheels operated the dual 18-foot bellows that helped to heat the furnace to a temperature of 3,000° Fahrenheit.

Once or twice every 24 hours, the furnace was tapped by the founder, the highly skilled manager of the furnace operation whose experience and knowledge were important factors in determining the quality of the iron that was produced. When the furnace was tapped, the molten iron ran into trenches in the sand where it hardened into long cast iron bars. Smaller bars were poured off at an angle from the long bars by the gutterman who was also responsible for removing and disposing of slag, the waste product of the furnace. The configuration of the long trenches with the smaller ones branching off from it looked much like a mother pig feeding her piglets which led to the the long bar being called a "sow" and the smaller ones "pigs" inspiring the name "pig iron" as another name for cast iron.

Not all of the iron was cast into bars though, some of it was used by skilled moulders who used wooden flasks, sand, and a pattern to produce a mold into which molten iron was poured to produce a cast iron product such as pots, pans, and kettles. Workers would mix the liquid iron in its semi-molten form - a temperature of about 1,450° Fahrenheit - with carbon as it started to cool down, a process which prevented the carbon from burning and helped it blend with the molten matter creating cast iron. The iron was then ladled into the molds which were buried in the sand floor of the casting shed for gradual cooling making the surface of the cast iron smooth and preventing it from cracking.

At the Forge, the busiest and the noisiest of the Iron Works buildings with three fires crackling, four of the Iron Works’ waterwheels turning, three sets of bellows whooshing, and the 500-pound hammer crashing repeatedly on its anvil, 10 to 12 men worked diligently to convert brittle cast iron into malleable wrought iron, a complicated process that required a high degree of skill.

Workers known as finers melted and refined the sows which had been brought up from the Blast Furnace through a process of repeated heating and hammering which pounded many impurities from the iron. A water-powered, five hundred pound hammer was used to forge a hot ball of iron into wrought iron "merchant bars". Three inches wide, one-and-a-half inches thick, and four to five feet long, these bars could be made into tools and used for building materials. Work in the Forge was very dangerous as flying sparks and pieces of hot metal constantly threatened men working there and the noise of the 500-pound hammer cost many workers their hearing.

Just down the hill from the Forge stands the Rolling and Slitting Mill which contained the most advanced technology of all the machinery at the Iron Works. When it was built, tt was one of only a dozen slitting mills in the world at that time.

The Rolling and Slittng Mill's essential machinery consisted of a pair of rollers for flattening the merchant bars into sheets called "flats" and a pair of slitters for slicing the flats into thin strips of rod used to make nails. The rollers and slitters had to turn in opposite directions in order for the bars to pass through them. The millwright who operated the waterwheels made sure the rollers and slitters operated at the same rate of speed.

One waterwheel directly turned the lower set of rollers and slitters; the second waterwheel used gears to turn the top set. Flats produced here were used for making wheel rims, barrel hoops, axes, and saw blades as well as for repairing machinery at other Iron Works. Further processing of flats through the slitting mill machinery produced slit flats and rod, the material used for making horseshoes and handmade nails which were a highly valuable commodity in colonial America.

The products that came out of the Rolling and Slitting Mill were stored in an "ironhouse" or warehouse located by the docks in the turning basin until being loaded onto boats and shipped to either nearby American ports or to England and other countries.

Located just over a small bridge from the Forge and Rolling and Slitting Mill is the shop for the blacksmith whose skill and expertise was needed at the Iron Works to manufacture and repair the tools that the iron workers needed in order to do their job as well as items for local use. Blacksmiths were very important people in Colonial times and referred to as the most important of the colonial artisans as they worked with iron to make and repair tools people needed for farming, household tasks, and other trades. No other trades could develop until the blacksmith was established and other craftsmen greatly respected him as they all depended on his work in order to do theirs.

The tools in a Blacksmith's Shop were fairly sophisticated for that time as he forged merchant bars into such commercial items as hinges, hoes, shovels, kettle hooks, andirons, and latches. His tools can be classified based on their purpose including heating, striking, holding, cutting, measuring, tempering and finishing with the tools the blacksmith used most often being the hammer and the anvil. The hammer was used either to pound the metal or a tool placed on top of the metal on the anvil which could double the hammer stroke into two blows, one from above and the other from below. Other important tools for the blacksmith included punches, chisels, and tongs. Tongs came in different shapes and sizes and were chosen based on the job the smith was working on at the time; tongs were used when the metal was too hot to handle or if the piece was too small to pound with a hammer. The blacksmith used punches to force holes in the metal and chisels were used to cut the metal, allowing it to be broken if need be. Needless to say, the Blacksmith Shop was always a busy place!

