The History of Early Ironworking
From a talk presented to the New Society of the Genesee
at the meeting of February 22, 2002
The quiet suburban community of Penfield, just outside Rochester, NY,
is one of the least likely places to go seeking evidence of iron ore mining,
smelting or iron processing, but, strange as it might seem, I found that
Penfield had a vigorous iron-processing industry for well over half of
the nineteenth century. It is incongruous to think of such a smoky, grimy
industry flourishing in a town now dominated by neat suburban houses surrounded
by manicured lawns, but it turned out to be true.
My quest began the way all good historical inquiries begin with an odd
scrap of paper that came to my hands from a friend of a friend. He was
writing a history of Allen's Creek and events that occurred along its
banks. In his research, he encountered a small map that purported to show
the place where Leonard Stoneburner cast iron cannon balls during the
War of 1812 on something called Cole Creek. It was said he sold them to
It took a few minutes just to locate the place the map indicated. Go
to Panorama Plaza. Behind it and up the hill past Nalge Industries is
the Rotary's Camp Hakimo. Along its western boundary is a small creek
that arises less than a quarter mile uphill from the camp. I have walked
Allen's Creek many times but was never aware that a creek existed at this
I filed this information away for about a year and only retrieved it
one summer day while surveying Penfield's earliest tax rolls in Penfield
Library's Local History Room. I came across a record of a paltry sum being
paid annually until about 1821 by one Leonard Stoneburner for a patch
of swamp land which turned out to be what we today call Panorama Plaza.
He paid in taxes only about a tenth as much as an average Penfield farmer.
I recall as a child being aware that the developer, Emil Mueller rechanneled
Irondequoit Creek and then created a shopping plaza, Penfield's first,
by leveling the sandy hillside above to create a massive parking area
in front of what we would today call a small strip mall. As a child, I
was fascinated by the giant earth-moving machinery crawling up and down
I looked up "Stoneburner" in some of the standard history books of Penfield
and discovered that he is described as having many sons by his "squaw"
wife. He apparently lived up Allen's Creek somewhere in the meadow at
Corbett's Glen. What would Stoneburner have wanted with swampland? You
can't farm it. Why would he have paid any taxes on worthless land? What
was he doing up there?
- In a flash I recalled the Stoneburner map and some odd pieces fell
- Indians are frequently named after what they do.
- Stone burning is one of the steps necessary to smelt iron.
- Penfield bedrock is limestone, the exact type of stone that one must
burn to create the powdered flux that separates iron from slag.
- Before 1840, the only kind of fuel that would have been capable of
creating heat sufficiently intense to melt iron would be charcoal. The
hillsides around Cole Creek were and are full of timber.
- Cole is not a pioneer name around here. Could it be Cole Creek is
named after charcoal? I know that Colliersville in mid-state New York
has no coal mines nearby. It was named after charcoal colliers, coaliers.
- Bog iron is retrieved from bogs, i.e. swamps, such as the land Mueller
was covering over when I was a child. We always called it "the flats,"
but in the early nineteenth century it was a swamp.
What did an outcast Indian family do in Penfield's early days to make
a living with a passel of strapping young boys to feed? Iron smelting,
of course! On that site he had an abundant forest for charcoal production,
bedrock of limestone, iron ore from the swamp, boys to work the foundry,
and British and American naval forces anxious to buy fresh cannonballs.
I hastily arranged a visit to the site, accompanied by my friend with
the map, and another with a metal detector. My friend the writer explained
that there is a layer of iron about 220 feet under Penfield. Rising ground
water passing through this layer collects molecules of iron which precipitate
out when they reach surface oxygen. The iron attaches itself to silica,
the sand that is found in swamps.
My friend with the metal detector explained that iron ore is so loaded
with impurities, about 95%, that it won't even attract a magnet, or set
off a metal detector. The only thing that would set off his machine was
a cannonball or some real iron object.
