The Iron Age of Maine, Part II – The
Shapleigh Iron Company:
A Foray into Industrial (geo)Archaeology
Ruins at the Shapleigh Iron Company, North Shapleigh, Maine
In part 1 of the "Iron Age of Maine" we featured the Katahdin Iron Works, probably the
most well known operation of its kind in Maine. Other localities were
mentioned on that site, including the current site for
this month. We will focus on the general history of some of these sites
and how these early iron-making operations are known from
documentation. We then will make a virtual visit to the location of the
ruins of the Shapleigh Iron Company, and to the blast furnace once
located there, and learn a little Maine and Massachusetts history by
way of archaeology on our trip.
The first successful and relatively large-scale iron works operation
in America was founded at Saugus, Massachusetts in 1646, and remained a
working business until 1668. The Saugus site has an historical
connection to Maine. As reported on the website of the Saugus Iron Works National Historic Site, in the aftermath of the Battle of Dunbar, 150 Scottish prisoners were sent to
New England aboard the ship Unity through the owners of the Saugus Iron
Works. On April 2, 1651, an account appears in the iron works papers
for "a weeckes Dyett to ye 7th of 61 Menn." By June 9, 1651, the iron
works has 38 men remaining on these rolls. The rolls continue to
dwindle as these indentured workers are sold to others. The only
surviving list of Scots by name is in the 1653 iron works inventory,
and it lists 35 names.
Saugus Iron Works National Historic Site
In addition to the Scots mentioned above, there were many more Scots
in New England that arrived on the Unity. Some of them went through the
iron works and may have even worked with or for iron works employees.
Of these, 26 men are reported to have relocated to Berwick, Maine. It
was at about this time that the Chadbourne family developed a sawmill
at the confluence of the Great Works and Salmon rivers in Berwick in
1654. One may wonder if any of the Scots from Saugus who came to
Berwick may have been indentured servants at the Chadbourne sawmills,
bringing with them to Maine the knowledge of iron-making skills and
blacksmithing learned at Saugus. Also, might some of the common iron
artifacts found at the Chadbourne site have been produced at the Saugus
Iron forges and foundries eventually developed out of necessity in
Maine, a Province of Massachusetts until 1820. They must have been
generally small operations in the 1700’s, and may have been small
bloomeries, possibly as a part of blacksmith shops. A document dated
1791 describing an appraisal conducted in 1760 of the Old Forge Iron in
North Yarmouth establishes the industry in Maine prior to that year.
The appraisal mentions the use of bog iron ore, and reads (sic); “A
Copy of Apprisment Old Forge Iron - a copey of the old boog iron taken
by good men of your own chusing as the coppey shows the value they mad
of it in old tenor is 204-14-2” (old tenor means old currency, pounds,
shillings and pence; document courtesy of Joel Eastman).
The earliest relatively large-scale blast furnace operation in Maine
may have been at Fifteen Mile Stream in Clinton, reported in the History
of Clinton, Maine, by C. E. Fisher. A forge was there as early as
1808 and a furnace as early as 1810, originally referred to as Peavey’s
Forge for one of its co-owners, and the furnace apparently nicknamed
‘The Major.’ A community known as the French Settlement near the site
was probably erected as homes for the workers. A letter written to the Clinton
Advertiser in 1880 by John Totman, State Senator 1858-1859 and
State Representative 1873, so noted the works in an exceptionally
"This forge if in operation now would claim our attention.
It was not only a furnace to melt the ore, but a forge to make bar
iron. The great furnace and fire, the large bellows driven by water
power, the melted iron run out in the sand, the men hammering the pig
with sledges to make it hold together to put under the hammer, with a
handle fifteen feet long and twelve by fourteen inches square, and the
huge spokes in the driving shaft to lift the hammer about four times a
minute. The hammer could be heard for miles. The pig, so called, was
handled by four men with tongs and bars and placed under the hammer,
and the shower of sparks and cinders cannot be forgotten as seen by my
boy eyes. It proved unprofitable, and after the War of 1812, was
abandoned, and caused the poet's lament -
Their children are half frozen,
Barefooted every day;
And in each hut a dozen,
Their hair points every way.
When Peavey's forge was going,
They had something to eat;
But now the Major is done blowing,
They have neither bread nor meat.
