Bullitt County History

Iron Manufacturing

The following paper was first written in 1972. It has been revised for this publication. Where information is footnoted, you will see the note number in brackets. The footnotes are listed at the bottom of the page.


"Not many of the present generation know that there was a forge or rolling mill on the river, about one mile below Shepherdsville.

"The writer saw it in operation fifty-two years ago; saw flaming bars of iron drawn from the fires by slaves. Nails were made there also, and other implements of iron.

"In that day Belmont Furnace was in full operation, working more than 300 hands." 1  

These words were written perhaps by J.W. Croan, a local attorney, in an article in the first issue of the newspaper, Salt River Tiger, in 1896. Assuming the writer's memory to be correct, he saw what he described in 1844.

Example of a Mill Race

In another issue of the same newspaper, Croan wrote "In the first years of 1800, soon after the town was established, the firm of Quarry and Tyler located their plant here for the manufacture of iron and steel. This enterprise was located a little over a half mile below the main town on the bank of Salt River. The immense machinery was run by water power. A dam was constructed across the river of hewn timbers fastened to the bed rock of the stream by iron bolts, tamped in drilled holes in the solid rock bottom of the river, about six feet high, and being higher up the river on the south side, which run the water to the south shore, whence it was turned into the race 2  walled with stone and carried nearly a half mile, where it beat against the large undershoot wheel that moved the machinery. [This photo is of the remains of a mill race located at Cataract Falls in Indiana. The one in Shepherdsville might have looked much like this.]

"This enterprise soon became almost as famous as the Bullitt's Lick salt wells, which were about three miles north of Shepherdsville. The pig iron used here was nearly all procured near Belmont about six miles from here and was hauled on wagons to the iron works and manufactured into iron bars and rods, and the various patterns demanded by the trade.

Old Bullitt County Furnace

This is a photo of the last remaining iron furnace located in Bullitt County.

"The furnaces were heated with charcoal, which by 1820 had exhausted the wood on the north side of Salt River for four miles from the work. The coaling enterprise was run in greater part by Sid Alexander, who usually employed twenty or more hands the year round in cutting the wood, and numerous others in burning and hauling the charred coal to the furnaces.

"There was also a large flouring mill operated at the same point of the iron works and supplied flour to the surrounding country for many miles. ...

"At that day the dam across Salt River made it necessary to operate a ferry during the greater part of the year. This ferry for many years was kept by James Croan, Sr., grandfather of the writer." 3  

These two newspaper articles prompted your writer to search for more information concerning this iron manufacturing plant and flour mill. His search took him to the Bullitt County, Kentucky courthouse and to the offices of the County Court Clerk and the Circuit Court Clerk. What he learned is summarized below.

First let it be said the Quiry 4  and Tyler did not begin this enterprise. As will be shown later, this firm did not associate itself with this enterprise until at least 1840.

Iron Works Property Map
This drawing shows to relative locations of the tracts
that Beckwith and Grayson purchased from Adam Shepherd.

The men who began this enterprise were John W. Beckwith and Frederick W. S. Grayson. Beckwith, together with his brother Upton Beckwith, operated a store in Shepherdsville as early as 1811. This is substantiated in a Bullitt Circuit Court equity case brought by Fredrick and Peter Panebaker against John W. and Upton Beckwith in company in March 1819. The case involved a disputed bill. The complaint mentioned in passing that Upton Beckwith was deceased. A copy of the alleged bill was included in the case papers. It indicated that the bill began on May 10, 1811. Some of the items listed provide enlightening reading. Among other items were included bars of iron, a tumbler, hinges, screws, 14 yards of linen, and bohea tea. 5  

Beckwith was an established resident of this area as early as 1809. At that time he was one of the trustees of the town of Shepherdsville. 6  

In 1813 Beckwith and Frederick W. S. Grayson purchased two tracts of land from Adam Shepherd for $392.32 current money. The two tracts were adjoining and below Shepherdsville. The first tract contained 150 acres and lay on the north bank of Salt River just below Shepherdsville. The second lay mainly in the bed of Salt River adjoining the first. 7  

The complete deed record is located on this page.

