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By the Way: The fire dragon in Durham


Jim Walter, now retired, recalls playing in the rubble of the old Durham Furnace and Iron Works along Route 212 near its intersection with Route 611.

This was the 19th-century enterprise that succeeded the original Durham Furnace built in 1727.

Jim said his grandfather and great-grandfather had worked for the company. When Jim was a child, he lived in one of the old company houses along Cooks Creek that his grandfather had purchased in the 1920s, years after the iron works had closed. Later, his family moved to Holland Township, N.J., He’s back in Durham now where he lives with his wife, Donna.

Having played in the ruins of the industrial site, Jim said he has always been filled with questions about the iron works, its limestone quarries and mines, and the lives its workers lived.

His imagination took him often to a vision of the flames from the blast furnace lighting up the sky for miles. When he was telling a young nephew about the blast furnace he described it as a fire dragon to stoke the boy’s interest in the operation. He said, “A blast furnace is a technological version of a fire dragon.”

So, when he retired from his job in research and development for an electronics company, he decided to dig into the secrets of Durham’s past industry and the fire dragon of his imagination.

Jim, who is a member of the Durham Historical Society, has done the research as his own special project. He has spent hundreds of hours on research and field trips to the Hagley Museum in Wilmington, Del., where the papers of an earlier Durham historian, B.F. Fackenthal, once iron master, are stored.

Jim discovered just how connected Durham was to the Industrial Revolution sweeping the world. He said fitting scraps of knowledge together was “exciting,” and solving mysteries “enthralling.”

He also discovered, for example, the new company’s 650-acre tract had been owned since the demise of the old furnace in 1779 by Adolphus Burton, a British army officer. Jim described him as one of the “real life men who inspired Tennyson’s ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade.’ ”

He said the Burton family never lived in Durham, nor even in America, but rented out their land holdings to tenant farmers and some mining operations on Mine Hill. In 1847, the Burtons put the property up for public sale.

The original furnace had burned only charcoal, and cutting down nearby trees for fuel had depleted the area’s forests. But in 1848, Joseph Whitaker and some associates started to buy up old iron furnaces and fuel them with plentiful anthracite coal.

Durham was an ideal place to initiate the new technology. The mines and quarries were already there, so was the willing labor force, and the Delaware Canal, completed in 1832, provided ease of shipping in and out of the plant.

The business thrived and Peter Cooper and Abram Hewitt, who bought it in 1864, built new blast furnaces in 1874 and 1876 and production increased. Coal was brought south from Pennsylvania’s coal region by barge on the Lehigh Canal to the Forks of the Delaware at Easton and then to the Delaware Canal. At one point the company employed 220 workers and transported ore from the mines at Mine Hill and Rattlesnake Hill with mules and horses.

But Durham’s place in the industry began to fade when the electric furnace was introduced in 1890 and Bethlehem became the center of steel production. The Durham plant closed in 1909.

Jim said, “I found the term ‘dandy wagon’ that I had never heard before. Since the furnace was mostly downhill from the mines the mules only had to pull the empty ore cars back to the top. Then they got to ride in a special car, ‘the dandy wagon’ back down the hill. I haven’t yet found if the cars had any brakes or just slowed down at a bump stop.”

He still has questions and is still researching, and there’s still a lot of ground to cover before he completes his venture.