Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Rediscovering the Curtis Creek Iron Furnace

Today's post is brought to us by Dr. John Kille. John is the Assistant Director of Anne Arundel County's Lost Towns Project where he has worked as an historical archaeologist for 15 years. With a background in history, he earned advanced degrees from the University of Maryland and the George Washington University specializing in Material Culture, Cultural Landscape Studies, and Museum Studies. He also recently curated "Discover London Town!," an award-winning permanent museum exhibit at Historic London Town and Gardens.

Hope you all enjoy learning about the Curtis Creek Iron Furnace!

Rediscovering Anne Arundel County’s Curtis Creek Iron Furnace

As coordinated efforts to commemorate Maryland’s involvement in the War of 1812 proceed across our state, archaeologists with Anne Arundel County’s Lost Towns Project have partnered with the Maryland State Highway Administration to assess, document, and preserve the Curtis Creek Iron Furnace (c. 1759) in Glen Burnie. This investigation is being directed by Julie Schablitsky and complements a laudable effort spearheaded by the Ann Arrundell Historical Society* to preserve portions of the site prior to the construction of Route 10 nearly a half century ago.

The Curtis Creek Iron Furnace once stood on the southern shore of Furnace Creek, where over the course of almost a century it smelted local iron ore and charcoal into pig iron.  This manufacturing operation was among a growing number of enterprises that arose after the Maryland General Assembly passed an act in 1719 to provide various economic incentives to encourage iron manufacture.  The furnace and a later foundry also reportedly produced large castings such as cannons, cannon balls, and shot that equipped American forces against British invasion.

The site chosen for the furnace was advantageous for several reasons.  The location ensured access to local iron ore deposits, wood from surrounding forests necessary for the production of charcoal in kilns, a constant source of water power from a one-mile mill race fed by nearby Saw Mill Creek, and water transportation for exporting iron production.
Abandoned Curtis Creek Iron Furnace, circa 1911
This type of furnace was of a blast design, constructed of stone and brick and 30 feet tall.  A water wheel positioned next to the furnace powered a mechanized bellows which pumped blasts of air through pipes to achieve an intense heat during the smelting process.  A ramp leading up to the rear of the furnace would have been used to feed iron ore and charcoal into an opening located toward the top of the structure.  The furnace and several associated operations were positioned alongside high drop offs, to which water was channeled from a one-mile long mill race supplied by nearby Saw Mill Creek.  The entire mill race was reportedly still visible on the landscape prior to the construction of Route 10.

The furnace had several owners, including the Dorsey, Ridgely, and Barker families.  It also operated in conjunction with different furnaces in the region, including the Elkridge Furnace, situated along the Patapsco River, and the Northhampton Furnace in Towson.  Ads placed in the Maryland Gazette document that African Americans worked at the furnace.  In 1760, Caleb Dorsey advertised for the return of “Jem, a country-born Negro, 27 years old, who ran away from Curtis Creek Works.”   In 1817, another ad placed in the same newspaper described “the runaway Negroes Jack Boyer and Will Nevil…who ran away from Mr. Charles B. Ridgely Jr.’s farm… both bought of Mr. John E. Dorsey, in Feb. last at the Aetna Furnace, formerly the Curtis Creek Furnace…” 

During the War of 1812 John E. Dorsey entered into a contract with the United States Ordnance Department to provide both ammunition and gun carriages.  An order placed in 1813 called for “300 Tons of heavy Shot 18 & 24 Pdrs deliverable at Baltimore @ 72 $, 10 Tons Grape Shot @ 120.”  Also, “60 Gun Carriages (travelling) with Timbers complete 40 for 6 pdrs: at 215 $ a piece, 20 for 24 pdrs at 245 $ a piece.”   A first hand account of Miss Sarah A. Randle, 96 years of age, recorded in 1890, describes the involvement of the Curtis Creek Furnace during the War.  According to Ms. Randle, “At the beginning of the war of 1812 Captain Abner Linthicum’s company of the county militia, of which her father was a member, was called out, and was often in service, for longer or shorter periods, as required, which it lasted, sometimes at Fort Madison, opposite Annapolis, sometimes at Etna Furnace, Curtis Creek, where cannon were cast before and during the war.  The uniform of this company was gray, with dark blue facings.” 

It is against this broad historical backdrop that Lost Towns Project archaeologists Shawn Sharpe, John Kille, Anastasia Poulos, and Stephanie Sperling, and volunteers Skip Booth, Jim Morrison, and Barry Gay assessed the integrity of this multi-faceted industrial site.  This team was directed by Dr. Al Luckenbach, Anne Arundel County Archaeologist, C. Jane Cox, Anne Arundel County Cultural Resources Planner, and the author.  This work was extremely challenging due to a formidable overgrowth of trees and brush, many decades of trash dumping and looting, dredged soil spread over much of the site during the construction of nearby Route 10, and mounds of slag debris.  Despite these obstacles, much progress has been made to document the physical layout of the furnace complex, including a number of later buildings and wharves in close proximity to the water.
Total station transit used by Maryland State Highway Administration Survey Team and Lost Towns Project archaeologists at Curtis Creek Site.
Precise mapping tools such as Lidar and Total Station, helped to identify areas where the natural landscape had been altered.  Lidar mapping is an optical remote sensing technology that measures distances and properties of targets by illuminating the target with laser light and analyzing the backscattered light.  The Total Station transit uses laser light to create accurate maps that delineate topography and the relative location of landmarks and site features.  Maps created with these advanced tools proved very useful in exploring and recording landmarks and physical features.

Map of Curtis Creek Site created with Lidar and Total Station mapping technology.  Lidar map shows gradations delineating elevations and human disturbances upon the natural landscape, with an overlay of landmarks discovered by Lost Towns Project archaeologists that were precisely recorded with a laser transit by MSHA surveyors.
The first landmark identified by the Lost Towns Project was the spot where the Curtis Creek Iron Furnace once stood.  The furnace complex was found to be situated upon a high, flat area overlooking Furnace Creek, free of dredged fill and trash and perhaps the most well-preserved area of the site.  Large stones and brick used in the construction of the furnace were documented on the surface of this high area and the slope leading down to Furnace Creek below.  Heavy concentrations of slag were also spread over much of this general area as well.  

It was not possible to determine the type of operations that stood alongside the drop offs west of the furnace, as they were covered with dredge fill.  Perhaps the biggest surprise of this field survey was the recent discovery of extensive foundations for a later industrial complex and wharf landing situated east of the furnace site, along the shoreline.  The existence of early stone foundations, as well as cinder block and concrete construction, suggests a long period of occupation.  However, much more focused research and analysis will be necessary before the story of this built environment can be told.

This project has provided an outstanding opportunity to examine both the rich history and the intriguing cultural landscape of the Curtis Creek Iron Furnace.  Representing one of the earliest industries in Anne Arundel County, this venerable works also deserves recognition for its involvement in War of 1812.  A more detailed report of this investigation is found in the Spring 2013 edition of the Anne Arundel County History Notes, published by the Ann Arrundell County Historical Society.

[1] Maryland Gazette, February 14, 1760.
[1] Ibid., August 7, 1760.
[1] National Archives, Record Group No. 156, Contracts, Vol. 1, Entry 78, pp. 5 and 6.  1812-1829, 7W2, 223-241.
[1] Baltimore Sun, September 16, 1890.

*Yes, it really is spelled like that


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