To view an audio slideshow on the Burden Iron Works, click here.
TROY From 1860 to 1890, nobody did horseshoes like the Burden Iron Works.
Henry Burden and his two sons, James and Townsend, had created the largest manufacturer of horseshoes in the world, and in 1882, as if to accentuate their feat, they constructed an office building that, for its time, was unusual.
“Architectural historians have told me that this building is one of the few surviving examples of a corporate headquarters that was built between what they call proprietary capitalism, which is a fancy name for a small family-run business, and the days of big business, where corporate headquarters, like the Chrysler Building in Manhattan, was nowhere near the factory,” said P. Thomas Carroll, executive director of the Hudson Mohawk Industrial Gateway, which calls the building, now the Burden Iron Works Museum, home.
To view an audio slideshow on the Burden Iron Works, click here.
“It was separate from the factory, but still on the edge. The Burden Iron factory was right outside, just to the south of this building.”
Situated in Troy’s South End on the banks of the Hudson River, the structure was designed by popular 19th-century architect Robert H. Robertson, the same individual who built Henry Burden’s big mansion up the hill from the factory. The one-story structure — most of the 10,000 square feet making up the building are encompassed in one large room with a skylight — is covered with a red brick exterior, an exterior that is currently undergoing some extensive preservation.
Carroll said the building’s architectural style has been described as both Romanesque Revival and Queen Anne, but Walter Wheeler, a restoration architect for Hartgen Archeological Associates in Rensselaer, says filing Burden’s office building into one specific category isn’t easy.
“At the end of the 19th century, they were doing a lot of mixing and matching. So the building isn’t purely one thing or another,” said Wheeler. “They melded the aesthetic traditions so it’s a combination of styles. The unusual thing about the building is the length they went to make something that is esthetically pleasing on the exterior for what is essentially a utilitarian building. It’s an office building.”
While workers are busy fixing the outside, the inside remains open to the public, although those expecting a neat and orderly museum-like setting will be disappointed.
“We call this the not-ready-for-prime-time museum, for obvious reasons,” said Carroll. “It took us $400,000 to get the building functional again, and we’re going to need another million to completely finish the interior and redo the green walls and the cherry paneling. But this area was the Silicone Valley of the 19th century, and we have a number of items reflecting that. This place is the genuine article.”
Along with a few interpretive panels giving the history of the Burden Iron Works and a number of other companies that made Troy a prominent 19th-century city, the museum floor is loaded with rototillers, bells, railroad spikes and a machine called the Arms dividing engine.
“Burden’s company was like a great big mechanized blacksmith shop,” said Carroll. “He was the first person who was commercially successful at making machine-made horseshoes. They made most of the horseshoes for the Union army during the Civil War. And he also invented a machine that made the hook-headed railroad spike, which eventually became the standard railroad spike all over the world. They were incredibly successful.”
Henry Burden died in 1871, but not before becoming one of the most famous inventors of the 19th century. He was born in Scotland in 1791 and came to America in 1819, making his way to Troy in 1822 after gaining some fame for designing a plow.
“He showed such a good aptitude for math and designing farm implements, he was sent to Edinburgh for a university education,” said Carroll. “A couple of reps from the U.S. convinced him his future was in the New World.”
Burden was hired to run the Troy Iron and Nail Factory, a small business that had been started back in 1809. A contract between the owners and Burden stated that he must “run the company in a prudent and productive manner,” while allowing him “to continue your inventive activity” on company time and resources.
“The company initially got all the profits from Burden’s work, but over time he was to get a larger and larger share of the profits for himself, and he used that money to buy into the company,” said Carroll. “So, after starting in 1822, he’s done so well that by 1848 he owns the entire company. He really was one of the most famous men in the country when he was alive, but he’s been forgotten.”
If Carroll has any say, Burden will experience a rebirth. The Hudson Mohawk Industrial Gateway, a nonprofit educational organization, was formed in 1972 as a preservation arm of the Rensselaer County Historical Society, its goal to educate the public about Troy’s key role in the technological advances of the 19th century. Burden Iron Works, meanwhile, thrived well into the 20th century before falling on hard times in the 1930s and selling out to another company.
“We bought it for $10 in 1974 from Public Steel, and the building was a complete wreck,” said Carroll, a former science and technology history professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute until taking over the Gateway in 1996. “We’ve had some great successes to get the building this far along, and we have a lot to do ahead of us.”
While goal No. 1 is to get the Burden Iron Works Museum more visitor-friendly, Carroll and the Mohawk Hudson Industrial Gateway have much more on their plate than just taking care of one historic building. Carroll lectures on Troy history at various venues throughout the Capital Region, and also provides tours of downtown Troy and the Cohoes Falls to name just a few places. Another worker and volunteers staff the Troy Visitor’s Center.
“It’s been trying at times because we have so much on our plate and we don’t have the staff to deal with all the work we do, but it’s also been very rewarding,” said Carroll. “This area was so significant in the 19th century, and it wasn’t because a couple of bright people just happened to end up here. The water resources here and then the artificial river they built, the Erie Canal, made this area a great place for commerce. Tens of millions of people who live west of here can trace their ancestry to people who rode in little boats right out here in the Hudson River and then around the Great Falls to the Erie Canal. It was the O’Hare Airport of the 1830s, the Oregon Trail of its day.”