FIELD, ELEAKIM, iron producer and founder; fl. 1831–35 in Upper Canada.
During the early 19th century there were numerous attempts to establish ironworks in Upper Canada, but capital costs were high and most projects failed. The expectation of profits, however, was a powerful lure and entrepreneurs, usually American, were often ready to take the risk. The Colborne Iron Works (also known as the Colborne Furnace) in Gosfield Township, Essex County, is a good example of a foundry and also of a rarer enterprise, a blast-furnace for smelting. Certain that the area abounded with iron ore of the first quality, Eleakim Field and Benjamin Parker Cahoon opened the Colborne works about 10 Oct. 1831. According to the local newspaper, the partners were “well acquainted with their business, having been for many years conducting works” in Ohio. They were convinced of the superiority of the local ore and confident that it could be worked to “much greater profit.”
Colborne Iron Works was located a mile from the deposits of ore. By the fall of 1831 one blast-furnace was in operation and the works was producing from four to five tons of pig-iron daily. Because no suitable streams were located near by to operate a blower for the air blast, power for the furnace blower was produced by a 15-horsepower steam-engine. The necessity of using steam rather than water power added about $3,000 annually to the costs of production. Limestone, to aid in reduction of the iron ore, and sand for casting were available on the site. The furnace used about 500 bushels of charcoal daily, which was manufactured at the works using local timber; yearly requirements were estimated at approximately 200 acres of forest, and in return for timber, the partners offered to clear neighbours’ property. A travel guide pointed to this feature of the operation as an inducement to potential settlers.
The complex, which was later described as “rude but extensive,” consisted of a casting house (60 feet square), two dwelling houses, two bunkhouses, and a blacksmith’s shop. It provided employment for 60 to 70 men; wages were said by the newspaper to be “liberal.” Although no castings were made in the fall of 1831, sufficient pig-iron was produced to allow exports to York (Toronto) where, apparently, there was a great demand. On 1 March 1832 Field and Cahoon placed advertisements in Kingston, York, Hamilton, and Sandwich (Windsor) newspapers indicating their readiness to furnish pig-iron and, at the opening of navigation, castings. They claimed that their products – stoves and hollow-ware – were “manufactured from the first quality of Iron, and in workmanship that shall not be surpassed by any other manufactory in or out of the Province.” Although there were Upper Canadian rivals for the provincial market, such as Joseph Van Norman*, it seems clear that the major competition was from American producers, particularly those who marketed in Buffalo, N.Y. The partners offered, they said, “a better article . . . at least as cheap as Buffalo prices” and hoped therefore to “keep so much capital in the Province.”
The enterprise was, however, troubled by financial difficulties. As a result of two small judgements against the partners in January 1835, the sheriff seized their real and personal estate. On his own account, Field had lost a suit to a creditor for more than £444. Unable to give satisfaction he fled to the United States never, apparently, to be heard of again. On 2 February James Dougall*, a Sandwich merchant, won a judgement against the partners for £603 10s. 2d. The partnership was dissolved on 9 February and Cahoon assumed the debts. The works was sold and, after extensive repairs and additions, reopened in June, but the operation was in serious difficulty. Cahoon retained some equity in it, and perhaps served in a managerial capacity as well, until 1839 when he, too, fled south to escape creditors. Francis Xavier Caldwell*, who was liable for a portion of his debts, consequently suffered a severe financial blow. William Henry Smith*’s gazetteer of 1852 noted that the furnace “has ceased working for some time.”
The career of most iron founders and smelters in Upper Canada was precarious. In 1835 Amos Horton, a Toronto founder, appeared before the House of Assembly’s committee on trade. He urged barriers against American iron products, arguing the need for a protective tariff to nurture provincial iron manufacturers. He was, however, happy to rely on imports of American pig-iron, although he admitted “Gosfield Iron is the strongest I know of, I think it surpasses both the Scotch and Welsh pig iron, no.1.” In contrast, blast-furnace operators wanted restrictions on both pig-iron and castings. Field and Cahoon had operated at a double disadvantage. As iron founders, they had to compete with cheaper American goods; as iron producers, they could not rely on the loyalty of their supposed natural customers, the Upper Canadian iron founders.
Successful and stable iron foundries were, however, not long in coming. James Bell Ewart* and Edward Gurney* were but a few of the men who established thriving operations in the 1830s and 1840s primarily in the Hamilton–Dundas area. Profitable and enduring iron and steel production would not come to Ontario until the Hamilton Blast Furnace Company [see John C. Milne*] opened in 1895.
AO, Hiram Walker Hist. Museum coll., 20–85; RG 1, A-I-6: 20848–49; A-II-2,1: 10–11; RG 22, ser.131, 4: f.1 10. Hugh Murray, An historical and descriptive account of British America . . . (3v., Edinburgh, 1839). U.C., House of Assembly, App. to the journal, 1835, no.11, “The second report of the committee on trade,” 3. Canadian Emigrant, and Western District Commercial and General Advertiser (Sandwich [Windsor, Ont.]), 23 Feb., 1 March 1832; 14, 21 Feb., 13 June 1835; 3 May 1836. Illustrated historical atlas of the counties of Essex and Kent (Toronto, 1880; repr. 1973). W. H. Smith, Canada: past, present and future . . . (2v., Toronto, ; repr. Belleville, Ont., 1973–74), 1: 27. W. L. Baby, Souvenirs of the past, with illustrations: an instructive and amusing work, giving a correct account of the customs and habits of the pioneers of Canada . . . (Windsor, 1896), 121.