The Works at Falling Creek
"No fitter places of Mines, Wood and Water for Iron"
text by Christopher Geist
photos by Dave Doody
Ralph Lovern, Chesterfield County utility worker and amateur archaeologist, and timber from eighteenth-century Falling Creek ironworks.
Holding bog iron ore, Colonial Williamsburg master blacksmith Ken Schwarz with journeyman Shelton Browder at a model of a bloomery.
The investors in the Virginia Company of London chartered, funded, and outfitted their Jamestown colony, and sent shiploads of their countrymen to it, to exploit the New World's natural wealth and resources. Foremost in their minds were precious metals—gold and silver—but, early on, iron also figured in their profit-and-loss calculations. It added up to the establishment of the first, if short-lived, ironworks in English America.
Writing in September 1607, shareholder Captain John Smith referred to "Yron" as one of Virginia's "best commoditie" and said "little chissels" had been fabricated from local ores. Colonial Williamsburg master blacksmith Kenneth Schwarz says iron-making experiments were run at Jamestown as early as 1608. Colonist William Strachey's Historie of Travell into Virginia Britannica mentions "a goodly Iron myne" and says that some of the ore, and perhaps cast iron, were shipped to England before his departure in 1611. A 1955 archaeological investigation of Jamestown Island turned up evidence of ironworks.
Such early iron production would have been done in a bloomery, a small and simple furnace resembling a blacksmith's forge. A typical bloomery might handle 100 pounds of ore at a firing, producing from twenty to forty pounds of iron. The ore was bog ore, a soft limonite ore created when iron oxide concentrates in water as it percolates through ferruginous layers of soil and marl. Heavily laden with vegetable matter, the solution seeps into the open and decomposes, forming a reddish sludge with high concentrations of iron. Often found in swamps and marshes, or near the banks of streams, bog ore was plentiful in the Tidewater Virginia the colonists knew.
Although a 1609 Virginia Company broadside listed "Iron Miners," "Iron Founders," and "Millwrights for Iron Mills" among other tradesmen to be dispatched to the colony, there is no strong evidence that there was significant production in the first Jamestown decade. The company's investors hoped that the colony would become profitable in products ranging from silk to glass, from timber to iron, but before any of these enterprises could prosper, settler John Rolfe introduced a profitable strain of the sotweed in 1612, and Virginians directed most of their efforts toward production of tobacco.
Enter Sir Edwin Sandys. Elected a Virginia Company assistant in 1618, and next year its treasurer—the chief executive officer—he renewed efforts to diversify Virginia's economic endeavors. Nothing he planned was new, but his ascendancy led to concerted efforts and offered monetary encouragement for initiatives calculated to make Virginia more than a tobacco exporter.
Sandys sent 10,000 grapevines to establish a wine industry. He hoped to develop production of silk, glass, hemp, and flax, and encouraged pitch and tar extraction. But most of all, he worked to foster the production of iron, guiding an investment which reached £5,000, a substantial sum for the era. "Among all the projects planned and undertaken in the first two years of Sandys's control," writes historian Wesley Craven, "that most favored and receiving the greatest attention was an attempt at the development of a successful iron industry."
England's need of iron was enormous, but the industry's voracious appetite for wood to manufacture charcoal to smelt it had so deforested the landscape that production was threatened. The Mother Country's iron industry was in decline, making Virginia's all the more important. The Virginia Company dispatched one "Captain Bluett," or "Bleuets" or "Blewett," and "his Companie beinge . . . verie able and sufficient workmen" to the colony in 1619. In addition to Blewett, the master of the works, the workers should have included general laborers, carpenters, smiths, colliers to produce the charcoal, fillers to tend the blast furnace, and miners to extract the ore.
Blewett thought a site near the mouth of Falling Creek, close by present-day Richmond, the most promising. It was near large bog ore deposits, and was forested enough to provide the charcoal necessary. Charcoal kilns devoured hundreds, even thousands, of acres of woodland every year to supply the typical ironworks of the era. The lower reaches of the creek were navigable, and the stream emptied into the James River, the early colony's primary thoroughfare. Moreover, Falling Creek was swift enough to drive a waterwheel to power blast furnace bellows and the heavy hammer of the forge used to work cast iron into higher quality wrought iron.
Colonial Williamsburg journeyman blacksmith Shelton Browder says the quality of the ore must have been tested in a bloomery before the company invested the money and manpower to construct a full-scale ironworks. It might have been done at Falling Creek, or with ore transported to Jamestown or England. Schwarz said he thinks "iron ore was shipped to England for trials in existing blast furnaces, which proved the high quality of the Virginia ores."
Construction of Blewett's furnace was well under way when he and other craftsmen critical to the project moved with hundreds of other colonists from the lists of the living to the rolls of the dead. As was common in early Virginia, short rations killed some, heat others, and disease still more. Governor George Yeardley wrote to the company in early January 1619/20 "of the great mortallitie which hath been in Virginia, about 300 of ye inhabitants having dyed this last year."
Historian Alexander Brown wrote, "In the spring of 1620, Sir Edwin Sandys placed the number" of English in Virginia "at 'near 1,000.' It must be stated, however, that at least one half of them were not acclimated, and most of these probably died the following summer." It is impossible to discern how far ironworks had developed, but good progress had been made. Yeardley said, "What will become of the Iron workes I know not all the principall officers and Cheife men being dead...we are now in hand to doe what possible we can with Capt Bleuets Company having found an excellent water and good oare."
