Bernard A. Drew A hot time at Colby Iron Works



Apple Computer has transferred its intellectual rights to a tax-sheltered shell company in Ireland, a Senate subcommittee charged recently. As if that were a shocking idea. John L. Colby did something the same more than a century ago. Colby's bookkeeping legerdemain irked Lanesborough town officials, though Pittsfield authorities had a snicker.

Colby operated an iron works in the center of Lanesborough. The town hall sits on the site today. In 1878, during a business lull, the furnace sitting cold, Colby liquidated inventory. Specifically, he sold pig iron on hand, the purchaser giving a promissory note.

Lanesborough asked Colby for a list of his taxable assets. He provided a list of what physically was on his premises, but omitted the IOU. He insisted it was not taxable until collected, and then, not in Lanesborough because he had the document with him at his home in Pittsfield.

The Berkshire County Commission supported Colby, so Lanesborough officials filed suit in Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. The court found that even with notes due, if no business had been conducted in the town of Lanesborough, no tax could be collected. The tax would be collectible at the place of his residence even though the transaction was on the books of a company that did business in Lanesborough. Petition dismissed.

It wasn't the end of Colby's business in Lanesborough, however. He put the furnace into blast again, and after an 1882 fire, rebuilt. The business in 1884 produced 4,500 tons of specialty car-wheel pig iron from brown hematite ore mined near Silver Street.

The ironworks was by then more than three decades old. According to Frances S. Martin's town history (1965), Thomas Pinegree and others of Salem purchased ore beds in Lanesborough and started Briggs Iron Works in 1847. Besides a furnace, they put up 15 charcoal kilns to process fuel. The Pittsfield Sun for July 1, 1858, said the company was started with $100,000 in capital and turned out 1,300 tons of iron annually, with a value of $39,000. There was a company store in the village, for laborers who lived by.

"Laborers of the Briggs Iron Company's Furnace, in Lanesborough, [partook] of an Oyster Supper at midnight [New Year's Eve], that being the hour that the laborers of the afternoon give place to the laborers of the forenoon -- and the old year gave place to the new," the Sun reported Jan. 16, 1851. "The oysters were cooked by the fire of the Furnace, and served in the casting house. A friend who looked in upon them, describes them as being a cheerful, happy company of laborers, all sober, industrious and contented."

The unidentified observer called the furnace stack "A beautiful monument of hewn marble; thou heedest not the warring of the elements, but when the Engine gave evidence of its power, thou felt the blow." This is in reference to the huge bellows that provide the blasts of air to the molten ore in the stack. The writer said of the firemen, "Fit associates for the illustrious Firemen at Nebuchadnezzar's Furnace; may they like Firemen Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, in all their fiery trails come off unscathed." And on went the obscure references to engineers, ore diggers, guttermen and top loaders.

The furnace was cool in January 1859, and workers relined the stack. Two employees of Gilson & Burton, the firm doing the labor, were inside the stack "when the staging on which they were at work gave way, and they were precipitated to the bottom of the pit, amid the rubbish. When taken out it was found that Mr. Gibson's collarbone was broken twice, and he had also received other bruises; and Mr. Burton had both legs broken, one of them twice, and the bones badly crushed." When it fired up again, the furnace ran for 38 straight weeks.

New Hampshire native John Langdon Colby (1825-1888) purchased the works in 1864. Hiram Pettee was iron works manager. There was a lull in 1865, and choppers and coal burners were discharged. "A large quantity of iron not sold when the price was high, is still on hand," the Sun said June 22, 1865. Another lull brought on Lanesborough's complaint.

Fire broke out in the coal sheds at the Lanesborough Iron Works -- Colby had given the business a new name -- in late winter 1872, and men and equipment from Pittsfield responded to the alarm.

To furnish wood for charcoal, Colby purchased considerable acreage, including 1,000 acres on the south side of Mount Greylock. In 1873 he had "some twenty men who reside in cabins near their labor, chopping for him on the sides of this eminence." Later that year, Colby reduced workers' pay but kept them on through the winter. Colby himself had some $20,000 worth of paintings in one room of his Pittsfield residence, Chestnut Villa, the Sun said Aug. 20, 1873. Colby and his wife, Martha Baker, and their two sons lived there.

There was another big fire in June 1882, when the furnace was running at full capacity. Flames consumed the main building and spread to sheds and other structures. The buildings burned for days. The furnace recovered again only to face another fire six years later. Colby's death in 1888 meant no more recoveries.

Bernard A. Drew is a regular Eagle contributor.


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