Franconia Iron Works


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                                                                         The Iron Works and The Mines in Franconia

                                                                                       by Rick Russack                       

There were two separate iron works in Franconia, NH during the 19th century. The earliest started about 1801, and in one form or another, operated until after the Civil War. The second company started in 1808 and lasted until 1828.


The iron mines that supplied these iron works were in nearby Sugar Hill, which at that time was part of the town of Lisbon, NH.   Iron ore was   discovered in the 1790s and it turned out to be a very high grade.  Both of the iron works owned interests in the mines; both contracted the actual mining to others, having the ore delivered to their works. 


The stone furnace that remains in Franconia today, (the only surviving iron smelter in the state of New Hampshire) can trace its ancestry back to 1801 or 1802 when an iron forge was built there.  It was owned by three men and in 1805, through a variety of transactions, the New Hampshire Iron Factory Company was incorporated.  This operation became known as the “Lower Works” after the incorporation of the second company, known as the Haverhill and Franconia Iron Works.  That company became known as the “Upper Works”.  (We’ll use these terms when referring to the two operations as the formal names changed over the years.)  The Upper Works were located where the Ham Branch joins the Gale River, about a mile from the Lower Works.   Little remains of the smelter and other buildings associated with the Upper Works and much less is known about its operations.  It was out of existence before the advent of photography.


In 1810, the owners of the Lower Works, most of whom were from Salem, Ma, hired Joseph Bray to do a survey of their iron works.  Bray’s report, published in Salem that year,   provides a great deal of detailed information.  The company owned 5,456 acres (needed to supply logs for making charcoal), a farm, a sawmill, a grist mill, a tavern and cook house, a blacksmith shop, a store in Franconia and a store in Bath.  The company owned several houses, one of which was used for boarding the workmen, a home for the miller, several barns, the iron furnace, and storage buildings.  Bray notes that there is a steel furnace “in a complete state, awaiting a steel maker”.  The company also owned a 60’ boarding house at the mines.  Bray says the total value of the buildings and land added up to $28,720.  Bray also tells us that the company owned 180,000 bushels of charcoal, almost 1,000 tons of ore, 20 tons of moulding sand, 20 tons of limestone, and more.  In 1816, the owners commissioned Isaac Williams to review their operations and make suggestions for improving the output of the works. The report, written by William Page, was critical of the methods being used and included suggestions for improvement.

                                                                  Double clicking these images will allow you to enlarge them.

The furnace was enclosed within the building with the gambrel roof

In 1823, a published report describes the output of the Upper Works and the Lower Works combined.  According to this document, which does not differentiate between the two companies, they made stoves, cooking hollow ware, potash kettles, machinery and bar iron with a market value of over $24,000.  The two companies employed 90 men with a payroll of $8,000 annually and they 1,000 tons of ore and 300,000 bushels of charcoal.


In 1825, the New Hampshire Patriot advertised the sale of the Upper Works and included a detailed description of the buildings and equipment. The property included a (water) mill privilege with 240 acres adjoining, a furnace, a forge, blacksmith shop, grist and sawmills, two warehouses, a store, three large barns, six dwelling houses and more.  The advertisement contains an extensive list of the finished products on hand:  bar iron, castings, ox chains, tire iron, shovels, scythes, stoves, and many more items.  The Upper Works burned in 1827. Although some sources indicate that the works were not reopened, it is likely that they were rebuilt.  Published sources in 1829, 1832 and 1833 refer either to the Upper Works by name, or state that were two companies operating at the time.


It’s quite apparent that the two companies were large, with a wide variety of products.  Most of the production was consumed locally; transportation by wagon for any distance would have been quite expensive.  (Railroads did not reach the area until the early 1850s.)  In 1832, the Lower Works produced 300 tons of castings and 130 tons of bar iron, valued at $34,000. The same report indicates that the Upper Works produced fifty tons of bar iron, worth $5.500.  Both companies were profitable. 


The manufacture of iron in the early years of the 19th century required three raw materials:  iron ore; limestone, which acted as a flux, and charcoal.  Limestone was produced  nearby. (Remnants of one lime kiln survive in Lisbon and another in Haverhill.)  The need for charcoal was enormous.  In 1841, Charles T. Jackson, in his Geology of New Hampshire, quotes figures supplied by the company’s agent.  According to Jackson, the furnace was kept in blast from 16-26 weeks at a time, consuming 200,000 to 300,000 bushels of charcoal.  A single charge of the furnace used 280 pounds of ore, 15 bushels of charcoal, and one box of limestone.  160 bushels of charcoal were needed to smelt one ton of ore.


