To Market, to Market, But How?
Having discussed the “hows” of production, the question arises of what was done with all of the iron—pig, bar and wrought—once it was made? There were two principal groups of purchasers, local and distant. Locals would either come to the site and select what they wanted, or inform the ironmaker and have their purchase delivered. Distant purchasers might be other colonies or states in North America, or England (the mother country), or other nations overseas. Because of the weight and bulk of both the raw materials for making iron and the finished product, transportation was always a very significant factor.
The domestic market was generally hungry for iron—for making and repairing tools, implements, weapons and whatnot. A colony or state lacking ironworks of necessity and convenience took up a good share of any surplus in a neighboring jurisdiction. Certainly iron from local ironworks or nearby sources was less expensive than iron purchased and shipped from afar.
Entrepreneurs who funded the earliest ironworks in America determined what would be done with the iron their funds produced. Since those initial sponsors were overwhelmingly English merchants, colonial ironmakers had little say where the products they made would go. The English government played little part in the organization or development of the colonies or their economies prior to 1660.
From that date until the Revolution, however, the English government sought to bring the trade and commerce of their American colonies into the mercantile system. The goal of mercantilism was to assure that the trade of the colonies would be so controlled as to increase the wealth of the Empire by achieving a “favorable balance of trade.” That meant England must sell more goods and services to others than it bought from them. That would oblige those they traded with to send currency, or gold and silver to make up the difference. Parliament sought to achieve this objective by enacting laws that required all trade to and from England and her colonies to be carried on British or colonial ships, manned by English or colonial crews. Trade between the colonies and other countries were required to go to England, unload the goods onto English ships, and pay any fees or taxes before proceeding. Finally over the years a list of “enumerated goods” required that certain colonial products—tobacco, sugar, and cotton—be sold only to Englishmen who in turn would act as middlemen, selling the products in Europe. Iron very early became one of the enumerated products.
To be of most benefit to England’s favorable balance in the iron trade, it was preferred that American pig iron be sold to England (a ton of pig iron in 1770 sold for 5 pounds sterling), that the English would convert it to wrought iron (increasing its value 30 times to nearly 150 pounds sterling per ton) or even to finished iron pots, pans, bar iron, machines, and the like. In that way England would benefit from shipping pig iron there, manufacturing it to iron consumer products, and shipping it back to the colonies for sale.
The earliest colonial ironworks were located on or near ocean ports and harbors, requiring only short hauls to ships that would carry the iron to England. As the country grew, settlements moved farther and farther inland along navigable rivers; the heavy iron could still be carried by water. By the mid-1700s, however, iron production was moving inland, over hills and mountains, and beyond the great navigable rivers.
Roland Curtin, who established an ironworks in Centre County, Pennsylvania in 1810, illustrated the ingenuity required of ironmasters located in the interior for getting their iron to market in the absence of adequate transportation. His works were about equally distant from seaports such as Philadelphia and Baltimore in the east and Pittsburgh in the west where most of his iron would be sold during the War of 1812 and a few years after. The trip west involved a few men leading strings of pack animals some 200 miles along narrow trails through dense forests, with two mountain ranges to cross and several rivers to ford. Each animal carried about 300 pounds of iron on its back. Curtin had the bars of iron bent U-shaped at his forge, better to fit the animals’ backs. A round trip to Pittsburgh required three weeks.
By the 1830s iron taken to eastern seaports brought higher prices. They could be reached by water, though in the beginning the trip was not easy. The Bald Eagle Creek which flowed beside his ironworks, was barely navigable most of the year. It emptied into the Susquehanna River at Lock Haven, a waterway strewn with rocks and narrows. At Columbia some iron was sold to merchants who had it hauled by wagon over a highway to Philadelphia; most continued on the Susquehanna to Baltimore. In the early years the water route had an irregular water supply. It required flooding by melting snow and spring rains to float the heavy wooden arks laden with iron. The trip was dangerous due to the raging flood, and rock-strewn streams and rivers. The arks went only down river with the iron where they were sold for lumber; the men bought horses to ride home.
Canal-building in the 1830s improved the water route by going around rough rocky stretches. The canals were navigable most of the year; with mules pulling them, water craft could make round trips. Eventually the coming of railroads—long anticipated as opening a new era of prosperity for interior ironmakers—greatly speeded up transport of both raw materials and finished iron products. But even more it sped up the end of ironmaking by charcoal-fueled blast furnaces. So great was the railroads’ need for steel rails and rolling stock that it spurred the development of the Bessemer process of steel-making, which soon drove even the best blast furnaces out of business.