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