The Ancient Dominions of Maine
Information File:

Katahdin Iron Works
Blast Furnaces, Charcoal Kilns, Lime Kilns

The Katahdin Iron Works is located in central Maine north of Dover-Foxcroft and just east of Gulf Hagas.  Moosehead Lake and the town of Greenville lie to the west and the mills of Millinocket to the northeast.  The iron works began operation in 1843 and ceased production of pig iron in 1890.  Links to a number of local and state websites describing the history and operations of the Katahdin Iron Works follow this introductory note.

One of the first questions the Davistown Museum had about the Katahdin Iron Works was, what role did it play in the florescence of Maine's many ax makers in the 19th century?  Where was Katahdin's raw pig iron reprocessed into wrought iron, low carbon steel or steel?  What industries utilized the pig iron that Katahdin produced.  What was the extent of the market area that Katahdin Iron Works served?  Perhaps the most important question, where did Maine blacksmiths, including its edge and other toolmakers, obtain the wrought iron and steel they utilized prior to 1843, as well as during the years after Katahdin Iron Works began operation?  In a previous memo posted on this site in the Katahdin Iron Works file, we raised the question of what role did the Katahdin Iron Works play in supplying the raw material for Maine's ax and edge tool makers.  Recent research conducted by Davistown Museum staff member, Mike Beaudry, indicates that Katahdin Iron Works played no role whatsoever in supplying the raw materials for Maine's edge tool makers.  The principal products produced from iron made at Katahdin Iron Works were: rail car wheels and wire, both made in states outside of Maine.  There is no evidence that any of the iron produced at Katahdin Iron Works was ever refined into the high quality wrought iron that then would have been utilized to make steel edge tools.  For more information on the history of the iron works as developed by Mike, see his essay {TO BE ADDED SOON} following the quotations from Victor Schlich's article below.

It is interesting to note in the following web information sources on Katahdin no mention is made of any lime kilns at Katahdin Iron Works.  East of Katahdin on the Maine coast are the vast lime pits of Thomaston and Knox county.  The lime produced from these unique coastal geological formations was an important industry beginning with the very first settlers in the Thomaston area.  General Henry Knox's mansion in Thomaston was, in fact, built in part with funds obtained from his profitable lime business.  While the predominant use of lime is for mortar and plaster in the building trades, lime is also a flux used to remove the impurities from pig iron in the blast furnace.  Roger K. Smith, the Massachusetts tool historian, has provided the Davistown Museum a very interesting photo of a lime kiln.  The fact that lime was apparently readily available in conjunction with the iron ore deposits at Katahdin may have played a key role in the longevity of pig iron production there.

Lime kiln 
lime kiln
photo complements of Roger K. Smith
Note the similarity of appearance between the lime kiln and the blast furnace at Katahdin Iron Works (see photo below.)  These both have similar functions, they mix wood or other fuel with rock to get the final product.  A lime kiln uses limestone as the raw material.  Wood is added and burned with the limestone.  The heat causes the carbon portion of the limestone to also burn, resulting in lime, which is removed from the hole in the bottom.
The vast lime pits of Knox county on the central coast of Maine have long been the major source of lime for the eastern United States and its need for plaster and mortar.  Many of the older brick buildings in the coastal cities of the US were built with Maine produced lime.

Blast Furnace

The early blast furnace used iron ore as the raw material.  Added to this is wood or charcoal (note that Katahdin Iron Works also has charcoal kilns.)  Lime played a key role in the iron production at Katahdin as the flux that was used to remove the impurities in the iron ore being produced in the blast furnace.  The lime would be mixed in with the iron ore and the charcoal.  The lime would liquefy, float on top of the molten iron, gather unwanted impurities originally in the iron ore, and then drain out of the blast furnace at an opening well above the outlet for the heavier molten iron in the lower parts of the blast furnace.  The final product is known as pig iron.

In Maine's Back Woods: Historic Iron Works Restored
by Victor A. Schlich
Thirty miles southwest of the main gateway to giant Baxter State Park, in the heart of Maine's tall timber country, lies a vivid reminder of the ravages of strip mining. Katahdin Iron Works is buried deep in the woods, yet it remains easily accessible by car or 4-wheel vehicle. 

A century and more ago miners peeled layer after layer, of iron and sulphur-rich earth which was reduced to pig iron in KIW smelters. Even today the scars left by miners remain ugly and exposed. Only here and there does a blade of grass try vainly to hide the angry red earth.

Part of Katahdin Iron Works has been carefully restored by the Maine Bureau of Parks and Recreation. Each year thousands drive six miles into the woods over a well maintained gravel roads in search of this fascinating bit of Maine history.

