|18WA288 Antietam Furnace
The Mt. Aetna iron furnace, popularly known as Antietam Furnace, was established by William James around 1761. In 1764, Baltimore merchant Barnabas Hughes and his sons purchased the land and 2/3 of the iron operation from James, who retained a 1/3 share in the iron furnace. By the time Barnabas Hughes died in 1766, his inventory indicated that the property probably included a store, house, saw mill, and forge. Seven indentured servants and eight enslaved individuals were listed in the inventory, and these people may have worked at the iron furnace.
Barnabas’ sons Daniel, Samuel, and John expanded the business after their father’s death, purchasing more land and adding to the infrastructure of their iron working operations across the region. Because of poor roads, the Antietam iron works probably concentrated on household goods that could be sold nearby, such as firebacks, dutch ovens, and pots. The American Revolution changed this business model, however, as the Hughes family won contracts to build cannons for the Continental Congress in 1776. Cannon production was profitable during the war, but the Antietam Furnace may not have been large enough for cannon production, and the Hughes brothers seem to have expanded other locations to meet the demand. The Hughes family may have shut down the smaller location in favor of its newer operations around 1775 or 1776. After the war, the industry’s profits declined. By 1783, the location had certainly been shut down. Not long after its abandonment, the furnace was dismantled and the site was filled in.
Plan view of the Antietam Furnace excavations, adapted from Frye 1984.
The Antietam Furnace was discovered during an expansion of the Mt. Aetna Volunteer Fire Department station. Archaeological excavations were undertaken by the Maryland Historical Trust in 1982 and 1983. Initial research focused on a furnace stack, where ore was heated to extract iron, and a water wheel pit and shaft that generated power, possibly to drive bellows for the furnace. Wall foundations and other features uncovered between the stack and the wheel pit hint at the location of the bellows and a small forge where a blacksmith made tools for the operation.
Artifacts recovered at the site include firebacks, cast iron cooking vessels, and pig iron made at the site, tools, slag, and other waste products of the industry, and ceramics and personal items used by the people who worked there.
|Frye, Susan Winter
|Archeological excavations at the Antietam Iron Furnace complex (18WA288), Washington Co., Md. MHT Manuscript Series No. 37.
The Antietam Furnace archaeological collections are owned by the Maryland Historical Trust and curated at the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory.