MFR History of The South Boston Iron Company's Works (Alger's)


Lieutenant General
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Managing Member & Webmaster
Apr 1, 1999
Martinsburg, WV
Boston has a due share of manufacturing establishments that can be called remarkable but none more deservedly celebrated or of greater National importance than the Works of the South Boston Iron Company better known as Alger's Foundries They were founded by Mr Cyrus Alger a native of Bridgwater Massachusetts in the year 1817 which was not long after the Dorchester Peninsula became a part of Boston During the war of 1812 he supplied the Government with large numbers of Cannon Balls and about that time he purchased a considerable tract of low land called the Flats reaching to the channel which then was considered of little value but which now is covered with streets dwellings and extensive manufactories including the works of which he was the founder

Mr Alger was one of the best practical metallurgists of his day He discovered a method of purifying cast iron which gave it more than triple strength over ordinary castings and which proved to be of immense value in the manufacture of Ordnance in which he was for many years engaged The United States Government largely relied upon him for this department of their supplies and since his death that reliance has been continued to his successors His cannon sustained most extraordinary tests when subjected to extreme proof The mortar gun Columbiad the largest gun of cast iron that had then been cast in America was made under his personal supervision It was of twelveinch calibre and had a range exceeding three miles He also first introduced and patented the method of making cast iron chilled rolls by which the part subject to wear should be hard while the neck remained unchanged as to hardness and strength this being cast in sand while the body is cast in a chill or iron cylinder Until his time all the reverberatory furnaces for melting iron were made with hearths inclining from the fire the metal thus running from the heat He changed the form so as to allow the iron to flow towards the flame where the heat would be the most intense

In 1836 Mr Alger manufactured the first Malleable Iron Guns made in this country and supplied our Government with quite a number The first gun ever Rifled in America was done at his works in 1834 Cylinder Stoves were first designed by him in 1822

Our Government stands indebted to him for numerous improvements in the construction of Time Fuses for bomb shells and grenades The following are some of his inventions

The interposing a non combustible material between the fuse and bursting charge in shell so constructed that it shall be detached by the violent concussion it receives when the projectile is discharged from the gun

The covering of a fuse hole on the inside of shell with a wafer or disk of lead which must be taken out previous to the firing of the shell in order to expose the surface of fuse and allow of its ignition when discharged from gun

The angles given to the vent holes in the head of fuse cases to allow the escape of gases formed by the burning fuse and at the same time prevent the entrance of water and extinction of fuse when fired at sea

The improved method of casting Shells by using a metal arbor to support the core and having the arbor hollow so as to allow all the gases generated by moisture and organic matter in the core to escape thus preventing porosity in the shell

Mr Alger also manufactured the first perfect Bronze Cannon for the United States Ordnance Department and for the State of Massachusetts and was it is said the first manufacturer to introduce the ten hour system in South Boston He made it a practice never to part with good workmen if he could possibly retain them and frequently kept a large force of hands on half pay when their services were not needed Admiral Dahlgren has said of him "He possessed that rare quality sagacity which constitutes in truth the highest attribute of the intellectual man and enabled him to arrive at results which others sought by disciplined study and often in vain."

After his decease in 1856 Mr Francis Alger his only surviving son who has since died while these pages were passing through the press succeeded him Mr Francis Alger brought to the business a thorough training a cultivated mind and a taste for the pursuits in which he was engaged besides a knowledge of Metallurgy Aside from his connection with the Foundry Mr Alger was eminent as a scientific man and as the author of Alger's Philips Mineralogy He possessed one of the finest and most extensive Cabinets of Minerals in America comprising specimens from all parts of the world

In 1862 he obtained patents for two improved Fuses each combining a time fuse and a percussion fuse in one case adapted to shells for rifled guns One of the most novel and valuable principles embraced in these patents is that in case the shell strikes any object when fired from a gun previous to the fuse having been consumed the fuse is driven forward by the concussion and then allows free egress of the fuse flame to the charge in the shell thereby causing its immediate explosion

The following year he patented the use of a pouch to contain the bursting charge to be used in shrapnel In this the powder in the form of a cartridge was combined with the fuse thus rendering the process of charging these shells much more expeditious and less dangerous than by the usual method of first filling the shell with loose powder and then inserting the fuse These pouches also protect the powder from dampness being impervious to moisture

During the present rebellion Mr Alger has frequently been called to Washington and received large and urgent orders for projectiles of every description particularly the rifled shot and shells and for the Schenkl projectile He also obtained large orders for 9 inch and 11 inch Guns and Bronze Cannon both for the Army and Navy

In order to meet the demands of government for Ordnance the company have been induced to erect an additional Foundry 125 feet long and 114 feet wide and a large Machine Shop specially designed for finishing guns of very large calibres

This new Ordnance Foundry was put in operation in March 1863 and the first work performed in it was the casting of a 10 inch Army Columbiad according to the system of Major TJ Rodman of the United States Army After having cast five 10 inch Guns in this way satisfactorily preparations were then made to also cast 15 inch Guns after the same method and the work on guns of this calibre was commenced in June 1863 Forty tons of metal are required to cast a gun of this size and a description of the processes may interest our readers

In the centre of the room is sunk a cylinder of three quarter inch iron water tight and twenty five feet deep On the inside is placed a wall of brick 16 inches thick The cylinder is thirteen feet four inches in diameter In the centre of this is placed a heavy cast iron flask six feet six inches in diameter Upon the inside of the flask is placed a layer of clay and other materials bearing in the centre the form of the casting required When this is made as smooth as possible the core is inserted and suspended in its required position by a heavy iron frame resting upon the top of the flask This core arbor is formed by a castiron cylinder of 13 inches in diameter turned and fluted on the outside Around it is wound a small rope plastered with loam about an inch thick This core arbor is made perfectly water tight with the exception of having two orifices one to force water in the other to let it out The Cochituate water is discharged through the core at the rate of forty gallons per minute The object is to cool the gun from the inside to the outside and prevent an unequal contraction of the metal The utmost care is required in all these operations defects in which might produce disastrous and fatal consequences The metal is prepared in two air furnaces each capable of melting 25 tons When all is ready and about 15 men are placed in their required position the order is given the furnaces are tapped and the molten iron flows into the flask One hundred and twelve hours are required to cool the gun so that it can be removed On account of the risk incident to the casting spectators are seldom admitted to the works during the operation

The South Boston Iron Company have manufactured for the Government since the commencement of the present rebellion an immense amount of ordnance and projectiles It has been remarked by those best qualified to judge that had it not been for the South Boston works and the works at Pittsburg a supply of the materials and enginery of war which was furnished promptly and continuously by them could not have been otherwise obtained in the United States in two years

The present number of men employed in these extensive works is four hundred and gangs are kept working night and day The same system adopted by Mr Cyrus Alger of retaining men through a series of years often keeping many on half pay when their services were not needed has secured for this Company an unexcelled force of employees who fully understand the requirement of every department of labor in which they are employed

From: A History of American Manufactures from 1608 to 1860, by John Leander Bishop, Philadelphia, 1868, Page 278-281