In 1859, the present stone furnace was re-built by S. Pettee, Jr.  His name and the date are cut into the granite.  It appears that the furnace did not operate much longer although there was a later attempt to resurrect it.  In 1865, according to the Granite State Monthly, “work at the furnace and mine was suspended”.  In 1870, the US Census terms the site “inoperative”.  However, in 1881, a new company was incorporated but no information is known about its production, if any.  In 1884, the buildings burned and it was stated that they were not in use at the time of the fire.  All that survived the fire was the stone furnace, which is still there and, hopefully, will be there for future generations. 

It has recently became apparent that the iron works, or at least the mines, were in operation in the early 1880s.  Sylvester Marsh, builder of the Cog Railway, was one of the principals involved with the company in its later years.

Quotations from the Littleton Journal follow:
Dec. 23, 1881  "There have been various rumors and newspaper items going the rounds regarding the starting of the Franconia Iron mines.  We have seen some of the parties who are interested and they say it is true that Concord capitalists are taking hold of the enterprise and the mine will probably be worked again in the near future".

4/21/1882: extensive article concerning ore from Franconia being sent to Alexandria, Va.  The ore was accompanied by a committee representing the Franconia Iron Company  "for the purpose of witnessing a test reduction of Franconia ore by the Vapor-Fuel Process"  The ore was taken from a dump at the mine and the company in Va was known as the Potomac Mfg. Co. and they converted the ore into ingots. The committee apparently was impressed and recommended licensing the technology for use in Franconia for making steel.  Profits were estimated at over $100,000 if this technology was adopted.  The committee was comprised of Sylvester Marsh, C.M. Ransom and T.H. Ford  "The ingots of steel were taken by Messer's Marsh and Ford to Concord where they were made into chisels, etc, and are now on exhibition".

6/31/1882:  In the Sugar Hill section:  ""Some twenty men are at present employed in the ore mines and more wanted, we understand they intend to push operations as fast as possible and will soon open up the main shaft."

7/14/1882:  "The Iron Miners are getting to be quite an attraction.  The steam pumping machinery is at work and the car for lifting ore has arrived."

9/15/1882:  "The mines are now well opened and the ore is coming to the surface by the steampower which has been put in for that purpose.  We learn that 100 tons have been sold to go to Alexandria, Va..  The present force in the mine is eight men.  There are others engaged in outside work, taking down buildings at Franconia and building a boarding house at the mines, etc."

7/23/1883: "Isaac Howland of Sugar Hill, recently found a mine of iron on the surface of  Peter Goddard's farm.  Some of the Franconia Iron Co. along with others made a satisfactory investigation last week. E.B. Parker says "It's the richest looking ore he (sic) ever saw".  The company bonded the whole farm for $1,600. or the minerals for $300.  Mr. Howland has engaged to commence work with a force of men on the mines immediately after haying".

Map of the mines on Ore Hill, drawn by Nancy Aldrich


The Franconia Heritage Society has created an informative interpretative center opposite the furnace.  Their museum in Franconia has objects made and used by the iron works on display.  (The furnace is on private property and cannot be visited.) 


Suggested Reading:  The single best volume on the iron works and the mines is “The Iron Industry in Franconia and Sugar Hill, 1805-1860” by Roger Aldrich, illustrated by his wife, Nancy. The author has lived most of his life in close proximity to the iron works and the mines, has visited other early iron works, and has done much research on the subject.

Much of the information used above has been taken from an unpublished 13 page report by James Garvin, “Chronology of the Development of the New Hampshire Iron Factory Company from 1805 to 1884” Click here to read the full report.

Also:  “A Report on the Affairs of the New Hampshire Iron Factory Co and the Present State of its Works”   by Joseph Bray, published in Salem, Ma. 1805

For an informative article about the town, from Outlook Magazine,
click here History of Franconia  by Sarah Nelson Welch  

           Watch a 15 minute video interview of Roger Aldrich talking  about the Iron Works  by copying this link to your browser:

        Watch  a 22 minute video interview of   Roger Aldrich   talking about the iron mines in Sugar Hill. by copying this link to your browser