The Centuries at Falling Creek
Soon after the settlement at Jamestown began in 1607, exploration of the interior began. The James River was explored to Richmond by Captain John Smith and Christopher Newport. While Captain John Smith was probably accurate in his assessment of some of the settlers, it is highly questionable that such a broad brush can be applied to all. When writing, one perhaps refers to incidents that involve not all of a group. Bill Kelso’s excavations at Jamestown have shed fascinating light on the abilities of some of the people there. Among the fops, dilettantes and other assorted idiots that history has erroneously labeled them, men of science were also included. Looking for the Northwest Passage and for gold were the top orders of the day. People knowledgeable in minerals very early on located iron ore, assayed it and shipped a few tons back to England. Somewhere between 1607 and 1610, Falling Creek was identified as a near perfect place for heavy industry.
Communication back to the Virginia Company in England extolled the virtues of Falling Creek. Venture capitalists of the day were contacted and a Captain Benjamin Bluett (his first name has just been pulled from the newly digitized VA Company records) was hired as ironmaster in 1619. Bluett and 80 men were sent an ironworks. The VA Company records also indicate plans to send 150 men to establish no less than 3 ironworks in Virginia. In yet another letter a Mr. Kinge is to go with 50 persons to set on foot iron works. In short, the idea that iron could be smelted to good profit in VA was a multi-pronged operation. However, there is no indication of another ironworks apart from Falling Creek being started. Bluett died either on the voyage over or shortly after arrival and others of his men likewise perished from “seasoning”, a process that killed from 50 to 90% of the early immigrants. The VA Company Records have Bluett dying on the voyage over. That appears to indicate that Bluett had made a start on the ironworks and may actually have found the falls at Falling Creek and the ore beds. The death of the ironmaster who was the sole person who knew how to actually run the furnace along with carpenters to build the dam, flume, water wheel, camshaft, bellows and whatever else had to be built from scratch after the wood was sawn and shaped into lumber were severe impediments to doing anything but nibbling around the edges of the project. The remnants were not able to complete the blast furnace at Falling Creek.
Interest in iron making did not stop. John Berkeley was hired in 1621 on the same conditions as Bluett, with the annoying side-note that Bluett’s terms do not survive. With a crew to finish one blast furnace, John Berkeley, with his son Maurice and 25 others, set sail for Virginia. In a letter back, Berkeley promised a plentiful supply of iron by Whitsuntide (June 9, 1622). “And the Iron-workes brought after five thousand pounds expenses to that assured perfection, as within three months they promised to send home great quantities. However, the Powhatans had other plans. The death of Powhatan and the ascension of Opechancanough as paramount chief brought an end to any accommodation with the English who had expanded their settlements farther into Powhatan territories. A coordinated attack was planned for all of the English settlements for the morning of March, 22, 1622. Hundreds of settlers were killed in the attacks. Their aim was to force the English to leave the Powhatan territory. At Falling Creek, 2 children survived, and the ironworks was destroyed. Or, the other story was that everyone there was killed.
The second iron working venture followed immediately after the 1622 uprising when Maurice Berkeley, who was away from Falling Creek and survived the attack, attempted to restart Falling Creek but was unsuccessful.
The third attempt was in the period 1634 to 1636. Sir John Zouch came to Virginia in 1634. In his 1636 will that was proved in 1639 he lamented that his son had spent upwards of £250.00 plus more of Zouch’s own to no result in getting the ironworks going again. Zouch had sold his English holdings for £10,000. If his expenditure equaled his son’s, putting over 5% of his worth into this venture showed extraordinary resolve.
The fourth and fifth iron working ventures came after William Byrd I accumulated at least part of the original Zouch patent via various transactions. The Higgins, et. al. Report cites Hatch and Gregory who cite Brock (1885) who stated that in 1687 and 1696 William Byrd I undertook the revival of the ironworks at Falling Creek. Unfortunately, the extent of his revival is unknown. He is credited with the erection of a sawmill and tannery on the property.
The many successive attempts to smelt iron on an industrial scale at Falling Creek after the 1622 event were all failures. However, the burning question was whether it got into blast under John Berkley. A blast furnace produces two products: glassy slag that is discarded and pig iron that is the salable product. To date, none of the characteristic glassy slag has been recovered, although one piece might have been. Without this conclusive evidence in hand, it cannot be said that Falling Creek got into blast before its destruction.
The sixth iron working venture started no earlier than 1749 when Archibald Cary inherited the property from his father. According to Robert Brock (1937:12) Cary started an iron works to produce bar iron from pig. This finery forge operation has a varied history. Hatch and Gregory (1962:280) using unattributed sources, state that the forge was unprofitable, and the land soon returned to grist milling.
However, they go on to cite other referenced sources that argue for continuous operations through to 1781 when the structures on the property were burned by Benedict Arnold. Hatch & Gregory (1962:281) cite a 1769 visitor who had seen the operating iron works, and a 1779 visit by a British POW relates that the iron works at Falling Creek were in use. The 1769 visitor published his book in 1784 and commented in margin notes that the works were destroyed in 1781 by the British. It appears that the assertion that the ironworks were unprofitable and turned to other operations including grist milling can now be shown to be partially true. He probably shut down the forge and later started it for the American Revolution.
