Jul 09, 2023

Collinsville: A blast from the past

Mar 29, 2023

The Collinsville Blast Furnace is pictured in 1888, after its closure. (Photo courtesy of the Marquette Regional History Center)

MARQUETTE — The Collins Iron Company was organized in November 1853 and, in 1855, built a forge at the end of present day Wright Street. The forge was the last to be built in the Upper Peninsula and was on the north side of the Dead River at the site of the first hydroelectric power plant in Marquette.

The company was named for Edward K. Collins, the largest stockholder and the owner of a fleet of ocean steamers. Robert Graveraet was also a stockholder, and the others were Elon Farnsworth, Edwin H. Thompson, and Charles A. Trowbridge.

It was established to provide iron for boiler plates and shafts for Collins’ fleet of steamers and owned a large track of hardwood and pine adjacent to the river site. The company also held title to some valuable iron lands near the Jackson Mine.

Like other forges at that time, it was a “crude affair.” The iron ore was covered completely with charcoal. When heated, the ore was reduced to a “spongy, pasty lump,” gathered on an iron rod and then hammered on an anvil with water or steam-powered sledgehammers, or by hand, to remove as much of the slag as possible. The ore had to be rich to make the blooms. The result was a piece of wrought iron weighing at least 100 pounds. By August 1855, the forge began producing eight tons of bloom iron per day.

Ore was hauled down from the mines by wagons and later by the plank road and the “strap” railroad. Despite the availability of wood to make charcoal, the site was abandoned after three years. The Collins Iron Company went out of business during the economic panic of 1857. Other factors for the closing were the costs of hauling the ore from the mine and the high costs of manual labor.

Stephen R. Gay, an experienced and inventive man who was involved with both the Collinsville and Forestville furnaces, leased the Collinsville site from Charles A. Trowbridge and Eber B. Ward for his own use. It cost him $50. The property included 15 charcoal kilns, machine shops and dwellings. Among its natural advantages were a good source of water power from the Dead River and 3,920 acres of property, some of which was mineral land containing a potential ore supply.

Gay converted the forge into a miniature blast furnace with a stack and hot air blast on January 18, 1858, the first in the Upper Peninsula. It was an attempt to find out if quality pig (cast) iron could be made in a small furnace. The experiment began on Jan. 21, when the stack of the furnace was filled with the proper proportions of charcoal, ore, and flux.

The blast ended four days later, and the pig iron produced was the first of its kind in the Upper Peninsula. In a report in 1858, Gay said his smaller experimental furnace was successful and used 10 pounds of ore, 10 pounds of flux, and 1 bushel of charcoal.

Work started on the construction of a full-sized blast furnace on Aug. 2, 1858. It was built at the foot of a high bluff with a tramway from the bluff to the top of the furnace for ease of loading. The furnace was put into blast on Dec. 13, 1858, and produced eight tons of pig iron by the fifth day. They used only 90 bushels of charcoal to a ton of ore. The furnace’s maximum production was expected to reach an output of 12 tons per day.

In 1862, the Collinsville furnace was producing pig iron and averaging nine tons a day. Fifty workers were employed by Gay, who then turned management of the furnace over to Timothy T. Hurley. The furnace produced 4,631 tons of pig iron in 1867.

By May 1873, the company’s lands had been stripped of all usable wood and the furnace was abandoned. While in operation, the Collinsville furnace produced 41,997 tons of pig iron, worth nearly $2 million.

Following the closure, the machinery was removed and in 1889, Marquette’s Mayor Clark headed an effort to acquire the furnace’s property on which to build the city’s first hydroelectric plant. Clark, in negotiations with R.K. Hawley of Cleveland, who then owned the land, agreed on a sale of a 400-acre tract at Collinsville to the city.

During the week of Aug. 18, 1889, the razing of the furnace and buildings began. Hawley retained all the fire brick and stack lining from the blast furnace and hauled it to the mouth of the Dead River, where it was used in the construction of a boiler, fireplace and stack for the steam sawmill then being built by Hawley.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This work was adapted from the Spring 2014 “Harlow’s Wooden Man.”

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