In Charles T. Jackson's three-volume set, The Geology of the
State of Maine, he mentions the ore deposits at Clinton, but does
not discuss the iron works that were in operation there only
twenty-five years earlier. However, Jackson describes a visit in 1837
to the iron foundry and an examination of the ore found in the vicinity
of Shapleigh and Newfield. The ore he refers to is called "bog
iron ore" and is an iron-oxide precipitate found along stream banks
and in bogs where it was excavated. The following information about
the Shapleigh Iron Company, Samuel Huse and Company of Newburyport,
Massachusetts, Proprietors, is extracted and paraphrased from Jackson's
The furnace was erected by a Portsmouth company in 1836
under the direction of Ironmaster Thomas Bates of Bridgewater,
Massachusetts. It is of small size and with all buildings cost $13,000.
Originally put into blast January 14, by some accident the charge
became chilled so that operations were arrested, but was put in working
blast August 9, 1837, furnishing about one-and-one-half ton of ore per
day. The blast lasted for seventeen weeks.
The furnace is lined with English fire-brick, and the
hearth is of talcose slate from Smithfield, Rhode Island. Formerly,
seashells were carried from the coast to supply the furnace with lime
for a flux, but since that time limestone sufficiently good for the
purpose has been discovered in abundance in the immediate vicinity, and
will save the expense of transporting shells. The iron will be sent to
Boston by way of Wells or Kennebunk.
The quality of the ore is considered as good as any in the
New England States, and much resembles that found in the State of New
Jersey. The ore yields about 40 percent of metal which is of good
quality, and capable of being converted to bar iron and steel. About
800 tons of ore were on hand at the time I visited. The charge for
smelting is as follows: 4 boxes of bog ore, 10 bushels of charcoal, or
5 baskets, 8 bushels of clam shells are used daily as a flux.
Jackson expended a great amount of effort in his volume promoting
the development of the bog iron ore industry, stating "I trust that we
may soon have a number of smelting furnaces in operation in Maine, and
that no longer so large and valuable resources will be allowed to
remain neglected, while the State is paying enormous sums of money to
England, Sweden, and Russia, for her supplies of this indispensable
Despite Jackson's promotions and favorable estimate of the ore
quality, the quantity of ore supply for the Shapleigh Iron Company was
insufficient. Jackson had stated that the ore had been traced for about
100 yards, and that its longitudinal dimensions had not been
ascertained, but appeared to be a very expansive deposit. In a
foreshadowing note from the owner, Huse, dated December 20, 1837, he
states to Jackson that the company has "since discovered traces of more
ore, which will increase the quantity, ... and perhaps for another
furnace, for some years - but not so extensive a bed as may be found in
some other parts of the United States."
The Reverend Amasa Loring wrote in A History of Shapleigh,
published in 1854, that while the iron works operated "... it greatly
increased the business of the place. But the ore bed proved to be small
and the business unprofitable, therefore after a few years was
abandoned. The building and water power are now employed as a
box-making establishment, and a hat factory."
Not quite ten years later, Jackson was contracted to assay the ore
deposit at the Katahdin Iron Works after it had been sold to David
Pingree in 1846. The Katahdin works was the last large-scale iron
producer in Maine. However, financial difficulties, distance from
market, and equipment obsolescence ended the Maine iron industry when
the Katahdin works closed for good in 1890. Jackson had died by 1880
before the close of the Katahdin works. After working until 1848 for
several other states conducting geological surveys, he withdrew from
geological employment. He never saw the expansion of the iron industry
of Maine that he had hoped would arise in the 19th century.
|19th-century Blast Furnace in Operation
National Park Service, Richard Schlecht, illustrator
Artist's rendition of a 19th century blast furnace, a reasonable image
of how the Shapleigh iron works may have appeared (compare to map
Below is a map by Richard S. Allen of the ruins at the site of the
former Shapleigh Iron Company. Mr. Allen, of Lewiston, Idaho, maintains
an avid interest in industrial archaeology and the study of American
iron manufacture. In 1991, he visited the iron works site, and
corresponded with Elwyn Lowe of North Shapleigh. Mr. Lowe is the local
expert on the iron works, and graciously provided a copy of the map and
his correspondence to the author, as well as directing him to the site.
Also below are photographs of the site today; the viewpoint numbers on
the map correspond to the photograph numbers.
Fisher, C. E., 1970, History of Clinton, Maine, Augusta, ME: KJ
Jackson, Charles T., 1839, The Geology of the State of Maine,
Augusta, ME: Smith and Robinson.
Loring, Rev. Amasa, 1854, A History of Shapleigh, Portland, ME:
Brown and Thurston.
National Park Service, 2002, Saugus Iron Works: Life and Work at an
Early American Industrial Site.
Web text and photos by Thomas K. Weddle
Originally published on the web as the November 2003 Site of the Month.
Last updated on December 28, 2007