The Crooked Lake Review

Summer 2002

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The Great Iron Ore Odyssey


Donovan A. Shilling

The Rochester area is blessed with only a few minerals of genuine economic value. As the vast shallow ocean, which once blanketed this region, slowly evaporated, some large deposits of salt and gypsum (sodium chloride and calcium sulphate) were formed, however they were to the west of our city. There are also some natural gas deposits. These two are not local, but to our southwest.

However, there was one mineral, deep reddish in color, that was discovered not too far from Rochester and it generated quite a stir. It was oolitic hematite, an interesting fossil form of local iron ore also known as ferric oxide of iron.

According to Ruth Cooper, in her brief account of iron mining in Ontario for the Rochester Historical Society, a farmer first made the remarkable discovery. It seems that during an especially warm August in 1811, Mr. Knickerbocker, a pioneer Ontario farmer, was digging a well to water his cows and other livestock. He had excavated the rusty looking soil to about three feet below ground level. There his digging exposed a layer of broken limestone. Struggling through this, he was surprised to encounter an unusual layer of reddish material. At that point he hadn't struck water, instead he'd uncovered the vein of a very heavy and compact rock-like mineral. It was iron ore.

The farmer was confounded and disappointed. There was no water for his cattle and all he had to show for his efforts was a bed of red rock.

Although he hadn't realized it, the vein in Mr. Knickerbocker's pasture lot was part of an extensive series of ore beds located halfway between the Ridge Road and Lake Ontario's shore. Geologically, scientists believe the iron ore originated millions of years ago during the middle Silurian Period. The ore was spread out in what is today western Wayne County as a part of a delta deposit to form a vast continent called Appalachia. Geologists have traced the vein southward and speculate that the huge deposits that once made Birmingham, Alabama, an iron and steel center, were also related to our local iron ore beds. Here the beds are "a half mile in width and from 10 inches to 14 feet below the surface."

In Rochester, if you want to see or sample the hematite unique to our area, travel to Seth Green Parkway at the end of Norton Street. There an R. G. & E. Service road slopes downward along the Genesee River Gorge. Revealed along the rock wall, in a band of rock called the Clinton Group, one will discover a foot-thick bedding of the reddish iron ore mineral.

Technically it's called "Furnaceville Hematite," a hematite-bearing limestone that contains many micro fossils. Close examination reveals millions of tiny fossils termed "oolites." Their tiny animal bodies may have helped concentrate the iron ore during a period of deposition that lasted for centuries.

Even prior to the Ontario, New York, discovery, the ore was known to the Iroquois Indians. According to Dr. James Wishart, a former and well-known lecturer in the University of Rochester's geology department, the Iroquois found it made an excellent pigment for both decoration and ceremony. Oneida County also had a small hematite mine as early as 1797. Perhaps the most interesting early use of Wayne County ore was its part in making crude cannon balls for use in the War of 1812.

In order to smelt the ore a number of furnaces utilizing charcoal were established. The first one was a rustic affair devised by Samuel Smith, a Walworth pioneer, about 1816. He was rewarded with almost 400 pounds of iron per day. Later in 1825, Henry S. Gilbert ran the first efficient furnace. Its location, near Smith's site, was called Furnaceville. With this larger furnace, the iron production reached three to four tons per day. The product of the furnace, called "pig iron" was shipped to Rochester for use by a number of industries utilizing cast iron for their products.

In 1840 the Clinton Iron Company, using an even larger furnace, had a daily production of six to seven tons. During the Civil War the demand for iron boomed and the company flourished. They employed a variety of workers, some from England with mining experience and later, a large number of immigrants, especially from famine-wracked Ireland. A work force of approximately 200 miners was engaged in extracting the ore during this period. Unfortunately, a fire in 1867 destroyed the furnace and ended the operation.

Just three years later, however, a new firm, The Ontario Iron Ore Company, was formed in 1870 by Rochester residents. President of the firm was James Brackett with William H. Bowman as secretary-treasurer. The Rochester office was at 90 Mill Street. The 1970 Rochester Directory bears their ad offering "Foundry, Machinery, Cold Short and Neutral PIG METAL." Pig iron is the "impure iron, with a large content of combined carbon, obtained directly from a blast furnace."

Brackett's operation produced about 20 tons of prime iron daily. To produce the iron needed for sale required one-eighth imported iron ore and seven-eighths local ore. It took two and a quarter tons of ore to produce one ton of iron. The domestic iron was sold mostly to Rochester firms manufacturing stoves and architectural iron products. The Victorian Era was fond of decorating with iron brackets, cornices, ornamental turrets, railings, fences, balconies and hitching posts.

The William H. Cheney Company at 106 South St. Paul Street (South Ave.) used large amounts of cast iron in manufacturing building fronts, truss girders, columns and lintels. John Siddons & Son at 2 - 8 Stone Street also sold "Patent Iron Roofing" and "Ornamental Galvanized Iron Work." Records reveal that some iron was even shipped on Lake Ontario to western markets in Cleveland and Toledo.

Helping to meet a growing demand, a huge foundry and blast furnace was erected just west of the Genesee River at Charlotte. Called the Rochester Iron Manufacturing Company, it produced 10,200 tons of pig iron during its first year. According to the County Directory for 1869-70, James Brackett was chief executive for both the Ontario Foundry as well as president of the Charlotte-based Rochester Iron Manufacturing Company.

