Kingston’s Bog Iron
If you stroll along the shores of Silver Lake you’ll inevitability notice a few clumps of rusty rocks. These rocks are actually deposits of natural bog-iron which served as the basis of Kingston’s first industry.
Bog iron is naturally occurring in and around Kingston and is extracted from the iron-rich sediment found in many swampy areas. Bog iron was a critical element in early America’s Industrial Revolution. The ore consists of hydrated iron oxide minerals and is formed by precipitation of groundwater flowing into wetlands. Ironically, it is nature’s only renewable mineral resource. Bacterial action contributes to formation of this ore and economically useful deposits can regenerate within 20 years of harvesting. Bog ore produces a heavy rust resistant iron especially useful in maritime applications. As late as the Civil War, bog iron helped sheath the Monitor, the Navy’s first ironclad vessel.
In 1644, only 24 years after the Pilgrims landed, John Winthrop set out to build bog-iron smelters on two sites — one in Braintree, south of Boston, the other just north of Boston on the Saugus River. The Saugus Iron Works operated from 1644 to 1668 and was bedeviled by a chronic lack of manpower and closed when labor shortages finally put it out of business. When the Saugus Iron Works failed, other settlements ramped up to fill the growing need for locally produced iron products.
Colonial America was hungry for iron and many enterprising Kingstonians were happy to oblige. Tack factories, smelters and iron-works were scattered around Kingston along the brooks and streams which crisscrossed the town. For the first 50 years or so of Kingston’s existence, our fledgling iron industry was our chief claim to fame.
The economic center of Kingston’s iron works was located in an area around Mill Gate Road (one of Kingston’s oldest by-ways although it no longer appears on modern maps.) The old road started on Elm Street curved toward Furnace Pond and then through the woods ending at South Street. The heart of this industrial complex was the “Furnace Group”.
Founded in 1735, the Furnace Group, at the height of its prosperity, boasted a blast furnace, a boarding house for workman, sheds for the storage of charcoal, a casting house, a ware house for finished goods, a pot house, a blacksmith shop and a retail store.
Power for forges was derived from a damn on Furnace Pond. Pots, kettles, skillets, mortars and pestles were made here. A variety of items ranging from anvils to andirons were cast, and during the Revolutionary war cannon balls were made for General Washington’s Army.
Back in 1776, cannons and cannon balls were state-of-the-art weapon systems and were nothing like what appears on movies and T.V. shows today. A typical movie shows cannon-fired projectiles impacting amid ranks of enemy troops while sending up fountains of dirt, smoke, flames and cascading stuntmen.
While the boom-bangs are nice visual effects, they have nothing to do with history. Early cannons were kinetic weapons and their damage was done by the momentum of solid iron balls as they bounced and rolled murderously through divisions of advancing troops.
It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to picture what happens to a rank of soldiers hit broadside by a 24 pound mass of iron traveling at four hundred plus miles per hour. The cannon ball didn’t explode but the people caught in their path did. Many wounds were the result of human shrapnel as arms, legs, bits of bone, flesh, and splintered weapons imbedded themselves in the men and boys hapless enough to be standing near a victim. The Revolutionary war cannon ball bounding across fields of fire was the Queen of Battle.
The cannons using the projectiles produced by Kingston’s iron works were usually fired point blank. (The phrase, ‘point-blank’ is an Americanization of the French term “pointe blanc” which meant zero degrees elevation, zero degrees depression.)
The power behind the deadly shot came from the gunpowder which propelled each round. The expert rule of thumb in Revolutionary War times called for a gunpowder propellant charge equal to 1/3 the weight of the gun’s solid shot. Cannon firing 24-pound shot required 8 lbs. of gunpowder. The detonation of eight pounds of gunpowder makes one hell of a bang and packs an enormous kinetic punch – enough to send 24 pounds of iron nearly a mile and a half.