History of the Columbus Iron Works
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 1840’s, 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 National Civil War Naval Museum at Port Columbus).
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. They sold their 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 re-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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