The Remnants of Katahdin Iron Works Are a Reminder of Its Messy History

Maine’s only 19th-century iron foundry was an unlikely industrial site deep in the woods.

Katahdin Iron Works
Photo by William Dean, courtesy of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission
By Adrienne Perron
From our August 2023 issue

It’s a state historic site today, but in 1845, Katahdin Iron Works was an unlikely fledgling industrial site deep in the woods, just beginning a tumultuous stint as Maine’s only 19th-century iron foundry. At the height of business, 400 people worked there, many of them immigrants, running mills, furnaces, 16 charcoal kins, and more, and the town that sprang up around the operation boasted a company store, a hotel, and a school. Today, all that remains is one burn furnace and one charcoal kiln, across from the Katahdin Iron Works checkpoint to the KI Jo-Mary Forest, off Route 11, in Brownville. When you’re there, it’s not hard to picture the enterprise in its heyday, says Appalachian Mountain Club archaeologist Sarah Loftus: “You feel like you’re stepping into an entire world that’s disappeared.” 

The Katahdin Iron Works blast furnace was built a mile from Ore Mountain, home to a massive iron-ore deposit and a place where the Wabanaki sourced ochre. The years that followed its construction were a bumpy ride, Loftus says, with the operation intensively mining Ore Mountain, stripping the surrounding forests for charcoal, and damming the Pleasant River, ending anadromous-fish runs. The operation was never all that economically successful, she says. By 1890, charcoal-fired operations were obsolete, urban steel mills were springing up, and Katahdin Iron Works slid into ruin.

The whole of the old township is conserved by AMC today. Anadromous fish are returning to the river, Loftus says, and the forest has reclaimed the land. She’s conducted digs and surveys there, with volunteers from the Maine Archaeological Society, uncovering artifacts that suggest details about those who lived and worked there, the operation’s imprint on the land, and the demise of the bygone buildings, many of which were lost to fire. “The workers who struggled through this saga are worth knowing,” she says. “You can feel their histories when you’re standing underneath the tower of the blast furnace and listening to the roar of the Pleasant River.” 

May 2024, Down East Magazine

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