H. Burden & Sons, also known as the Burden Iron Works, was a marvel of nineteenth century industrial ingenuity. From its foundries and assembly lines in South Troy, the company produced horseshoes that shod the Union Army, railroad spikes for tracks that crossed the continental United States, and rivets, for, well, just about everything.
The inventor of the Ferris Wheel, George Washington Gale Ferris Jr., was an 1881 graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). He was no doubt influenced by one of Troy’s most impressive industrial monuments – the Burden Water Wheel.
Thanks to Troy’s location, the Burden Iron Works were able to receive raw materials and send goods out along the river, canals and railroads that ran just beyond their doors. The company was one of Troy’s largest employers, at their height employing over 1,400 workers.
Henry Burden, a Scottish immigrant, was a mechanical-minded wonder himself. Over the course of his lifetime, he invented a variety of machines and ways of production that propelled the Burden Iron Works into the forefront of nineteenth century manufacturing.
Burden came to Troy in 1822, as superintendent of the Troy Iron and Nail Factory (later known as the Upper Works), located on a high slope along Wynantskill Creek, which flowed into the Hudson River. By 1825, he had patented a machine to make wrought iron nails and spikes. Until that time, nails were individually made by hand. Over the next decade he took over Troy Iron and Nail, changed the name to H. Burden & Sons, and started making plans to expand its operations.
In 1835, he invented the first of his horseshoe making machines. Much of the nineteenth century world ran on the power of horses and before Burden, blacksmiths shaped each horse shoe one by one. He would improve his machine with three more patents in 1843, 1857 and 1862, but by the early 1850s, Burden was the largest manufacturer of horseshoes in America (the patent was also sold in England). Eventually making 3,600 horseshoes an hour, the company’s machines were hailed as one of the technical marvels of their time.
Inspired by similar Scottish waterworks, Burden built a massive waterwheel in 1851. It was 62 feet in diameter, 60 feet tall, and 22 feet wide. It was made of steel, except for the buckets and drum wheel. It was suspended by iron rods over the Wynantskill and turned day and night. It weighed 250 tons and could produce 500 horsepower when spinning 2.5 times per minute. In order to get more water to power it, Burden improved a series of reservoirs along the creek, to increase the supply and pressure of the falling water.
The wheel was instrumental in the growth of the iron works. When the Union Army went to war during the Civil War, its horses and mules were shod with Burden horseshoes. The profits led to the construction of a more modern facility closer to the river (known as the Lower Works).
Between the two sites, Burden had 60 puddling furnaces, 20 heating furnaces, 14 trains of rollers, three rotary squeezers, nine horseshoe machines, twelve rivet machines (each producing eighty rivets a minute), ten large and fifteen small steam engines, seventy boilers, and the water wheel.
Henry Burden died in 1871 (his wife Helen had passed away in 1860). The couple had eight children, and the running of the company passed to his sons, James and I. Townsend Burden. In 1881, the sons reorganized H. Burden & Sons as the Burden Iron Company. The brothers built a handsome new office building for the company that year, near the railroad tracks of the Lower Works.
As the nineteenth century wound down, so did the Burden Iron Company. The brothers seemed to disagree about everything, lawsuits resulted, and while they were arguing the iron industry was gradually leaving Troy to locations where coal and raw materials were closer and more plentiful (like Pittsburgh, for example).
The Upper Works, running on water power in the age of steam, was soon obsolete. By 1900, that facility was largely abandoned as the business consolidated to the Lower Works, which ran on steam. Tourists and locals still visited the famous waterwheel however, taking photographs sitting on the spokes, or leaning against the wall. Postcards depicted the site, with the gear mechanisms upended and rusting, while crumbling walls overgrown with vegetation gave the scene the look of romantic ruins. It made for great photos, but represented the end of an era.
The brothers, and their sons and nephews who followed them, tried to revive the business, by moving into other products and streamlining production. They began manufacturing coke, gas and pig iron, but were operating in a rapidly changing 20th century world. They built a blast furnace for the plant in 1925. But by 1934, the company went bankrupt, and into receivership.
The Republic Steel Corporation bought the remaining company assets in 1940, with an interest primarily in the blast furnace. Most of the other buildings were torn down and the office became a storage site (some of the company’s records went to the New York State Library in Albany). The office building’s fine cherry wainscoting was removed and sent to the Republic Steel corporate headquarters in Cleveland.
Republic kept the blast furnace going until 1969, and the rest of the company until 1972. They sold most of the land to the Troy Industrial Development Agency. The headquarters building was sold to the newly established Hudson Mohawk Industrial Gateway for $10. The building was in need of a multi-year, million dollar restoration, which was completed in 2008 (it’s now the Burden Iron Works Museum).
Today, the Burden headquarters, Burden Pond and some of the associated dam and raceway structures remain as visible remnants of Henry Burden’s vast iron works, but they have been subjected to the decay and ravages of time.
Although it’s long gone, Burden’s impressive waterwheel remains a Troy icon. A mural of the wheel greets motorists coming into South Troy.
Photos of Burden Iron Works courtesy the Historic American Engineering Report (HAER) 1969; and Blast furnace watercolor by Edgar Holloway, 1973, collection of the Hart Cluett Museum.