Charles Read: Part 3 – Ironmaster

As mentioned  in the first installment of this article, the senior Charles Read was a partner in the first ironworks in Bucks County, and the manufacture of iron was a fascination that never left the younger Read. By the mid 18th century, ironworks began opening all across the northern counties of New Jersey, and landowners in the south were eager to get in on the action. South Jersey has all of the ingredients needed to create a virtually self-sustaining iron industry. The little rivers that cut through the pine forest, many already dammed and powering sawmills, could be used to power the bellows and hammers required for forges and furnaces. The pine forest itself provided fuel for the furnace in the form of charcoal. Finally, bog iron, a naturally occurring ore that developed in the slightly acidic bogs and swamps, was abundant and easier to obtain than furnaces in north Jersey that had to extract iron from mines dug deep into the mountains.

Read, having already owned large parcels of land yielding bog iron, focused his attention acquiring land around Atsion, Batsto, Etna, and Taunton. In 1755 he signed a 999-year lease on 1,128 acres along the Atsion Creek.[1] Ten years later he purchased a large parcel of land in the Forks of the Atsion and Batsto Rivers and a one-half interest in Richard Westcott’s sawmill in the area. Read also purchased rights to mine iron ore and cut timber on adjacent lands.[2]

In 1765 Read petitioned the legislature’s for permission to dam the Batsto Creek for the purpose of building a furnace there. After seeking consent from Joseph Burr and ensuring that the dam would not interfere with his sawmill located on the head of the creek, the legislature replied in:

An Act to enable the Honourable Charles Read, Esquire, to erect a Dam over Batstow Creek; and also enable John Estell to erect a Dam over Atsion River.

And whereas the Honourable Charles Read sets forth, that he hath proved to Demonstration good Merchantable Bar-Iron may be drawn from such Ore as may be found in plenty in the bogs and . . .  in such parts of this Province which are too poor for cultivation, which he conceived will be a public emolument; and that in order to erect the necessary Works, he had lately purchased a considerable Tract of Land laying on both sides of Batstow Creek, near Little Egg Harbour in the County of Burlington praying the aid of the Legislature to enable him to erect a Dam across the said Creek for the use of an Iron-Works; and in order to remove every objection against the Prayer of his Petition hath produced a certificate from Joseph Burr, Jun., purporting that he, the said Joseph Burr, is and for several years path hath been in possession of a Saw-Mill at the head of Batstow Creek aforesaid, from whence Boards only have been floated down but attended with such Expense as to afford a probability that the said Creek will not be hereafter used for the like purpose; hence the said Burr alleges that the Dam over the said Creek as petitioned for by the said Charles Read, can not be of any public or private detriment, but on the contrary greatly advantageous.[3]

After receiving legislative approval, Read began looking for investors in the Batsto and other iron ventures. He placed an advertisement in the Pennsylvania Journal, which read in part:

Charles Read of Burlington, gives notice to the public, that he is possessed of several tracts of land, having in them streams of water, as constant and governable as can be wished . . . There is at all these places, plenty of food for the cattle from the middle of May to the middle of October. As Mr. Read’s situation renders it inconvenient to him to take upon himself the expense or care of works so extensive, he notifies to the public that it will be agreeable to him to let the conveniences to any gentleman of credit reserving a share of the produce, or to ender into a partnership with any persons of good dispositions, fortune, and integrity.

Read constructed his first two furnaces at Taunton and Etna. Taunton, located on Haines Creek about three and a half miles from Medford, comprised a small furnace and a three-fire forge. Read completed Taunton in 1766. Other buildings included a coaling house that could hold 400 loads of charcoal as well as a house for the manager of the works and various outbuildings for the employees. Also located nearby was one of Read’s sawmills and an orchard.[4]

Workmen finished construction of Etna Furnace shortly after Taunton went into blast. Like Taunton, Etna had a single furnace and a three-fire forge. Etna also featured a company store, gristmill, stamping mill, and a sawmill that Read rented out annually for £200. The primary product of both furnaces was bar iron, which would either be sold or worked into flatirons, wagon boxes, iron handles, and various pieces of cast ware. [5]

Read also completed Batsto Furnace in 1766. Located on the Batsto Creek, there was sufficient water power to drive four bellows and two hammer wheels. Unlike Etna and Taunton, Batsto was a five-way venture between the following partners: Read; Ruben Haines, a Philadelphia brewer; Walter Franklin, a merchant from New York; and John Cooper and John Wilson, both of Burlington County.[6]

The last of Read’s works, Atsion, dates to 1767-1768. For a time, Atsion and Batsto, located a similar distance apart as Taunton and Etna, shared a smith, carpenter, and clerk. It is unclear whether Read retained this arrangement after he sold his interest in Batsto.

Managing four ironworks, plus Read’s political duties, turned out to be too much for one person to handle. Falling iron prices made the industrial ventures unprofitable, and Read’s health began to fail. Between 1767 and 1768, Read sold his share of Batsto back to his partners – a half-interest to Haines, a quarter-interest to Cooper, and an eighth each to Franklin and Wilson. On January 26, 1768 Read sold a 249/1000 interest each to David Ogden, Jr. and Richard Saltar for £50. Presumably this was to lower Read’s financial risk in the venture while keeping majority control for himself. It took until 1773 for Read to finally sell Atstion. Taunton proved hard to sell, and, in 1773, Read turned it over to his trustees who listed it for public sale in 1774. Read’s son, Charles IV, assumed control of Etna, the largest of the works, after it had failed to attract a buyer. Charles Jr. continued operation for a while, but shortly afterwards had leased it to Jonathan Merryman. The furnace was eventually abandoned and ownership passed to William Richards.[7]

Reads ambition to become the greatest ironmaster in the province is likely what proved to be his downfall. While the iron enterprises were well thought out, the responsibilities of running them while simultaneously maintaining his public offices was simply too much for one man – especially one who was suffering health issues – to handle.

In the final episode of this series we’ll follow Read as he flees New Jersey in a last ditch effort to rebuild his financial wealth and avoid his creditors.

Notes:

1. Carl Raymond Woodward, Ploughs and Politicks: Charles Read of New Jersey and his Notes on Agriculture (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1941) p. 67

2. Ibid, p. 68

3. Arthur D. Pierce, Iron in the Pines: The Story of New Jersey’s Ghost Towns and Bog Iron (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1957) p. 119 (1990 Edition)

4. Woodward, p. 90-91

5. Ibid, p. 93

6. Pierce, p. 120

7. Charles S. Boyer, Early Forges and Furnaces in New Jersey (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1931) p. 166

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