We anxiously climbed the hillside between Camp Hakimo and below the Linden
Avenue Trailer Park, but we were disappointed. The metal detector detected
nothing. Instead of finding piles of slag, which would be the natural
bi-product of iron ore smelting, we found a leveled space where Emil Mueller
had scraped bare the ground to raise up "the flats" so they wouldn't flood
every spring. Any evidence that might have existed of a smelting operation
was scattered out under acres of asphalt.
At the site of the spring, we found discolored sand which my friends
explained is the evidence that the iron is still causing ore to be precipitated
at the surface even today. Rust-colored brown swatches in the sand bed
surrounding the spring were the only evidence of the iron working the
map had indicated.
I was discouraged, but I was on the scent of something very interesting.
So, I went back to the library and in a reference book unearthed an English
water color dated 1815 of a small English smelter and bloomery. There
they were making cannonballs with a smelter that looked like an over-sized
oil drum which stood about seven feet high. Over it was a wooden gallows
with a chain winch. Large buckets were hoisted above the top of the smelter
and tipped up so that coal, iron ore, and powdered limestone could be
combined in sequence inside the fire chamber. At the bottom was a little
door that allowed liquid iron to flow out into smelting cups. Using giant
tongs, the smithies carried the molten iron to clay molds in which to
cast the cannonballs. When the iron cooled, the clay mold was broken and
out popped the cannonball. This sort of small-scale, low-tech process
would have been entirely possible for Leonard and his boys.
Histories of iron mining explained that sometimes the bog iron is in
layers of sand and can be shoveled out of wet ground. This may have been
the sort of iron ore Stoneburner found, although some other sources show
people leaning over swamp sleds walking out onto the muck of the swamp
and gathering up iron ore in small balls from just under the surface of
Other more general references revealed that during the colonial period,
the British forbade the smelting of iron in America because that iron
would compete with British iron. Exporting British goods to the colonies
was one of the basic reasons to have colonies in the first place. So,
although iron was needed to build eighteenth-century America, there were
virtually no sites where iron smelting was conducted before the American
Revolution. Then Americans broke the law en masse. Iron was needed in
every growing town, but it was heavy, hard to transport, and expensive.
In fact, it was exactly the kind of product that an enterprising non-farmer
might want to make.
Why would Leonard Stoneburner not be a farmer? During the Revolutionary
War, the Indians in this area sided with the British and were mostly driven
out by public sentiment after the War.
Some Indians stayed in this area despite the risks, but they had to find
inconspicuous places to live where their contact with white men was limited.
Turk Hill in Perinton is named after the Indians who hid up there after
the Revolution. Corbett's Glen, hidden away as it is in the hollow of
Allen's Creek, would have been the sort of place Stoneburner would have
The story of Leonard Stoneburner and his iron making went dormant yet
again, until I got an e-mail from Cooperstown from a curator at the New
York State Historical Association inviting me to join them for a three-day
charcoal burning experiment. The museum had an 1840 recipe for charcoal
which they wanted to test out. I gladly accepted. Now I could learn exactly
what Leonard and his boys had to endure to make the charcoal they needed
for their smelting operation.
In preparation for "the burn," the Farmer's Museum folks cut and gathered
eight cords of local wood and created a clay apron on ground about twenty
feet in diameter in an open field above the Farmer's Museum. In weather
that dipped into the low twenties, we set out to tend a giant bonfire
for three days, working and sleeping in shifts, in hopes of learning how
to create charcoal from raw wood. Basically, charcoal is a manufactured
product which can best be described as desiccated firewood. Wood has the
same relationship to charcoal as coal has to coke. The process is to drive
all of the water out of the wood without destroying the carbon structure
of the wood fiber. As I learned, you start out by building a crib or wooden
chimney of cries-crossed sticks which frame the center flue of the fire
chamber. Around this five-foot-high hollow, four-foot-long billets of
wood are stacked in an ever-widening circle until the whole pile is about
eight feet around. Shorter logs are set on top to complete the beehive
shape of the entire pile.
