THE ADVOCATE ASKS: Supervisory Park Ranger Curtis White discusses his three decades at the Saugus Iron Works
Editor’s Note: For this week’s interview, we sat down with Curtis White, Supervisory Park Ranger at Saugus Iron Works National Historic Site and the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. We asked him to talk about the waterwheels and share his perspective as somebody who has worked at the Iron Works for 32 years. White, a Beverly native and a 1977 graduate of Beverly High School, has been fascinated by the Saugus Iron Works since childhood when he read the 1957 book “Ironworks on the Saugus.” His interest in blacksmithing and the Saugus Iron Works National Historical Site paved the way for a job at the site, and his responsibilities have expanded over the years. He is married with two grown children. His son, Nate, has followed in his father’s footsteps in going to work for the National Park Service. He gets to work on the waterwheels as a maintenance worker at the Saugus Iron Works National Historic Site. Some highlights of this week’s interview follow.
Q: So, you have been here 32 years, Curtis?
A: Yes. Since Patriots’ Day, 1987.
Q: And please tell me a little bit about how you arrived here.
A: I had been blacksmithing for probably six or seven years, I guess, and I actually read about this place. I read “Ironworks on the Saugus” when I was a fifth grade in school. And most people say that’s a dry thing to read, but I kind of enjoyed it. And I thought, “Wow, this is really a cool place. This really exists someplace.” But I didn’t have any relationship with it. Even though I grew up on the North Shore, I didn’t connect Saugus with the Iron Works. And then I was reading “Colonial Homes Magazine” in 1980 when I saw that this place was here. And I thought, “Wow. That’s pretty interesting.” So, I got to go immediately to the place. So, the next weekend I had off, I was here, checking the place out, so I connected with the blacksmith who was here at the time. And I hung out in the wintertime down in the blacksmith’s shop, and I had a chance to learn some things from him. He’s a real knowledgeable guy on practical blacksmithing for certain. Then I had a job blacksmithing, and it so happened that the blacksmith who was here got a job and showed up a week after I was at that other blacksmithing place, so I got to work with him a little while again, and then I realized, “Oh, there might be an opening there at the Iron Works.” And I guess I was kind of persistent, repetitious; I really pursued coming here. And I called, and the government has a pretty extensive process in order to come on board. And I was just persistent. I just wanted to show that I had interest in the job and working here. The ideas that I had about the job were maybe a little bit naive. I’m not sure that’s the right word, but I saw it as blacksmithing straight out and talking to people, which are things that I like to do, but it became more than that later on.
Q: During your 32 years, how many tours do you figure you have done in this park?
A: Things have changed a lot – I’ve done a lot of tours in all different kinds of ways. The first two years I was here, I spent almost all of my time in the blacksmith’s shop, talking to people as they came through, operating the waterwheels. And I had a job for a while with maintenance, and that was about 10 years: repairing the waterwheels and running the waterwheels every time we had a tour; making sure that people stayed safe and that all of the machinery was maintained. And I also worked on some of the repairs of the various buildings here – the bridges and clapboards on the sides of the buildings – just a variety of jobs. Depending upon what position I was in at any one time, it changed what my duties were, so there was a lot of maintenance opportunities that I really enjoyed doing.
Q: It sounds like Mr. Versatility.
A: Yeah, it’s been that way over the years. Yep.
Q: So, you’re the “jack of all trades” guy at the Saugus Iron Works.
A: Yeah, I think so, but I have enjoyed it and have learned a lot from being here, certainly. And looking at the archeological materials that are here, it’s so fascinating to see what people were doing in the 17th Century. It’s just amazing.
Q: So, you had come here and visited this place before you went to work here.
A: Yep. And after my grandfather passed away, I was looking at slides, and I know he was here in the 60s when the place first opened. He was fascinated with the place, too.
Q: Now, was your grandfather a ranger?
A: No. He worked for United Shoe, most of his career in Beverly. He was a tool and die maker there.
Q: But he did some blacksmithing?
A: No. He just came here and visited here because he was fascinated with the place, too, when it first opened. It’s pretty amazing to think that this nationally-important – Congress set this place aside. It started right here in Saugus – the history of the United States. The conscious foresight of the founders in the 1600s.
Q: It’s kind of a unique National Park, right here in the neighborhood.
A: Yeah. When I first started here, people would stop by on their way to the airport, or something like that, and said “I saw the signs and I had to visit.” And I remember, there was a debate as to whether or not this was a destination park, or just some place that people came upon.
