Dorsey's Iron Empire
Caleb Dorsey "Ironmaster"
Caleb Dorsey, Jr., commonly known as the ironmaster, established the Elkridge Furnace in 1751, on a 16-acre plot of land in the Patapsco River Valley, as well as other related holdings such as Dorsey’s Forge. According to Hilton Heritage by Bayly Ellen Marks, the high demand for iron in England, following the soil depletion from the tobacco cultivation on the Hilton grounds led to the establishment of iron industries in Maryland. The availability of iron ore found in the Patapsco Valley created a new industry and source of income for Dorsey.
Prior to owning the Furnace and the Forge, Dorsey purchased Taylor’s Forest in 1761. Marks indicated that “His business ventures were interdependent: timber from his land holdings were used to fire the iron works.” A publication by Ronald Lewis, Coal, Iron, and Slaves: Industrial Slavery in Maryland and Virginia, describes how important materials needed for forging and running the Furnace 24 hours a day had to be labored for. This similarly can be likened to how supplies from “Taylor’s Forest”, such as timber, cattle, and charcoal for heating the Furnace were acquired by felling trees and transporting those supplies by slave labor or driven by cattle. Being a labor-intensive business, the Elkridge Furnace and Dorsey’s Forge had to be run simultaneously. From the cutting of woods and making of charcoals, to the exhausting and dangerous refinement of iron, the enslaved had to work overtime, which allowed them to earn some money. Lewis notes that to keep the slave workers motivated to work and to not escape or retaliate against their masters, the slaves were financially compensated for their overtime work.
Dorsey’s forge is known for manufacturing unfinished iron products for export to England. According to the article “The Development and Decline of Dorsey’s Forge”, the only iron tools made in Baltimore County were crowbars produced by Dorsey’s Forge. However, among the products manufactured at Dorsey’s Forge, a rather shocking product was discovered. Originally, Edward Dorsey, son of Caleb Dorsey, enslaved a minimum of 67 African Americans according to CCBC historian Professor Michelle Wright. Among these enslaved workers, a few escaped to find freedom. Advertisements seeking the return of runaways contain descriptions of slaves with iron collars who worked at different Forges and Furnaces. Such collars were likely manufactured at Dorsey’s Forge, given the descriptions of escapees such as Solomon Burnham, William George, and Samuel Chapman, among others, who escaped Dorsey's Forge and were described wearing these iron collars. Evidently, iron collars were manufactured and given to slaves to prevent them from escaping by making it easy to identify them.
According to Prof. Wright, Dorsey’s Forge and Elkridge Furnace as well as the other related holdings were sold to the Ellicott brothers in 1822, which is now known as Avalon Iron Works.