While at the Blacksmith Shop, Nathaniel reminded me that his good friend and former Bowdoin College classmate, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had written a poem about a local blacksmith and his daily life entitled "The Village Blacksmith" that was so popular that years after its publication, following the cutting down of a tree that was mentioned in the poem, local schoolchildren in Cambridge, Massachusetts presented Longfellow with an armchair made from "the spreading chestnut tree." Under the cushion of the chair is a brass plate on which is inscribed, in part: "This chair made from the wood of the spreading chestnut-tree is presented as an expression of his grateful regard and veneration by the children of Cambridge." For those who are interested in Longfellow and his poem, the actual village blacksmith in the poem was a Cambridge native named Dexter Pratt, a neighbor of Longfellow's, whose house is still standing at 54 Brattle Street in Cambridge with a plaque now marking the spot where "the spreading chestnut tree" once stood. It's not a far jaunt from Saugus to Cambridge should you be inspired to take a drive over that way!

Although the Saugus Iron Works operated for approximately 22 years and produced respectable quantities of bar iron it could not return a profit to its shareholders who finally refused to advance more capital to the failing enterprise and eventually went out of business - a victim of mismanagement, high production costs, fixed prices, and competition from imported iron. The company’s debts eventually became so great that creditors brought suits to recover their loans forcing court decisions that caused production to decline and skilled workers to leave before the Blast Furnace's fires finally went out for good.

Following the closing of the Iron Works in 1668, the work that went on there was largely forgotten until Wallace Nutting restored the Iron Works House, which he had named "Broadhearth" because of its large fireplace hearths. His work in 1916 inspired efforts to restore the Iron Works site almost three decades later when students of the Henry Ford Trade School in Michigan purchased the restored Iron Works House with plans to move it to Dearborn. This plan stirred the local community into action as they formed the First Iron Works Association in 1943 in an effort to keep the house in Saugus.

Accomplishing that goal, further investigation of the site's history ensued and following the influence of Louise du Pont Crowninshield, an American heiress and preservationist who helped furnish the Iron Works House, funding from the Iron and Steel Institute was secured to financially support the the archaeological dig and excavation of the site which became known as the Saugus Iron Works Restoration.  The project was fully underway by 1951 and over the next few years, Roland Wells Robbins and his team began to unearth the remains of the Blast Furnace, a 500-pound hammer head, and a large section of the waterwheel as well as the outlines of several of the principal structures of the Iron Works. In 1954 the restoration was completed and the site was opened to the public including a visit on September 9, 1956 by the jury for the famous Great Brinks Bank Robbery in the North End of Boston in 1950. In 1968 the ownership was transferred to the National Park Service who have operated and maintained the park ever since.

In addition to touring the recreated Iron Works buildings, visitors to the Saugus Iron Works National Historic Site can also enjoy a half-mile nature trail that winds through the woodland and tall-grass marsh next to the Saugus River where they can identify birds and other wildlife as well as help National Park Service Junior Rangers earn their badges as they in turn help the park rangers do their jobs of preserving this important part of American history.

Depending on when you visit, allow one to two hours to fully explore and enjoy all that the Saugus Iron Works National Historic Site has to offer - especially if you're lucky enough to be there on a day when the Iron Works come to life with the waterwheels turning as the 500-pound hammer rings out throughout the park and Park Rangers demonstrate the skills that workers at the Iron Works employed over 260 years ago.

The National Park Service Presentation of
Iron Works on the Saugus

Copyright © - Travels With Nathaniel/Linda Orlomoski/Hawthorne Hotel. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from Travels With Nathaniel/Linda Orlomoski/Hawthorne Hotel is strictly prohibited.


  1. I'm really enjoying Nathaniel!

    My prom was in Saugus. That's all I know about Saugus, other than driving past it a bazillion times. Perhaps Nathaniel will be my date while I'm up being a Distracted Sidekick. I'll let him wear my tiara!

  2. Beautiful photos, and fascinating history. Nathaniel rocks! Carry on...

  3. The photographs are great! Did you order in lovely weather? I would actually love to these buildings covered in snow too.

    Nathaniel looks like he had a great time, not sure he would be cut out for manual work anymore though.

    I noticed you mentioned a herb garden at the beginning, was it a structured garden and do you think this is a place that you could have a nice picnic at?

    1. Hi Claire,

      The herb garden is located around the foundation of the house and was indeed rather structured; I'm rather surprised that I didn't take any pictures of it! All of the plants were identified and described for those wishing to know more about them.

      I think it would be a lovely place for a picnic as there are picnic tables available on the grounds not too far from the Iron House and Museum and lots of open ground for the kids to stretch their legs or lie on a blanket for a bit if they're tuckered from the tour!


Thank you for your feedback; it is greatly appreciated!
~ Nathaniel and Linda