In 1823 Beckwith sued Elemebek Swearingen to recover a fee he had paid for the services of a slave. At the time of the payment Swearingen had been sheriff of Bullitt County. The slave, named Isaac, had been in the custody of the court pending a decision concerning his freedom. The court had ordered that Isaac be hired out until a decision could be reached. Accordingly, Sheriff Swearingen had hired Isaac out to Beckwith. In the court case Beckwith claimed that Isaac had been too ill to work much of the time he was with Beckwith. Beckwith offered two depositions to substantiate his claim. In one, from George F. Pope, was stated "during the time Isaac was to have been with Beckwith and co. they were engaged in building mills & making a race and as hands were scarce & hard to be got this deponent is of the opinion that they suffered considerable loss & injury in consequence of his sickness and departure from the service before the expiration of the term for which he was hired."

In the other deposition from John J. Thomason, a doctor, is learned that Isaac was under the charge of Beckwith "from the 5th of March to the 11th of June 1819."

This Thomason deposition was in the form of Beckwith questions and Thomason answers. In one Beckwith question he stated, "... I sustained a considerable loss from the want of his services ... it being the only season of the year I could work at the race of my mill on Salt river which I was particularly engaged in that season." Isaac did receive his freedom. It is not clear if Beckwith won or lost his case. 8  

Beckwith purchased another tract of land containing approximately 250 acres from Adam Shepherd in 1818. This tract lay to the north of the 150 acre tract. 9  

By 1822 Beckwith was in debt to Cornelius Comegys and John Peirshouse of the firm of Comegys and Co. for $5,000. As security against his debt he mortgaged all three tracts before mentioned to Comegys and Peirshouse with the stipulation that he would regain his property if he could pay his debt. In this mortgage deed Beckwith conveyed "two certain tracts or parcels of land situate lying and being in the said county of Bullitt on Salt River commonly called the mill tract." 10  These were the 150 acre tract and the 50 acre tract.

Beckwith died in 1827 prior to June 1 before he could pay his debt. 11  

In February 1828, Bullitt Circuit Court ordered the three tracts sold to pay Comegys and Peirshouse, and the heirs of Frederic Grayson who by this time was also dead. First one half of the 50 acre tract and one half of the 150 acre tract were sold to pay Grayson's heirs. James D. Breckinridge purchased this for "eight hundred dollars for the moiety of the fifty acre tract including the mills & eight hundred & fifteen dollars for the moiety of the 150 acres." 12  

Then the other halves were sold. Comegys, through his attorney James Guthrie, purchased both of them for $1200. The 250 acre tract was purchased by James Guthrie for $405 (apparently also for Comegys).

In 1833, John H. Baker purchased Breckinridge's share of the mill tracts for $2000. 13  Then in 1835 he purchased Comegys' share of the mill tracts plus the 250 acre tract for another $2000. 14  In this latter deed it was mentioned that Comegys was of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The deed was signed by James Guthrie, his attorney in fact. It is quite possible Comegys was never in Bullitt County, but a a speculator in land living elsewhere. There are no Comegys listed in the 1830 or 1840 censuses in Kentucky.

While searching the index to the deed books the writer discovered several references to a John H. Barker. When check these turned out to be John H. Baker. This is mentioned because of another reference.

In the Salt River Tiger was stated, "The Bank of Shepherdsville was a chartered institution, principally owned by John H. Barker. It was closed and ceased to do business between 1825-1830." 15  Perhaps these are one and the same. Further research is needed to be certain.

In February 1835, Baker obtained authority from the Kentucky General Assembly to construct a dam across Salt River at Shepherdsville not to exceed nine feet in height, and to contain a lock to allow the passage of boats. 27  . It is not yet clear if this was an expansion of the earlier race, or a new construction; and we are uncertain if it was truly built.