Despite odious clouds of sulphurous smoke that hung low over the area in its heyday, this certainly ranks as one of the world's most beautifully located iron works. The air today is crisp, clean and clear, heavy with the scent of pine.

blast furnace
The restored blast furnace at Katahdin
Iron Works in Maine
The iron works is off Maine Route 11, six miles north of Brownville Junction a stop on the Canadian Pacific Railroad branch that provides the only passenger rail service left in Maine.  [This is no longer correct, the passenger train has been discontinued.  There is passenger rail service now Boston to Portland.]  Millinocket, southern gateway to Baxter State Park, is 30 miles to the northeast along Route 11.

Once Thriving Settlement

Despite its wilderness location, Katahdin Iron Works was a thriving settlement in its peak years. It boasted its own post office, and there even was a photographer's salon.  A hotel offered accommodations for up to 100 guests at a time. The settlement printed its own scrip to pay miners and retail stores as far away as Bangor honored it in lieu of money.

Despite its industrial character, Katahdin Iron Works once was a resort area, too. Then as now, fishing and hunting were excellent.  The hotel advertised and got guests from as far away as Chicago. Bangor residents were frequent summer weekend visitors, especially after completion of a narrow gauge rail line linking the two sites.

All that remains of this past glory is an open field with a faithfully restored blast furnace and one of the many beehive kilns that consumed 10,000 cords of hardwood a year to produce the charcoal so essential in the smelting process.

Interpretive panels briefly retell the story of Katahdin Iron Works and its glory days.  Technical processes are explained in simple language.

Picnic by the River

The West Branch of the Penobscot River gurgles along one edge of the historic site.  Several birch-shaded spots invite visitors to enjoy picnic lunches along the river bank.

But there are some things the panels do not tell.

Even a brief walk through the wooded [Ed. note: we are missing a section of this article, starting here.]

...was done here, followed by a trip to the blast furnaces at Katahdin Iron Works where the ore was mixed with a limestone-silica flux to produce pig iron.

For almost half a century an average of 2,000 tons of raw pig iron was produced annually in ingots of 50 to 150 pounds. At first teams of oxen hauled the ingots out of the woods. Later, mule teams took over. Finally, the rail link to Bangor provided the transportation.

The iron works' location on the Penobscot's West Branch offers anyone willing to barter time and energy for adventure an opportunity to visit two unusual spots deep into the woods. But these trips must be made on foot or by 4-wheel vehicle.

About five miles away is The Hermitage, a 35-acre grove of tall white pine maintained by the Nature Conservancy. Another four miles beyond that is Gulf Hagas, a remote and spectacular canyon carved through slate by the passage of water for thousands of years.

Both The Hermitage and Gulf Hagas were deeded to Bowdoin College in 1813 by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts as a land grant for educational purposes. They long since have passed into private hands.

Victor A. Schlich of South Portland, Maine, is a free-lance writer.

Iron Forge and Furnace in Clinton, Maine

"One of the town's oldest industries and, certainly the most unique, was the forge and foundry where bog iron was turned into bar iron.  It appears that Jonathan B. Cobb built the iron forge and furnace on the bank of the Fifteen Mile Stream.  The forge was not there when he bought the land from Isaiah Crooker, but when he sold a half interest in the business on October 1808 to Samuel Peavey of Vienna, the forge was in operation.  The factory was located on the south side of the stream a mile and one-half up the stream from the Kennebec River. ...Along with the property Cobb sold, went the privilege of plowing lands of Benjamin Dow and John Burrell.  the authority to plow land, presumably, was for the purpose of taking he bog iron from their land for processing at the forge." (Fisher, History of Clinton, Maine, pg. 183).

"In 1880 the editor of the Clinton Advertiser printed a letter from J.T., believed to have been John Totman, trader and long time resident at Pishon Ferry.

Mr. Editor:—As a forge and furnace in our town is nearly forgotten at the present time, and the excitement about silver, gold, lead, slate, etc., in our state is so great, might it not be well to look back, even for the young, and see what Clinton was seventy years ago. Then Clinton led all other towns for ores. Then iron was most needed of all metals. Then iron ore was in Clinton, and a furnace and forge was built, a new dam across the stream, a large building and houses for the workman, and coal burned. All the near surrounding was a wilderness, and as there was no newspaper it was heralded all over the state by the word of mouth.  Then iron was king almost. It was worth from 12 to 20 cents; nails from 25 to 50 cents, and nearly no money to buy with. This was the time of the embargo. Vessels were not allowed to go to sea. To sell or buy lumber would not pay for running from the mills. Staves was a large business before that, but many rotted on the bank of the rivers. Labor was cheap, wood for coal plenty, and was it any wonder that Clinton was a noted town? Then the prospect of having iron at home, and for labor and farm produce, was one of the things hoped for. 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 in 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. (Fisher, History of Clinton, Maine, pg. 184).

Pembroke Iron Works

The following is excerpts from the Pembroke Sesquicentennial Committee's Pembroke Sesquicentennial, pg. 7-9.