By 1621, investors sent John Berkeley and as many as twenty more ironworkers "well experienced in those kinde of workes" to Virginia for the Falling Creek enterprise. A 1621 letter from a colonist, one Master Stockhams, said that "the company is assured there can bee no fitter places of Mines, Wood and Water for Iron than there."
There is evidence the furnace was functioning and sending finished cast iron sows and pigs, bars of iron extruded from the blast furnace, and perhaps some wrought iron back to England.
It is impossible to know exactly how much iron had been produced and shipped, but in 1962 Thurlow Gregory, an amateur historian and iron industrialist, wrote that Englishmen of the era used the term "forwardness" to refer to "active operation of a business" rather than the word "towardness," which indicated an earlier stage in an enterprise as it was being constructed.
Falling Creek was in a state of "forwardness." Berkeley's reports to the officers of the Virginia Company said that the furnace was operational. He promised to produce a "plentiful Provision of Iron" by late spring 1622.
A modern visitor to the site might imagine the bustling hum of activity at the Falling Creek works early that year. Laborers, perhaps indentured servants, clearing the forest to supply colliers with wood for the charcoal kilns. Miners taking bog ore from streambeds, marshes, and swamps and transporting it to the ironworks. Fillers pushing carts of ore, charcoal, and dumping flux into the top of the furnace to separate impurities from the iron. Slag being skimmed off the top periodically, and about twice each day the tap plug at the bottom of the furnace being ruptured to let molten iron flow into sand molds, creating large sows and, branching from them, smaller pigs. Other workers laboring at reheating the iron and, using the gigantic, water-powered hammer, refining and finishing the iron for shipment. Still others preparing the finished iron for shipment and loading it onto ships waiting at the docks to depart on the journey to London. At peak production, a modern archaeologist said, the furnace might have worked 600 tons of ore per year. Falling Creek was an industrial enterprise destined to supply England with iron and to make some investors wealthy.
But it was not to be. The Falling Creek ironworkers, along with two women and three children, twenty-seven in all, perished in attacks launched by the Powhatan Indians on March 22, 1622. Elsewhere died more than three hundred other colonists in Jamestown's outlying settlements. Two children were spared. The Indians burned the site's buildings, destroyed the furnace, and cast into the creek tools and accouterments of production.
There were a few failed attempts to revive the works, including one by Berkeley's son, Maurice, in 1623. But the endeavor ended the following year when the Virginia Company lost its charter. The forest and time rendered the site almost invisible. Virginians did not again manufacture iron on a commercial scale for nearly one hundred years, when Governor Spotswood established a furnace in modern Spotsylvania County about 1716. A grist mill rose at Falling Creek, and, by the time of the Revolution, another ironworks.
Why, then, with such a brief history and with so little iron production might this site be significant? Master blacksmith Schwarz said: "The Falling Creek works is significant as the first large-scale industrial development project in the thirteen colonies. It also demonstrates England's interest in natural resources of North America. We have a tendency in this country to focus on freedom and liberty as the driving forces for settlement in the New World, and to forget that economics played a large role.
"As an industrial nation of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, England consumed great quantities of raw material and fuel, to the point that timber was a strategically important but diminishing resource. Timber for shipbuilding and firing industrial furnaces was necessary to continue economic growth, and to assert naval authority around the empire. That drove entrepreneurs of the period to look to North America as the source of necessary materials."
If Falling Creek's primacy is significant, no remains of the first works have been found, and only the most dedicated of modern history tourists find their ways to its Chesterfield County site south of Richmond. There is a small, roadside park on modern U.S. 1 where the roadway crosses Falling Creek. An early Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities marker, small and inconspicuous, reads, "Site of First Iron Foundry in America, Established in 1619." A more recent Virginia Department of History Resources plaque fleshes out the story a bit more, but still in less than a hundred words. About all to be seen is an early nineteenth-century bridge over which the old Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike traversed the creek. There is evidence that stones from the seventeenth-century blast furnace were reused in the bridge. But that is all.
There is more to see a few more miles up the James River in the city, where stand the ruins of the Tredegar Iron Works, the at-least spiritual heir of the American industry that began on Falling Creek. Tredegar's blast furnaces turned out cannon for the Confederacy, and locomotives for the New South. The works ran until 1952, when fire destroyed them. Some of the relics of its heyday are exhibited, and there are two museums in its old buildings.
In late summer 2006, I visited Falling Creek with Colonial Williamsburg interpreters Bill Rose and Bob Albergotti. We tramped up and down the creek, through bramble patches, over obstacles, and under the modern highway bridge searching for remains of the forge. We left with a few photos of the landscape, the old bridge, and the historic markers—Rose adding a case of poison ivy.
In early 2007, Chesterfield County officials announced that county utility worker and amateur archaeologist Ralph Lovern had discovered that heavy rains had exposed timbers from the eighteenth-century ironworks. The county and the Falling Creek Ironworks Foundation are still searching, and excavating, hoping to find the oldest remnants of major industry in British North America.
Christopher Geist, professor emeritus at Ohio's Bowling Green State University, contributed to the summer 2007 journal a story about popular culture in the eighteenth century.
Suggestions for further reading:
- Charles E. Hatch, Jr., and Thurlow Gates Gregory, "The First American Blast Furnace, 1619–1622," Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (July 1962): 259–97.
- Records of the Virginia Company of London.
- John S. Salmon, "Ironworks on the Frontier: Virginia's Iron Industry, 1607–1783," Virginia Cavalcade (Spring 1986): 184–91.
- Saugus Iron Works National Historic Site: www.nps.gov/sair