The Great Iron Ore Odyssey
The Rochester area is blessed with only a few minerals of genuine economic value. As the vast shallow ocean, which once blanketed this region, slowly evaporated, some large deposits of salt and gypsum (sodium chloride and calcium sulphate) were formed, however they were to the west of our city. There are also some natural gas deposits. These two are not local, but to our southwest.
However, there was one mineral, deep reddish in color, that was discovered not too far from Rochester and it generated quite a stir. It was oolitic hematite, an interesting fossil form of local iron ore also known as ferric oxide of iron.
According to Ruth Cooper, in her brief account of iron mining in Ontario for the Rochester Historical Society, a farmer first made the remarkable discovery. It seems that during an especially warm August in 1811, Mr. Knickerbocker, a pioneer Ontario farmer, was digging a well to water his cows and other livestock. He had excavated the rusty looking soil to about three feet below ground level. There his digging exposed a layer of broken limestone. Struggling through this, he was surprised to encounter an unusual layer of reddish material. At that point he hadn't struck water, instead he'd uncovered the vein of a very heavy and compact rock-like mineral. It was iron ore.
The farmer was confounded and disappointed. There was no water for his cattle and all he had to show for his efforts was a bed of red rock.
Although he hadn't realized it, the vein in Mr. Knickerbocker's pasture lot was part of an extensive series of ore beds located halfway between the Ridge Road and Lake Ontario's shore. Geologically, scientists believe the iron ore originated millions of years ago during the middle Silurian Period. The ore was spread out in what is today western Wayne County as a part of a delta deposit to form a vast continent called Appalachia. Geologists have traced the vein southward and speculate that the huge deposits that once made Birmingham, Alabama, an iron and steel center, were also related to our local iron ore beds. Here the beds are "a half mile in width and from 10 inches to 14 feet below the surface."
In Rochester, if you want to see or sample the hematite unique to our area, travel to Seth Green Parkway at the end of Norton Street. There an R. G. & E. Service road slopes downward along the Genesee River Gorge. Revealed along the rock wall, in a band of rock called the Clinton Group, one will discover a foot-thick bedding of the reddish iron ore mineral.
Technically it's called "Furnaceville Hematite," a hematite-bearing limestone that contains many micro fossils. Close examination reveals millions of tiny fossils termed "oolites." Their tiny animal bodies may have helped concentrate the iron ore during a period of deposition that lasted for centuries.
Even prior to the Ontario, New York, discovery, the ore was known to the Iroquois Indians. According to Dr. James Wishart, a former and well-known lecturer in the University of Rochester's geology department, the Iroquois found it made an excellent pigment for both decoration and ceremony. Oneida County also had a small hematite mine as early as 1797. Perhaps the most interesting early use of Wayne County ore was its part in making crude cannon balls for use in the War of 1812.
In order to smelt the ore a number of furnaces utilizing charcoal were established. The first one was a rustic affair devised by Samuel Smith, a Walworth pioneer, about 1816. He was rewarded with almost 400 pounds of iron per day. Later in 1825, Henry S. Gilbert ran the first efficient furnace. Its location, near Smith's site, was called Furnaceville. With this larger furnace, the iron production reached three to four tons per day. The product of the furnace, called "pig iron" was shipped to Rochester for use by a number of industries utilizing cast iron for their products.
In 1840 the Clinton Iron Company, using an even larger furnace, had a daily production of six to seven tons. During the Civil War the demand for iron boomed and the company flourished. They employed a variety of workers, some from England with mining experience and later, a large number of immigrants, especially from famine-wracked Ireland. A work force of approximately 200 miners was engaged in extracting the ore during this period. Unfortunately, a fire in 1867 destroyed the furnace and ended the operation.
Just three years later, however, a new firm, The Ontario Iron Ore Company, was formed in 1870 by Rochester residents. President of the firm was James Brackett with William H. Bowman as secretary-treasurer. The Rochester office was at 90 Mill Street. The 1970 Rochester Directory bears their ad offering "Foundry, Machinery, Cold Short and Neutral PIG METAL." Pig iron is the "impure iron, with a large content of combined carbon, obtained directly from a blast furnace."
Brackett's operation produced about 20 tons of prime iron daily. To produce the iron needed for sale required one-eighth imported iron ore and seven-eighths local ore. It took two and a quarter tons of ore to produce one ton of iron. The domestic iron was sold mostly to Rochester firms manufacturing stoves and architectural iron products. The Victorian Era was fond of decorating with iron brackets, cornices, ornamental turrets, railings, fences, balconies and hitching posts.
The William H. Cheney Company at 106 South St. Paul Street (South Ave.) used large amounts of cast iron in manufacturing building fronts, truss girders, columns and lintels. John Siddons & Son at 2 - 8 Stone Street also sold "Patent Iron Roofing" and "Ornamental Galvanized Iron Work." Records reveal that some iron was even shipped on Lake Ontario to western markets in Cleveland and Toledo.
Helping to meet a growing demand, a huge foundry and blast furnace was erected just west of the Genesee River at Charlotte. Called the Rochester Iron Manufacturing Company, it produced 10,200 tons of pig iron during its first year. According to the County Directory for 1869-70, James Brackett was chief executive for both the Ontario Foundry as well as president of the Charlotte-based Rochester Iron Manufacturing Company.
Moreover, the 1886 Rochester Directory listed James Brackett as president of The Sill Stove Company. To top it off, the humble James Brackett even had a Sill stove named in his honor. The ornate parlor warming device was christened "The St. James."
Mr. Brackett, obviously a captain of local industry, was a trustee for the Rochester Savings Bank and a director of the Lake Ontario Shore Railroad. The short-line railroad played an important part in moving the iron ore from Wayne County mines with colorful names such as "Bean Bed," "Bundy Ore Bed," "Hurly Bed," and "Moon Bed."
Edwin Scrantom, son of Hamlet Scrantom, Rochester's first settler in the historic hundred-acre tract, wrote a column called "Old Citizen's Letters" for the Democrat & American in the late 1860s. One poem dealt with Mr. Brackett's Charlotte blast furnace. Composed by Mr. Scrantom, it's both dramatic and poetic:
The power, the power of a great blast furnace!