Then a mixture of wet leaves and clay is packed all around the pile effectively
sealing the air off from all directions. Only the top of the chimney is
left open. A bonfire is built and burning embers are thrown down the chimney
to start the pile on fire. When the fire takes a solid hold, the chimney
itself is covered with logs, wet leaves and clay.
Now long sticks are poked into the pile at the base to let oxygen into
the fire on a controlled basis. The fire naturally is drawn toward the
oxygen holes, but as soon as the smoke changes from white to black, the
holes on one side of the pile are closed up and holes on the other side
are opened. This draws the fire away from the burning wood and toward
the unburned wood. When the color of the smoke changes, it indicates that
instead of burning off moisture, the fire has started to decompose the
carbon structure of the wood to ash. This must be avoided.
Basically you just continue on in this way for three days until the entire
pile has been cooked dry of its moisture, but not burned to ash. Then,
all the holes are closed. The fire is smothered, until it goes out. When
the pile has cooled, it is opened and the charcoal is removed.
It is quite amazing to hold pieces of charcoal as long as three feet
which weigh next to nothing. With all the volatiles expelled, the wood
has become almost pure carbon. Charcoal will burn at twice the temperature
of regular firewood and is quite hot enough to smelt iron. This same process
has been used by man all the way back to the Iron Age. The ancient Chinese
and the la Tien Culture of the Celts knew and used this same
system but, oddly, not the ancient American Indians. Leonard Stoneburner
probably learned this process from a white man somewhere along the line,
but here again, we are left to wonder who and why.
As Penfield grew in the early nineteenth century, the need for iron increased.
By 1821, Leonard Stoneburner no longer paid taxes on his land. He may
have died. Other Penfield citizens carried on along Irondequoit Creek
in what they called "The Hollow," and we call "Linear Park."
In the course of the mile or so between the Linden Avenue Bridge and
the Penfield Road Bridge, Irondequoit Creek drops about 90 feet, almost
as much as the great falls of the Genesee. That drop created immense opportunities
for proto-industrialists to convert the energy of flowing water into rotary
mechanical power using waterwheels running in sluice ways. Shafts turned
by water running over or under waterwheels drove machines set up along
The earliest mills were for grinding grains and sawing lumber. This makes
sense as flour and meal, buildings and furniture were basic necessities
for everyone. A forge to repair and manufacture tools and equipment is
vital to farm and village economies. As early as 1800, a Mr. Bronson established
a forge and trip hammer in the hollow. By 1812, Penfield already had three
stores, a tavern, a distillery, a grist and saw mill, a forge and triphammer,
as well as a church. It was a growing small town.
The fact that Bronson owned a triphammer suggests that he was interested
in raising the quality of the iron he worked, perhaps even to steel, but
that would involve retaining iron workers with extremely specialized skills,
not likely to be available in the wilderness. What is likely is that Bronson
would not have been competing head-to-head with Leonard Stoneburner. Bronson
was probably forming metal items such as hinges, latches and wagon wheel
rims from iron brought in from the coast or from Britain. Forges sometimes
did small smelting operations but the tools and equipment needed are significantly
Penfield history books tell us that, in 1829, Calvin Owen and Silvanus
Hall rented Samuel Rich's iron furnace to make plow shares. I have found
no record of when Samuel Rich built this furnace, but since the plow shares
that precede John Deere and the late 1830s were cast, it can be assumed
that this "furnace" was used to cast iron products in what we would call
By this time, iron ore was being shipped to Penfield from the towns of
Ontario and Wolcott. The same iron layer that passes under Penfield, hits
the surface in these places and can be easily surface mined. In ever-increasing
volume, starting in 1811, iron ore from Wayne County supplied Penfield's
needs. And from here on out to the end of the century, Penfield's capacity
to make iron products declined rapidly as Wayne County iron operations
under priced Penfield iron workers. Almost certainly by the time of the
Civil War, blacksmiths were all that remained in Penfield of a once-thriving
© 2002, Gary Lehmann