Oxford Dendrochronology Laboratory showed two distinct cut episodes. The hardwood dates in the 1720’s and 1730’s corresponds to the first building of the forge in 1750 and the second set of hardwood dates in the 1760’s and 1770’s corresponds to a rebuild done for Cary’s "Wheel horse of the Revolution" sobriquet for his Revolutionary War efforts.
The gristmill continued after the death of Archibald Cary. It was improved by adding a headrace from a new dam upstream that provided a steadier water supply than the volatile waters at the falls downstream. In that century, the mill appears to have been built higher by the addition of at least 2 floors, as well as extended westward to fit the new headrace. The headrace flume was replaced by a pipe, the hole for which may still be seen at the mill seat.
Robert Alonzo Brock of the Smithsonian started academic research at the site when he visited in 1876 and published his findings in 1885. He wrote that he found “scoriaie” on the ground proving the site produced iron.
The 20th century was the swan song for industrial activity on Falling Creek. Gristmills had been gradually phased out as the monster mills of the Midwest superseded the smaller custom mills elsewhere. Their demise was greatly aided by sanitary laws that in effect forced the smaller mills out of business due to the cost of upgrading. The owners of the Falling Creek mill diversified their operation to include grinding mica for the paint industry. Mica was the basis for the gloss in paint. Falling Creek mill probably went the way of most mills in Virginia that were within the reach of a wrecker’s cable that was used to pull out the metal for the war effort in World War II.
The mill burned and what was left was a set of stone walls that hold the history of the site in them. The mill walls show various repairs, rebuilds, extensions and upgrades chronicling the life of the mill from probably the 17th century into the 21st century. Even the east doorway is enigmatic. Rather than rectangular, it is trapezoidal. Ned Heite remarked that the shape was found in iron buildings in the northeast.
The site refused to go quietly into that good night. A small and very determined group of people who grew up in the area and who came to know of the importance of the site from other areas and states came to investigate. Sporadic investigations by historians, amateur and professional archaeologists, metallurgists and geophysical surveyors were made.
Roger Bensley developed Bensley Village in the 1930’s and acquired Falling Creek as part of his holdings. It was the first Bon Air type of planned community south of the James. Bensley had a bulldozer and used it to uncover what he termed the furnace with several enigmatic structures. His efforts were used as the basis for more formal investigations by historians and archaeologists. Unfortunately, Bensley never produced a map of his work, nor was one produced later that showed where he found his features.
Roland Wells Robbins who excavated at Saugus in Massachusetts visited the site twice. Paul Hudson, curator at Jamestown and Frederick Pease of the Chesterfield Historical Society conducted extensive correspondence regarding the site. Charles Hatch & Thurlow Gates Gregory investigated the site and performed metallurgical analysis on pig iron recovered from the site. Howard A. MacCord, Sr., then State Archaeologist, conducted excavations at the site in 1962 using Archeological Society of Virginia volunteers, and the College of William and Mary also surveyed on both sides of the creek. Higgins, et al. all claim to have found evidence of a blast furnace on the site. Their efforts provided the first accurate map of the gristmill, the falls and the post sockets visible before the later floods uncovered more. Their work on the gristmill property has compiled the archival history of the property (Linebaugh & Blanton 1995).
Browning & Associates, Ltd. interest in the project grew out of long-term interest in ironworking sites and by James H. Brothers IV’s Masters Thesis work on iron. We had by then decided to work from first principles to re-examine the entire issue of when the ironworks operated there, how it operated and what happened after the 1622 termination. We were also cognizant that the Cary Forge had altered the landscape enormously. Visits to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and the Virginia Historical Society revealed that artifacts previously identified as part of the 17th century venture were in fact part of Cary’s Forge. All of the slag samples were bubbly slag that is a mixture of prills of iron, pieces of unrefined iron, charcoal and silica. The voids in the matrix of forge slag come from air bubbles trapped in the viscous mass that is being processed.
The signature product of a blast furnace is pig iron and glassy slag. The former is the currency produced by the site and may not be expected to be found at the site where it was produced. The latter is a waste product and will be discarded in close proximity to the smelting site and is quite unmistakable. Glassy slag is pure enough to be recycled into glass objects.
Our concern was that despite strenuous and long-term claims that Falling Creek had gotten into blast, the signature artifacts (glassy slag) demonstrating that fact had not been recovered from the site. The window of opportunity from the documents was quite small. Beverley sent back a letter in the autumn of 1621 stating that he would have a plentiful supply of iron by the next summer. His campaign would have started in early 1622, possibly in the middle of February. The outside temperature has to be warm enough that the water wheel will not freeze as the bellows would then not work and the furnace would cease to work. Ironmasters started a campaign late enough in the year to ensure the water supply would not stop and kept going until the following winter when temperatures got low enough to stop the wheel. Beverley would have had at most 5 weeks of smelting and possibly as little as 3 weeks before the Powhatans attacked and stopped the venture.