Sometime prior to December 9, 1837, Baker and Thomas Joyce purchased from John Pope and his wife the Dry Lick tract formerly owned by General Walton and containing 7880 acres. Mrs. Pope had been the wife of General Walton prior to his death. 16  The actual deed from Pope to Baker and Joyce have not yet been located, but it is referred to in several sources beginning with "Baker to Buchanan." Also the plat for the survey is available. 17  

By 1837 Baker was in debt to Buchanan and Gray for $7000. He placed the 150 acre tract, the 50 acre tract, the 250 acre tract, and his half of the Dry Lick tract up against his debt.

The deed described Baker's half of the Dry Lick tract as being "the same tract on which said Baker has two blast furnaces now in operation." It also described the tracts as including "all the fixtures, improvements, forges, furnaces, machinery, mills and tools including the rolling mills." 18  

Within a few months Baker had redeemed his property. In the deed of release Buchanan described the property as "including said Bakers Iron Manufactory, mills." 19  

By early 1840 Baker was in debt again. He owed the firm of Quiry and Tyler $71,872.42 plus interest. Again he mortgaged the four tracts against his debt. Included in the deed were certain personal items. they included nine horses, two mules, four yoke of oxen, two wagons, one cart, four plows, thirty axes, fourteen beds, one eight day clock, two sets of blacksmith tools, one pleasure carriage, about 200 tons of pig and scrap iron, a lot of stove coal, and a lot of charcoal.

Quiry and Tyler were also security for Baker in several other debts. Baker was to have six months to pay his debts in order to regain his property. 20  

Quiry and Tyler placed John Holsclaw in charge of the financial operation of the business but left control of the manufacturing end of the business in Baker's hands because Baker was said to know more about the business than anyone else. In the agreement putting Holsclaw in charge are found several interesting facts. A. D. B. Whitman had leased the two blast furnaces. The lease payment was $5000 in pig iron delivered at the forge. He was also to bring the balance of his pig iron to the forge for which he would receive payment in bar iron. The pig iron was worth $40 per ton. The bar iron sold at six cents per pound. 21  Simple arithmetic will show that Baker's gross profit on one ton of bar iron was $120. When compared with his indebtedness this presents at least two interesting possibilities. Either business was not good or Baker was not a very good businessman.

Apparently Quiry and Tyler gave Baker more than six months for the property was not finally transferred until 1845. 22  

The forge may have gone by several names. In one place, in 1845, it was called the Salt River Forge. 23  

In 1847, Quiry and Tyler sold the business to a group known as the Shepherdsville Iron Manufacturing Company for $75,000. In addition to all the tracts mentioned before, included in the deed was the Crooked Creek furnace tract, a 5000 acre tract on Crooked Creek, and a 2000 acre tract as shown by the survey of Charles West.

The deed described the sale as including in addition to the land, "all the furnaces, forges, steam engines, water & steam rolling mills, grist mills, buildings, tools, and implements." 24  

It did not take long for the company to start selling land. In 1850, Emory Low purchased for $28,000 the following tracts: Baker's half of the Dry Lick tract, including Salt River furnace; the Crooked Creek furnace tract; the 5000 acre tract on Crooked Creek usually called the Railey tract; and the 2000 acre West tract. 25  

However, it was not until 1866 that the Forge Tract, as it had come to be known, was sold. For $4,442 A. H. Field, a local lawyer, purchased the said tract which at that time contained about 400 acres, plus another 157 acre tract.

An interesting side note: I. F. Bullitt, president of the Shepherdsville Iron Manufacturing Company, signed this deed in Detroit, Michigan. 26  

There is no indication in this deed that the forge was active. It is referred to only as the forge tract with no mention of forges, mills or furnaces.

Also, when Quiry & Tyler sold to the Shepherdsville Iron Manufacturing Company the price was $75,000. When the company sold almost everything else in 1850, the price was $28,000. Subtracting one from the other would indicate that the value of the remaining forge tract should have been about $47,000. Yet it was sold to Field for less than $5000 in 1866.

