In 1710 at age 34, Colonel Alexander Spotswood was sent by Lord Orkney as the Governor's representative to Virginia Colony for Her Majesty, Queen Anne of England. Spotswood quickly found that Virginia had iron ore, unlimited forests to make charcoal, lime in shells from plentiful oyster beds in Chesapeake Bay and an ice-free deepwater port at Fredericksburg, just 90 miles from the capitol at Williamsburg. When he appealed for the Crown's help to start an iron-making venture, he was denied. His idea made sense because iron making in England was in decline; land was denuded of forests to make charcoal, and political forces said, "send raw materials to the Motherland to make products using existing means." So Spotswood did something for which America must be eternally grateful. He built an iron blast furnace in 1714 called the Tubal Furnace with private funds. Should you ask, Tubal-Cain is the biblical (Genesis 4:22) descriptor for "instructor of artificers in brass and iron," an accolade bestowed on Spotswood by his colonial friend William Byrd.
Tubal, now known as Spotswood Furnace, was not the first colonial iron furnace but was the first profitable and continuously operated blast furnace in the New World; the first was at Falling Creek near Richmond, destroyed by Indians the first day of operation. And "bloomeries," producing a bloom or spongy iron mass from ore and charcoal making a poor quality wrought iron filled with impurities, were scattered throughout the colonies, many producing a few tons of iron a year. But these were not blast furnaces, large masonry structures, built on a steep hillside near a river to provide power to run bellows to force air through a batch of ore and charcoal charged into the top of the stack. At Tubal, every fifteen minutes a charge of 30 bushels (600 pounds) of charcoal, 1,000 pounds of ore, and 50 pounds of oyster shells were dumped into the furnace, continuously run for 5 to 9 months. Supplying charcoal required a team of laborers to cut and haul 25 to 30 cords of wood daily from the surrounding 8,000 acres of forest, miners to dig and haul ore to the site, and shells for flux, back-hauled from the bay when product was delivered to ocean ports. At Tubal, the furnace was tapped from below, and molten iron flowed into sand molds (sows) and distributed into smaller bars called pigs (hence the name pig iron), each 48 °- 6 °- 3 inches, weighing 55 to 60 pounds, 34 pigs to the ton. By 1721, Spotswood Iron Mine Company was producing pigs and product (firebacks, axles, pots, kettles) for domestic sale and export from docks near Fredericksburg. By 1732 the Spotswood iron empire, four blast furnaces and two forges, was one of the largest industrial operations on Earth (in 1740, British iron works produced 294 tons of metal) and by 1750 virtually all iron (2,500 tons annually) imported by England was from Virginia. It is notable that slave labor was not prevalent at the time Tubal began and that German indentured servants, who knew iron making trades, were imported to a company town still known as Germanna, a few miles from the furnace.
The foregoing describes the sunrise of industrial revolution in America. Without the vision, work and success of Alexander Spotswood, there might not be a United States as we know it today. Iron and steel is at the foundation of modern society, a fact that was recognized by the Virginia and U.S. governments in 1983 to make Spotswood Furnace a national historic landmark. But designating it a landmark does not preserve it in our history, so a command performance to commemorate this place is sorely needed. The land is now privately owned and this piece of history could soon be sold and forgotten.
Industry leaders and the various associations serving the iron and steel sector should establish a mechanism to acquire this important site, to preserve it and to mentor its operation and transition to permanent stewardship. The National Park Service owns and operates about 8,000 acres in the nearby Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, encompassing Fredericks-burg, Chancellorsville, Wilderness and Spotsylvania Courthouse battlefields but cannot acquire this icon of American heritage. Getting permission to accept a site as an addition to park operations literally requires an Act of Congress so until that can be done, the site must be acquired and maintained privately. As the site is situated, it is not desirable for other uses, and costs of ownership of a few acres appear minimal. Industry should join this effort and pledge and provide aid since we all share this obliga-tion. Just as we must each assist our Mother in a time of need, support is urgently sought and should be a subject of thought, then action, on how to achieve the goal of preserving this dawn of the American industrial age. IH
Preserving the Sunrise
April 4, 2006