One of the natural assets of Pennamaquan was the river which flowed from the lake of that name into Cobscook Bay. Two falls on the river each offered a natural opportunity for water-powered industry.

...The power potential of the falls was soon recognized as worthy of something more important than a saw mill, for in 1828 the first effort was made to establish an iron works. A Philadelphia firm set up machinery, but the project was soon abandoned. Jonathan Bartlett of Eastport attempted a revival of manufacturing but without success until 1831, when he was joined by General Ezekiel Foster. That same year Theodore Lincoln sold to Foster for $20,000 some 1550 acres along both banks of the river including the falls. Three years later this effort also failed. In 1844 the company was purchased by Horace Gray of Boston, but again came failure three years later.

Finally, in 1849 William E. Coffin and Company of Boston became the owners with Lewis L. Wadsworth as the local agent. Under their able direction the Pembroke Iron Company prospered for more than thirty years. It employed at times as many as 300 workers. Many were skilled artisans from England who lived in a company compound of fifteen houses known as the "English Village" located near the Iron Works Church.

This is not the place to detail the complexities of the manufacturing operation which became so important to the economy of the newly-established town. Suffice it to note that in its prime the Iron Works operated night and day in three shifts and produced annually about 5,000 tons of iron in the form of manufactured products. Among them were cut nails, spikes, hinges, horseshoe iron, gas piping, shaft iron, anchor chain iron, and boiler rivets. An eye-witness account speaks of the rumbling noise of the rolling mill and at night of the furnaces glowing brilliantly from the tall stacks and lighting up the sky for miles around.

The Pembroke Iron Company owned a fleet of coastal vessels for the transport of its products.

These and other vessels loaded and unloaded their cargo at the Coal Wharf located on the east bank of Pennamaquan Bay. An ice-free winter wharf was located on the Garnett's Point road just south of Coggins' Head near the site of Isaiah Hersey's first cabin.

Soft coal from the Provinces was usually carried in foreign vessels which, since they returned empty, required temporary ballast for the voyage. To provide this, Jared Putnam Hersey built a wharf a little south of the Coal Wharf, and here the vessels were ballasted with gravel from a nearby pit.

Teams of horses transported the coal, pig iron, ore, and other supplies from the wharves to the mill and returned with finished products to be shipped to distant markets. John M. Morgan had the contract for the haulage and used eighteen to twenty-four draft horses and a large force of men. The stables were on the island above the dam.

On February 14, 1883, the residence of the company agent was destroyed by fire, a harbinger of the approaching end of the Iron Works. From the beginning the company had faced serious obstacles. Except for the water power, part of the labor force, and the charcoal which was first used for fuel, virtually nothing needed for operation was indigenous to the region; even much of the skilled labor was imported from England, the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. The finished products had to be shipped at considerable expense to faraway markets.

Finally in the 1880's these adverse circumstances became intolerable, especially the high cost of transportation. Increasing competition from iron manufacturers nearer the source of raw materials and profitable markets spelled the doom of the local company and in 1884 it ceased operations.

And from Gerald G. Wilder's, 1832 Pembroke 1932: A brief historical account.

"William E Coffin & Co. became the owners, in 1849. For some 30 years this company carried on  the Iron Works with more or less success. As many as 300 persons were employed at times, and the annual production did not vary much from 5,000 tons. Various products came from the works, but one of the largest was nails. Everything was made from the smallest tack to 9 1-2 inch spikes. The output was about 300 kegs each day. Hundreds of tons of 9-16 in., square Iron was made for shipping, to be made elsewhere into railroad spikes.  Round bars from 1-4 in. to 4 in. in diameter were produced in quantity. There was anchor chain iron, 2 1-2 in. in diameter, and cut to length for the links, for the Charlestown Navy Yard. There was 20 gauge flat iron, 1 in. wide for baling cotton; and iron 3 in. wide and 1 1-8 in. thick for manufacturing into axes. All of the nail machines were made in the machine shops on the spot." (pg. 21).

Sawtell, William R. Katahdin Iron Works: Boom to bust.
Sawtell, William R. Katahdin Iron Works revisited / compiled by William R. Sawtell.
Sawtell, William R. K. I. III.
Sawtell, William R. Katahdin Iron Works and Gulf Hagas: Before and beyond.
Sawtell, William R. Video: History of Katahdin Iron Works and Gulf Hagas.

For more on blast furnaces and the production of iron and steel go to the Davistown Museum's tool manufacturing chronology.

Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands: Katahdin Iron Works website

Southern Piscataquis County Chamber of Commerce description of Katahdin Iron Works including a nice photo of the charcoal kiln.

BBC animated description of a blast furnace using coke.

Description of a modern-day experiment in traditional ways of making charcoal and smelting.

Griggsville Landing lime kiln: this website describes various types of lime kilns.

Taylor's lime kiln: A nice description with photographs of a Texas lime kiln.