We do know from the 1860 census that a John Davidson of Shepherdsville was listed as "iron mill roller" so there was apparently still some work going on at that time.

This leads the writer to believe that the forge stopped operation sometime between 1860 and 1866. Further research could possibly pinpoint the date closer.

In summary, the forge, rolling mills, and grist mills were probably begun by John W. Beckwith sometime around 1819. They passed into the hands of Cornelius Comegys and James Breckinridge around 1828. John H. Baker gained control in 1833. He remained with the business until 1845; although Quiry & Tyler had financial control after 1840. In 1847, the business was sold to the Shepherdsville Iron Manufacturing Company. By 1866, when the last of the land was sold to A. H. Field, the business had probably ceased to exist.

Today there is little evidence that the forge ever existed. Much of the bottomland that was once the forge tract is now farm land. Like the Bullitt's Lick salt wells and others, the iron forge is just a distant memory in Bullitt County history.

Artist Rendition of a Typical Forge

Artist's Rendition of a Typical Iron Forge

A final question remains: were there external factors that influenced the viability of this business, or was mismanagement the reason for its decline? From a distance it is difficult to be certain, but we do know of certain external factors that could have contributed to its rise and decline.

One of the problems faced by many Kentuckians in the early 1800's was the scarcity of hard money. This led to a system of bartering which was not completely effective. In 1802 the Kentucky Insurance Company was chartered and given banking privileges. Then in 1806 the Bank of Kentucky was established. When war with Britain broke out in 1812, Kentuckians relied on these two institutions for currency.

The war had the effect of keeping British goods off the market and encouraging the growth of local industry. The period of time following the conclusion of the War of 1812 was a period of significant economic growth in America as investment and speculative fever swept the west. Then in 1818 the Kentucky legislature chartered 46 semi-independent branch banks including a small one in Shepherdsville. 28  These banks were allowed to print paper money and issue it in the form of loans. Unfortunately, this paper was not backed by either gold or silver, but only on the reputation of the individual bank. Still, the influx of all this paper money led to people using their credit to borrow money for speculative ventures. It was during this time that Beckwith probably began his business.

As noted earlier, by 1822 Beckwith was in debt to Cornelius Comegys and John Peirshouse of the firm of Comegys and Co. for $5,000. It seems that hardly had Beckwith begun his business than the bottom dropped out of the banking industry as no one would accept anyone else's paper money rendering all of it almost worthless. It may have been that Beckwith borrowed to cover his business debts and then it difficult to meet the loan payments.

Beckwith's death came at a time when things were beginning to look a little better economically, and when the forge and land were sold, they brought a good price.

In the first half of the 1830's a financial boon, again backed by unsound paper money, was underway. It was during this time that John Baker bought the forge tracts. It may have been a prospering business at that point. He then bought the Dry Lick tract, indicating that things were going well enough that he felt he could invest in more land.

Then in 1836 President Jackson issued his "Specie Circular" which forbade the U.S. Treasury from accepting anything but gold and silver, or bank notes backed by gold and silver, in payment for public land. What followed came to be known as the Panic of 1837. During the next four to five years, the country suffered one of the worst of many depressions in its history, as businesses closed, building projects were suspended, and many people lost their jobs.

It's easy to see how, by early 1840, Baker was in debt again and owed the firm of Quiry and Tyler over $70,000. After Quiry and Tyler took over the business in 1845 there was a modest period of prosperity in America. It was at the height of the prosperity, in 1847, that they sold the property to the Shepherdsville Iron Manufacturing Company.

Following the end of the war with Mexico, there was an economic recession during which time the company began selling land. Then during the first half of the 1850's the nation once again experienced a time of modest prosperity. All this ended in 1857 when extravagant spending, overbuilding of railroads, and overextension of bank credits brought an economic crash. This period of economic depression extended almost unabated into the 1860's.