Moreover, the 1886 Rochester Directory listed James Brackett as president of The Sill Stove Company. To top it off, the humble James Brackett even had a Sill stove named in his honor. The ornate parlor warming device was christened "The St. James."

Mr. Brackett, obviously a captain of local industry, was a trustee for the Rochester Savings Bank and a director of the Lake Ontario Shore Railroad. The short-line railroad played an important part in moving the iron ore from Wayne County mines with colorful names such as "Bean Bed," "Bundy Ore Bed," "Hurly Bed," and "Moon Bed."

Edwin Scrantom, son of Hamlet Scrantom, Rochester's first settler in the historic hundred-acre tract, wrote a column called "Old Citizen's Letters" for the Democrat & American in the late 1860s. One poem dealt with Mr. Brackett's Charlotte blast furnace. Composed by Mr. Scrantom, it's both dramatic and poetic:

The power, the power of a great blast furnace!
Its tons of tons in the great iron frame,
Its granite foundations and wall of the same,
Its tons of engine and tons of beam,
Its awful power of its driving steam,
Its great solid cylinders, huge rolling wheels,
Its shaftings of iron and harness of steel.
Its ponderous power in motion unfurled,
Like an earthquake walking to crunch the world!
O' the power, the power of a great blast furnace.

Scrantom describes the Charlotte furnace's location as being on a side hill overlooking a swampy area or "Morass of considerable extent near a huge feather bed of cat-tails." Environment Protection Agency personnel would jump up and down in near apoplexy today if they saw those wetlands between the river and the furnace being contaminated with "slag or cinder." This "congealed cheese of cinder when it was cooled was placed in a car and dumped into the flag-bottoms which after many years will be a solid foundation." That accounts for the low, flat area seen today between Lake Avenue and the municipal warehouses along the river. Should the Fast-Ferry project become a reality, the area is slated to become a parking lot and boat dock.

The immense furnace complex was fed by men pushing 500-pound wheelbarrow loads of raw materials from riverside barges to the furnace. Coal and limestone were fed into the roaring fire. Scrantom describes the main furnace as a "costly spherical stack with large tunnel-like tubes and water appliances to preserve them from melting while they stood in molten iron/cinder as the heated wind was forced by steam power, so hot before it went in to blow the furnace, that a bar of lead held before it, melted."

"A steep serpentine stairway to the upper deck of the building [led to] the open mouth of the furnace that was belching flame and a deep smoke stifling with its sulphurous, horrible smell. There, a hardy son of Vulcan, blackened and burnt in the fumes that he had so often to encounter, was dumping the contents of the iron barrow into the blazing mouth of the deep firewell and sending them back on a hoisting way." And what would OSHA and the EPA have to say about that colossal challenge to the environment and the safety of the furnace's ninety workmen?

Edwin Scrantom concluded that article with another poem, this one about the old McIntyre Beach Cottage which he spotted from his lofty perch atop the blast furnace:

Fried fish, ginger bread and beer,
Where the old pier wreck'd and fated;
Lies gray and dilapidated,
Of the Genesee rolling in mud;
Where old Ontario's roar
Creeps up thro' the cat-tail shore'
Where McIntyre's cot reposes,
On it bed of willows and roses.

Returning now to Wayne County's iron ore beds, one finds that in 1876 a coal shortage forced the Ontario Iron Company to cease operations. By 1880 the vacuum was filled by a large operation from Stirling, New York, in Cayuga County. The new owners borrowed the name Furnaceville Iron Company which was financed and organized by Edward Henry Harriman who had gained his wealth as a railroad magnate. His son, Averill Harriman became our state Governor in the late 1950s.

For the next twenty-five years, continuing into the twentieth century, the firm was the area's chief iron producer. The twenty-two-inch-thick ore beds were first mined; in the 1880s an open pit method was begun using a steam-operated shovel. The processed iron ore was smelted into long, flat bars called a "sow." The shorter bolts cut off from the bar were naturally called "pigs," hence the term "pig iron."

In 1900 a vast, new iron ore deposit was uncovered in Minnesota's Mesabi Range and found to be far richer in iron content than local ore. Due to the bed's location and the ease of water transportation, great new steel mills arose along Lake Michigan, Lake Erie and in Pittsburgh. The local industry dwindled to the use of the ore simply as pigment for paint.

A billhead dated May 15, 1890, carries the heading: ONTARIO METALLIC PAINT COMPANY. C. H. Moody was president of the paint firm established in 1883. Its "works" were located at Charlotte with mines in Ontario, New York. At the C. K. Williams Company, located between Slocum and Ontario Center roads, a paint mill crushed the ore and sold it as pigment by the sackful.

This paint was formulated by mixing generous amounts of the powdered iron ore with linseed oil and sometimes with skim milk. Casein, an insoluble "colloidal protein in milk" was discovered to be a quality bonding agent for the paint mixture.

Barrels of the paint were sold mainly to farmers. The buyers were pleased when they found the metallic-based paint was not only inexpensive, but that it covered their barns in just one coat. Further, the paint resisted the weather far better than other products. Maybe that's why there are so many red barns across our countryside today.

The next time you pass Charlotte or travel down Ontario's roadways, think about the scores of dust-reddened miners and smoke-begrimed foundry workers who once labored so hard in those places. Think, too, about the scores of related industries. They're all part of a special story, the one called THE GREAT IRON ORE ODYSSEY.

2002, Donovan A. Shilling

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