The adventure began with signs.
Nathan Vernon Madison, whose academic and publishing background is in popular culture, comics and the pulps, also enjoys diving into the thickets of history. In 2012, the Powhatan County native was working at the front desk of the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar when the institution’s director, Christy Coleman, asked him to consider updating the site’s interpretive signs.
The result, this year, is his history "Tredegar Iron Works: Richmond’s Foundry on the James," published through the History Press ($22). He’ll be signing the finished product on Saturday at 1 p.m. at the Tredegar Visitor Center.
What Coleman asked him then was to work on the overarching sweep of the site’s history, not just about the Civil War significance. “What I found was, other than one dissertation, there’d been nothing written about Tredegar after 1865,” Madison says. The manufacturer operated from 1837 until 1957, when it was acquired by Albemarle Paper and Manufacturing Co. (the precursor to Ethyl Corp).
Then he made another discovery. Almost the entire archive of the Tredegar company — receipts, letters, executive notes, memoranda, newspaper clippings, employee records — dating back to the firm’s founding are stored at the Library of Virginia. “I could easily spend another decade in there with that material,” Madison says. Which made his task daunting. Now confronted with an overwhelming mountain of information, Madison realized he’d come into enough to write a book.
“I realized that I had to find the story, or stories, within this material,” he says.
A fundamental portion of the overarching story are the families whose associations to Tredegar went on, in some cases, for generations, almost from beginning to end. “What I kept seeing in the employee ledgers were the same names, Anderson, Archer, Delaney, Glasgow, Harris, Krengel, Osterbind, for years and years, on and on. And it’s not just the management level, but the men of the shop whose kids marry Tredegar kids, and so it was quite like a big family.”
But the labor force of Tredegar, from its earliest days, included skilled slaves. “Some of them were purchased by [Tredegar founder Joseph Reid] Anderson, or by the company, or were leased from other owners,” Madison says. The fastidious Tredegar accountants kept receipts. Tredegar also employed Welsh and Irish immigrants, and when Anderson attempted to apprentice slaves to the European furnace operators, they rebelled and threatened to form a union. Some walked off. When Anderson sued, he didn’t accuse them of racial intolerance, but of trying to organize against his authority. The tightness of tradition resisted unionization and no serious progress was made along those lines until after Anderson’s 1892 death.
Madison also publishes for the first time details involving the construction of the Confederate ironclad warship CSS Virginia (built from the hull of the USS Merrimack). In 1925, Tredegar President Archer Anderson Jr., while putting together a company history scrapbook, interviewed workers who recalled the methods for creating the vessel's massive iron plates. Found in an odd place, these bits were like puzzle pieces Madison put his hands on to complete the picture. Along the way are stories of one suicide and an unsolved murder.
The endurance and resilience of the company against man-made and natural disasters impressed Madison. “How they kept operating, using hydro-power and not fully ever converting to electricity, and on antiquated equipment, is kind of amazing.” The company’s men worked hard and sometimes suffered and died from industrial accidents. But their families persevered. Tredegar survived, but not quite long enough to become what in today’s view would be a “niche” manufacturer. But until the very end, what made money for Tredegar was rail spikes and clamps.
Albemarle Paper essentially wanted Tredgar’s real estate holdings to unify all its James River paper milling properties. A re-formed and considerably downsized Tredegar Co. moved to Chesterfield County, staffed by several long-term Tredegar Iron Works employees using the old machinery to continue production of railroad spikes, fishplates, rails and steel rail clamps until 1987.
From its beginning, Tredegar operated on hydro power by harnessing the James River and the canal. When high production required its use, an electric generator kicked in. “But the company, quite late in its history, was selling power back to the electrical utility,” Madison says. The down side was industrial pollution. “Whenever they dig up Tredegar Street, they find mountains of slag.”
Tredegar didn't turn to steel production, which might’ve given the firm more productive years, despite that after the Civil War, Tredegar posted its highest ever profits. Joseph Reid Anderson, who’d started the firm and was in charge when the 1865 Evacuation Fire threatened the yards, then guided the firm through the Panic of 1873. His interest in risk seems to have waned. Whenever high-level management began considering procuring the machinery and making necessary conversions, an economic downturn — 1873, 1893, 1907 and in the 1920s — kept pushing away modernization.
The old brick buildings of the original Tredegar operation suffered damage from the torrents whipped up by Hurricane Agnes in 1972. Ethyl Corp.’s Floyd D. Gottwald Jr. and Roy E. Johnson, and the City of Richmond, understood the importance of Tredegar and sought to stabilize and renovate the remaining structures. From 1994 to 1995, The Valentine attempted to create an industrial history park there, but in this case, the reach exceeded the grasp. In 2000, the Richmond National Battlefield Parks headquarters and visitors center relocated to the pattern building from Chimborazo Hill, and in 2006, the American Civil War Center opened on the site. It has since been rechristened the American Civil War Museum, and an expansion program is underway.
The story is worth telling, and Madison's 191-page fully-illustrated and indexed account bends well enough to slide into a stocking hung with care on the mantel of your family's Richmond history aficionado.
Nathan Madison (right) met filmmaker Kevin Phillips, from Tredegar, Wales, when Phillips visited Historic Tredegar. The filmmaker is interested in developing a documentary that tells the parallel history of both sites (photo courtesy Nathan Madison).