Combine the economic depression with the low grade of iron ore that was available in the area, and it is easy to see how the business could have collapsed under its own financial weight. It may have been still producing iron products in 1860, but it's days were numbered.


Footnotes

1 "Bullitt County Before the War," Salt River Tiger, (Shepherdsville, Kentucky), Dec. 16, 1896, p. 1.

2 A race is defined as a channel leading water to or from a place where its energy is utilized.

3 "Shepherdsville," Salt River Tiger, April 2, 1897, p. 1.

4 Spelled Quarry in the Tiger article, it is also spelled Query and Quiry in other places. The most often used spelling is Quiry. This is the spelling that will be used in this paper.

5 "Panebaker v. Beckwith," Bullitt Circuit Court, equity bundle 40 (1819). (Note: henceforth when referring to the Bullitt Circuit Court it shall be written as B. Cir. Ct. Also the words 'equity bundle' will be omitted as all cases cited from this court are of this type.)

6 Other trustees were Frederic Grayson, David Brown, William Graham, and Andrew Graham. See "Plan of Shepherdsville," Bullitt County Court, deed book B (1809), pp. 624-27. (Note: henceforth when referring to the Bullitt County Court it shall be written as b. co. Ct. Also the words 'deed book' shall be omitted.)

7 The land descriptions were as follows: "one tract on Salt river adjoining Shepherdsville and bounded as follows: Beginning at two black walnuts and three mulberry saplings on the north bank of Salt River thence N 79 E 240 poles to a black or red oak, elm and sweet gum saplings in a flat, thence S 6 1/2 W 49 poles to a stake corner to the graveyard, thence with a line of the same N 83 W 25 poles to another stake, thence S 6 1/2 W 6 poles to another stake thence S 83 1/2 E 25 poles to a stake, thence S 6 1/2 W 26 poles to a line of Peter Shepherd's 600 survey in the bank of Salt river, thence down the river and binding thereon with the meanders to the beginning containing 150 acres more or less. Also a tract of about 50 acres of land in the county of Bullitt lying principally in the upper line of the said tract of 150 acres at the junction of the lower line of Water Street of the town of Shepherdsville, thence with the street line up the river as far as Walnut Street thence with the said street to the river thence up the river to a large beech tree marked A.S. corner of Peter Shepherd's 600 acre survey, thence with the line thereof S 36 W to the south side of Salt River and so far up the bank thereof as shall be seven feet perpendicular height above low water mark thence down the river at the distance aforsaid to a point opposite the beginning corner of the aforsaid tract of 150 acres, thence across the river to the beginning corner of the said 150 acre tract to the beginning." "Shepherd to Beckwith & Grayson," B. Co. Ct., B (1813), p. 670. For prior history of the said two tracts see "Peter Shepherd 900 acre survey," & "Peter Shepherd 600 acre survey," B. Co. Ct., plat book 1 (1781), p. 6. "Waters v. Beckwith," B. Cir. Ct., 29 (1815). "McKeever to Beckwith," B. Co. Ct., C (1817), p. 415.

8 "Beckwith v. Swearingen," B. Cir. Ct., 63 (1824).

9 "Shepherd to Beckwith," B. Co. Ct., D (1818), p. 184.

10 "Beckwith to Comegys," B. Co. Ct., E (1822), p. 17.

11 This date is indicated in "Wilson v. Beckwith," B. Cir. Ct. 118 (1831).

12 "Comyges v. Beckwith," B. Cir. Ct., 95 (1829).

13 "Breckinridge to Baker," B. Co. Ct., G (1833), p. 459.

14 "Comyges to Baker," B. Co. Ct., H (1835), p. 219.

15 "Shepherdsville," Tiger, p. 1.

16 "Garther to Pope," B. Co. Ct., E (1823), p. 265.

17 "Mathew Walton 7880 acre survey," B. Co Ct., plat book 1 (1787), p. 15.

