History of the Columbus Iron Works

"The Columbus Iron Works, 1853 - 1965"

 

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For over a century, the Columbus Iron Works, from its plant south of the Dillingham Street Bridge, furnished goods for homes, farms, steamboats, and mills.  The company's products and its steady growth were important factors in the economic development of Columbus and the region.  In 1853, William R. Brown, who had operated a foundry since the 1840s, organized the larger Columbus Iron Works.  This expansion mirrored the transformation of Columbus from a frontier town (1828) into one of the earliest and largest southern industrial centers; by 1860, its textile production ranked second within the South.  Reflecting this vitality, the Columbus Iron Works, though less than a decade old in 1860, already manufactured a wide variety of merchandise:  kettles and ovens; brass castings; cast-iron columns and store fronts; sugar, a grist, and saw mills; and steam engines to power these mills, cotton gins, and riverboats.

The Civil War expanded the capacity and scope of the Columbus Iron Works and the city's other industries.  As the textile mills tripled their output and new companies started manufacturing uniforms, swords, pistols, and rifles, the Iron Works began fabricating small cannons for local military units.  These weapons included the "Ladies Defender," cast from brass collected by the city's women and the "Red Jacket," used by the Columbus Guards to salute Jefferson Davis at his inauguration in Montgomery.  By 1862, the Iron Works was molding and manufacturing mortars, brass twelve-pounders, and wrought iron rifled cannons under contract from the Confederate Ordinance Department.  An experimental breech loading cannon revealed the expertise of the company's employees, but they only produced one.

In June of 1862, the Confederate Navy leased the Columbus Iron Works.  James H. Warner, formerly a Chief Engineer in the U.S. Navy, converted the C. S. (Columbus) Naval Iron Works into the largest manufacturer of naval machinery within the Confederacy.  Its engines and boilers drove at least half of the steam-powered vessels built by the Confederacy, including the gunboat Chattahoochee and the ironclad Muscogee.  (Portions of the Chattahoochee's engines, extremely rare Civil War artifacts, are preserved at the James W. Woodruff, Jr. Confederate Naval Museum).  The C.S. Naval Yard, a separate organization, built the Muscogee in cooperation with the adjacent C.S. Naval Iron Works.  Workers from both facilities joined other militia units who tried to prevent General James Wilson from capturing Columbus on the night of April 16, 1865.  The next morning, eight days after Robert E. Lee's surrender, Union troops burned the city's cotton warehouses, the Muscogee, and all the war-related industries, which collectively had supplied the Confederacy with more manufactured goods than any city except Richmond.

Despite this destruction, Brown and the other stockholders doubled the company's capitalization, and by August 1866, the Columbus Iron Works resumed operations in an expanded facility.  The war experience, especially the technologies developed by Warner, made the Iron Works the city's largest, most sophisticated foundry.  The resilience and optimism of this firm typified the spirit of other local industrialists who immediately began reconstructing their factories.  By 1880, Columbus led the south in textile production.  Many of the spindles and looms in these mills were driven by pulley and shafting provided by the Columbus Iron Works.

The company's location gave it access to customers both within the city and, because of its proximity to the riverboat landing, within the rich agricultural region to the south served by steamboat.  The firm sold finished lumber as well as mill and building supplies in each area.  Its tremendous volume of agricultural products, plows, cane mills cotton screws, and other implements, led to the creation of a subsidiary, the Southern Plow Company, in 1877.  Using the skills developed during the war, the Iron Works continued to fabricate a wide range of steam engines for plantations, mills and riverboats.  By 1880, only the Columbus Iron Works was manufacturing steam engines within Georgia.

The technique which the company perfected while building steam engines allowed it to become a pioneer in the refrigeration industry.  In 1872, the Iron Works, directed by George J. Golden, erected the city's first ice machines, but similar devices were already operating in other southern cities.  The Columbus Iron Works, however, was one of three companies within the United States to begin mass-producing ice machines in the early 1880's.  For the next twenty years, the Iron Works produced the nation's best selling ammonia-absorption machines.  It's H. D. Stratton models (which froze from 3 to 100 tons of ice per day) were installed in ice plants throughout the nation, Latin America, and Canada (at prices ranging from $4,400 to $45,500).

On April 11, 1902, the Columbus Iron Works burned.  Within the two block complex only the 1890s foundry survived.  Undaunted by this second destruction, the owners built the massive, new facility which remained unchanged for sixty-five years.  In the foundry (now the South Hall), molten iron from the cupola furnace was poured, every day, into hundreds of sand molds which lined the floor.  In the machine shop (now the North Hall), ice machines, steam engines, stoves, cane mills, and hundreds of other products were machined and assembled.  In the power house, farther to the north, a steam engine (until 1930) turned the plant's electrical generator.  The building beyond the railroad trestle housed the shops of the Southern Plow Company.

The reconstructed plant continued to manufacture a variety of goods which supported the hardware business of the company's primary owner after 1902, the Teague family of Montgomery.  In 1925, the W.C. Bradley Company acquired control of the Columbus Iron Works.  Gradually, the Iron Works attempted to concentrate on fewer, more marketable items, such as stoves and heaters, in the 1920s tractor-drawn implements following World War II, and forged parts for other manufacturers in the 1950s.  Starting in the late 1940s, the company experimented with barbeque grills.  Selling its first "Charbroil" grill in 1953.  In that year, the Bradley Company absorbed the Columbus Iron Works and, in the early 1970s moved the foundry and forge to new plants.  The two descendants of the Columbus Iron Works are extremely viable today:  the manufacturing division of the Bradley Company fabricates cutter blades and grills for an international market; and the rapidly expanding Columbus Foundries, Inc. produces ductile iron castings for a national market.

In 1975, the city of Columbus decided to convert the southern portion of the Columbus Iron Works into a Convention and Trade Center.  The importance of the site had already been recognized in 1969 by its inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.  In 1978, as part of the Columbus Historic Riverfront Industrial District (which also includes Bibb City, Muscogee, Eagle & Phenix  Mills), the Columbus Iron Works was declared a National Historic Landmark.  The transformation of the building, with Rozier Dedwylder as the architect, began in 1977 with funds provided by a local beverage tax and federal grants.  The $8 million cost was probably $4 million less than a new building with the same space.  This revitalized structure will serve as a model for future adaptive use projects.  A completely unique, yet modern facility has been created by skillfully preserving and enhancing the historic fabric of the old Iron Works.  A national leader within the historic preservation movement toured the Convention and Trade Center before it opened and proclaimed it to be the "most exciting urban preservation project underway right now in the entire country."  As the former Columbus Iron Works was essential to the economy of Columbus in the 19th and early 20th centuries, so now The Columbus, Georgia Convention and Trade Center is playing a crucial role in revitalizing downtown Columbus.

John S. Lupold
Professor of History
Columbus State University
 

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