Katahdin Iron Works is a state historic site in Brownville. It is a former iron works that produced pig iron from locally mined iron ore from 1845 to 1890. In its heyday, Katahdin Iron Works was actually a small unincorporated “company town” with 200 residents, a train, a sawmill, a store, and even a 100 room hotel. All that remains is the restored central kiln and one charcoal oven. It sits across from one of the checkpoints for entry into the Ki-Jo Mary Forest, which contains Gulf Hagas, known as the “Grand Canyon of the East.” Because of its remote location, most who visit the site are on their way in or out of the forest for a camping, hiking, or fishing vacation.
There’s Ore in Them There Hills
Moses Greenleaf (1777-1834), Maine’s “first map maker” had an idea. He thought that perhaps what the Native Americans called places in their languages might give a clue to what the land contains. The Abenaki called a hill near Brownville “Munnalammonungan” which he translated as “fine paint.” Since iron oxide turns into a pigment of red ochre when exposed to air, he conjectured that maybe there was iron ore in the hill. He was right.
To prove his point, he supposedly forged a horseshoe from ore. Carrying the horseshoe as a prop, he went around to state legislators and industry leaders trying to convince them that the back woods of Maine held more than logs and fish and that the area around Brownville would be worth developing.
Maine Iron Company
Samuel Smith and his son Edward took up the challenge. In 1841, he bought the rights to the land and created the Maine Iron Company. He first built a road from Brownville to a spot where the Pleasant River flows out of Silver Lake. Then he built a town. He had masons construct a 55 foot tall stone blast furnace and 18 stone “beehive” charcoal kilns to create fuel for the furnace. They built a dam across the Pleasant River so that water power could run a large bellows for the furnace. But to run the operation he needed people and the site was so remote that the people needed to live nearby.
A Town is Born
Smith ended up building a small company town at the location and called it “Smithville.” He had workers construct a sawmill, boarding house, company store, school, post office, stables, and homes. Storage sheds were built to house the charcoal and limestone needed for the operation. Over time, the town expanded.
Wood Choppers, Miners, and Smelters
To create iron, the workers dug up the raw ore which was quite easy as there was a 4 foot deep band of limonite gossan sitting under trees and dirt. They burned hardwood to create charcoal in the beehive kilns and stored it in sheds. Then they roasted the raw ore to burn off the sulfur – which meant that Smithville must have smelled quite horrible. The ore was now ready for the furnace. From a building at the top of the furnace, they dumped the ore, limestone, and charcoal down into the furnace. Using the bellows, they forced air into the kiln to super-heat the mix where it melted. The impurities (slag) floated to the top and were drained off. The melted iron flowed out of the bottom into channels dug into sand. When the iron cooled, it created rough 80 pound iron bars known as “pigs.”
Just creating the charcoal to run the furnace was quite an operation. 16 kilns ran non-stop, each burning 50 cords of wood for 6 days (with another 10 days to cool down). One busy winter, 400 men, using 200 horses and oxen, cut and hauled 20,000 cords of wood which represented a year’s supply of wood for the kilns.
Sale and a Change in Name
Smith wasn’t able to turn a profit so after a couple of disappointing years, he sold the business to David Pingree, a “shipping tycoon” from Salem, MA in 1845 for $100,000. Smith renamed it as “Katahdin Iron Works” after the nearby Mount Katahdin. He hired some experts to run the furnace and a geologist to test the iron ore. He had additional support buildings constructed and the town grew. KIW even printed its own scrip to pay workers and they used it at the company store and retail stores as far away as Bangor even honored it.
Lean Times and Weak Iron
By 1849 KIW produced 1,700 tons of pig iron for the Philadelphia market. But it turns out that iron produced at KIW wasn’t great, Because it had such high sulfur content, the resulting pig iron was too brittle for most projects. In 1857, Pingree decided to close down the mine and smelter operation. He reopened when Civil War demand for pig iron increased. Pingree ran KIW until his death in 1863.
Restart and Better Product
In 1872, Owen Davis became the owner of KIW and set out to fix the smelting issue that was responsible for the brittle iron. He hired a Swedish mining engineer who figured out that the high temperatures used to remove the sulfur increased its silicon content which ended up producing brittle metal. So they adjusted the smelting temperatures and the result was a strong, superior iron. Things were looking up.
Railroad and a Hotel
In 1881, Davis had the 16 mile “Bangor and Katahdin Iron Works Railway” railroad line constructed between KIW and the town of Milo. From Milo, iron could be shipped to Bangor and then by national railroad tracks as far West as Detroit where it was used to make railroad car couplings.
He also converted the boarding house into the Silver Lake Hotel to take advantage of the budding tourist trade. The village grew with homes for 200 families and KIW was producing 20 tons of pig iron per day.
The End of the Iron Age
In 1883, a major fire broke out fueled by a hurricane that carried embers from the furnace onto nearby buildings. The damage was severe, but Davis rebuilt. KIW continued to produce pig iron until it was closed in 1890 due to market conditions. It never grew beyond a small scale operation, and the cost of producing the charcoal and shipping the resulting iron out of the rural Maine Woods were too high. That coupled with efficient Pennsylvania iron production meant that KIW just couldn’t compete.
Years of charcoal production had decimated the local forests of wood for the production of charcoal. Then the smelting equipment was shipped to Nova Scotia in 1890 effectively ending Maine’s short-lived “iron age.”
KIW in the early 20th Century
The hotel burned in 1913. Train service was discontinued in 1922, but some enterprising locals retrofit cars with flanged steel wheels to run on the tracks as a passenger jitney service. The jitney, and subsequent versions of it, carried residents and tourists between Brownville and KIW until the tracks were removed in 1933.
Down the road from KIW, remote hunting and fishing camps grew. The clear lakes were filled with trout and salmon, and the woods with deer and moose. One camp, the Long Pond Camps, picked up lodgers at the KIW station and transported them to the lodge a few miles West. A brochure from the time advertising the camps said that for $21/week, you could enjoy the bounty of the lakes, while being taken care of by the staff.
Nowhere else can the weary city toiler so surely find that rest and complete change from the routine of his daily life as in a Maine camp. This kind of life satisfies the mental cravings and the physical needs.
It went on to say that “the dining room service is looked after by competent women who thoroughly understand their duties. There are good beds, a beautiful table and a careful housewife’s superintendence over all.”
The land around KIW is now part of the 175,000 acres of Ki-Jo Mary Forest and the area is also referred to as the North Maine Woods. The land is a unique “Multiple Use Management Forest” which is owned by a consortium of private land owners. It is generally located between Greenville (Moosehead) and Brownville, and is absolutely gorgeous.
Directly across from the restored remains of the iron works, you can stop at the gatehouse and pay a day use fee for access to the forest.
One of the owners is the Appalachian Mountain Club, who has made a series of large land purchases in the area. AMC owns and maintains 4 lodges in the vicinity. The remote area contains Gulf Hagas, lakes, rivers, a whole lot of wilderness camping and fishing, including some campsites very close to the KIW location. The timber is being actively harvested so you always have to be on the lookout for logging trucks heading your way on the dirt road – always steer clear and you might save your windshield. The area is part of the famous “100 mile Wilderness” which is the last leg of the Appalachian Trail (assuming you travel from Georgia to Maine).