South Shore Cranberry Bogs Through the Ages–Part 2: Bog iron preceded cranberries

The local bogs helped the colonists win the American Revolution. No, they didn’t toss berries at the already red Redcoats–they helped disable and capture British war ships.

The early colonists discovered bogs early on; not the trim expanses planted with cranberries, but wooded swamps. They recognized them from similar peat bogs in England and knew what they likely contained–iron ore.

If you associate iron ore with the “rust belt” of the Great Lakes, imagine iron in the colonial era. The colonists saw iron oxide on rocks and in exposed sand. It looks like what we call rust. If you look for it, you’ll see iron oxide all over this place. The colonists did. (See photos.)

They mined the bogs for bog iron, a mushy material that when heated in a bloomery produced a substance of more concentrated iron. They built bloomeries near the bogs, piles of bog iron and charcoal made from the oaks and maples that predominated the landscape. The product of the bloomeries went to furnaces with bellows powered by water and contained fires fueled by more charcoal.

The furnaces produced iron “pigs”–bars of nearly pure metal. Craftsmen hammered the heated pigs into pots, shovels, rakes, musket balls, and de-barkers, which would be used to remove bark from felled trees to make more charcoal. Nineteenth century photographs of the region show a place de-forested by charcoal production.

“That gave them the freedom to create their own ironware, rather than rely on importing it from England,” DCR ranger Amy Wilmot said.

In 1767, the British parliament passed a law requiring all iron produced by the American colonies be shipped to England. The Boston Tea Party happened a few years later.

The Charlotte Furnace in Carver, just off present day Route 58 in South Carver, began operation at the time of the British law and remained in operation after. When the colonies declared independence in 1776, it switched from making kettles to making armaments. It made cannonballs, but mainly produced bar shot. The dumbbell-looking shot tore through British rigging and sails. The revolutionaries didn’t want to sink the British ships, they wanted to steal them.

New Englanders led the revolution, and objected to the War of 1812 because it interfered with trade. In 1812, Benjamin Ellis, of Carver, won a contract to produce cannonball for the Navy. He turned production at the Charlotte Furnace back to armaments and built the Federal Furnace in West Plymouth to do the same. Each factory attracted war protests.

Iron manufacturies in local towns proliferated and specialized. Wareham produced nails with a machine invented in Marshfield; Bridgewater produced muskets and cannons. At the side of Town Brook, Plymouth produced cookware and the Bradford bedstead fastener, that piece of hardware that attached bed rails to head an foot. Couples get married there today, in Brewster Gardens.

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About Charles Mathewson

Charles Mathewson worked in print journalism for more than two decades as a reporter and editor, and has won several regional and national awards. He resides in Plymouth where he writes fiction and paints, when not producing award-winning news as a reporter for WATD.