18 "Baker to Buchanan," B. Co. Ct., I (1837), p. 59.

19 "Buchanan to Baker," B. Co. Ct., I (1838), p. 89.

20 "Baker to Query & Tyler," B. Co. Ct., I (1840), p. 278.

21 "Baker to Query et al.," B. Co Ct., I (1840) p. 280.

22 "Baker to Quiry & Tyler," B. Co. Ct., K (1845), p. 331.

23 "Simmons v. Baker," B. Cir. Ct., 198 (1848).

24 "Quiry & Tyler to Shepherdsville Iron Manufacturing Company," B. Co. Ct., L (1847), pp. 109-110.

25 "Shepherdsville Iron Manufacturing Co. to Low," B. Co. Ct., M (1850), pp. 103-4.

26 "Shepherdsville Iron Manufacturing Co. to Field," B. Co. Ct., Q (1866), pp. 561-2.

27 Chap. 813 - An Act for the benefit of John H. Baker. Be it enacted by the General Assembly of ths Commonwealth of Kentucky, That it shall be lawful for John H. Baker to erect a dam at or on the rapids of Salt river, at or near Shepherdsville, not exceeding nine feet high: Provided, That he shall put a good and sufficient lock in said dam, so as to permit boats, rafts, &c. of the usual size to pass said dam without injury to the navigation; and shall keep the same in constant repair, and when necessary, properly attended, for the passage of boats, rafts, &c. Provided further, That said Baker, and all persons claiming under him, shall be liable to indictment for a nuisance, should said dam, at any time, prove injurious to the navigation of said river, and on conviction, to the abatement of said dam at his or their costs, by order of the court before which the conviction shall take place; And provided further, That said dam shall not destroy or injure the ford across said river at Shepherdsville: Provided, Boats, rafts, &c. shall, at all times, pass through said locks free of charge, and that said Baker shall be responsible for all delay, costs, loss of boats, rafts or other property, occasioned by the construction of said lock: And provided, That the legislature shall, at all times, have the power of repealing the law authorizing the building of said lock. [Approved February 27, 1835.] Taken from Acts Passed at the First Session of the Forty-third General Assembly for the Commonwealth of Kentucky, published in Frankfort in 1835; pages 258-9.

28 "An ACT to establish Independent Banks in this Commonwealth. Approved January 26, 1818. ... BE it enacted by the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, That banks shall be established at the following places, viz. ... A bank to be established at the town of Shepherdsville, in Bullitt county, to be denominated the Bank of Shepherdsville, with a capital stock of 100,000 dollars, to be divided into 1000 shares of 100 dollars each; and that books be opened in said town under the direction of Wilfred Lee, George F. Pope, James Alexander, Daniel Drake, Guy Phelps, John Burks, junr. John Reid, William Simmons, senr. and Rodolphus Buckey, or a majority of them; and to continue open sixty days, unless said stock shall be sooner taken." [From pages 375 and 384 of Acts Passed at the First Session of the Twenty-Sixth General Assembly for the Commonwealth of Kentucky begun and held in the town of Frankfort, on Monday, the first day of December 1817, and of the Commonwealth the Twenty-Sixth.


This is a work in progress. It is copyright 2006 by Charles Hartley, Shepherdsville KY. All rights are reserved. No part of the content of this page may be included in any format in any place without the written permission of the copyright holder.


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The Bullitt County History Museum, a service of the Bullitt County Genealogical Society, is located in the county courthouse at 300 South Buckman Street (Highway 61) in Shepherdsville, Kentucky. The museum, along with its research room, is open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday; and from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Thursday. Admission is free. The museum, as part of the Bullitt County Genealogical Society, is a 501(c)3 tax exempt organization and is classified as a 509(a)2 public charity. Contributions and bequests are deductible under section 2055, 2106, or 2522 of the Internal Revenue Code. Page last modified: 03 Aug 2016 . Page URL: bullittcountyhistory.org/bchistory/ironmanufacture.html