Q: Like an unplanned side trip.
A: Yeah. And, as it turns out, I think this is a destination park. Things have changed since I have been here. When I first started, there was a film that was produced in the 1950s. I think they called it “The Saugus Ironworks Restoration” or something like that; I’m not sure I have the right title. When I was in high school, I used to get the films and return them and set them up for people. The same thing when I started here; there were these 16mm films boxes that had to be sent out to teachers all over the country. And then they would put them back in the box and put the postage on it and we’d get them back again – so much for the streaming kind of thing you would do today. But those people that were from Arizona, California or the Midwest or Ohio or Indiana – the teachers that had been in their careers for all that length of time that they worked – this was like a shrine. They would come here to see Saugus Iron Works and where the iron and steel industries began. And a lot of that has changed for the reasons that people come here since then. But this was a destination park for those kinds of people when I first started here. And now Eastern National has this Passport Program, where they try to get everybody interested in all of the National Parks, so most of the parks become a destination for most people that visit now, but we’ve had a really good amount of visitation because of that, so people are here because they want to see … “Well, what’s the Iron Works all about?” This is how people are connecting to their national history and their national story. Whatever park it happens to be, this little passport book thing just connects them with it.
Q: What’s the neatest thing you know about Saugus Iron Works?
A: It comes from some of the research that I’ve done. When I first started here, my impression was that these blacksmiths and ironworkers, foundry people, forge workers would just kind of just dump stuff into the furnace and hope it came out okay at the bottom. It wasn’t that way at all. These people were specifically recruited for the skills that they had and that they knew how to do. They could take ores from various places … read the ores, understand the ores and process them in a controlled fashion to produce a desired result, so these people were incredibly skilled at what they did. And they were the right people to recruit in order to get over here, so even the managers in England were able to direct the management here to produce certain types of work for certain situations and just to make for better management out of the whole place, so those skills, once they got here, were sort of taught to other people that came to the Iron Works and then perpetuated through generations in order to create an American iron and steel industry, again through here. This place also has a sister site that predates this place a little bit, which you know as Furnace Brook Parkway in Quincy, so that was part of this original company that was set up in the 1640s, in order to make iron here.
Q: Share a few tidbits that a lot of folks don’t know about, including your colleagues. In the course of over 30 years, you know where all the nooks and crannies are. Right?
A: Yeah. Pretty much. I know a lot of them. I think we have a fantastic archeological collection. There’s an exhibit in the museum there, which we had to move, and then when we had the museum rebuilt to give a better storage space for it … there’s a whole waterwheel section in there. And in what’s called the hutch. That would have kept the dirt from collapsing around the waterwheel, but when you look at this waterwheel, when we were moving it and moving the camera around in different lights and everything, in order to see what the best angle was – we wanted to make sure we had good photographs before we moved it in case anything got damaged in the process of moving it. And in the process of moving the lights and everything, we found a place on the waterwheel where a carpenter in the 1640s had taken his scribe and laid a mark out there where the nails were going to go to hold that waterwheel together. And it’s just so cool to think of this carpenter holding the tool and building the work, and he makes this one line down there sometime in the 1640s. And through all of the 300-plus years of burial in the ground, and so forth, that line and those lines are still visible for that particular moment in time. I just find that really impressive. We’ve also got other pieces of clay that were used for probably making molds and so forth, plugs that would have been used in some of the iron ladles, and so forth, that have fingerprints of the ironworkers in them from where they slapped a piece of clay in there, and their fingerprints are embedded in the piece of clay. And it’s buried in the ground. So you have all of these personal kinds of connections to things.
And I always say – in my particular case – I didn’t know this until probably about eight years ago: that I had this great-, great-, great-, great-grandfather that worked here as an apprentice. And one of the few things that they found in the archeology in 1952 that actually had initials on it … were the initials of my great-, great-, great-, great-grandfather from a stamp marking tools and things that he made.
Q: What was his name?
A: William Curtis. It’s where I get my first name from, I think – from actually way back. It’s not from him directly, but it’s through the generations.
Q: And what year would that have been?
A: 1654. We know that there were three letters that exist where he was trying to get a job with John Winthrop, Jr. in Connecticut, and that didn’t work out, apparently, but he was here in 1654. And in one of the letters that he wrote himself to John Winthrop, Jr. – saying that he was an apprentice to Joseph Jenks, who was living with him, somewhere on the property or on the property as it was at the time.
Q: Do you have the letter?
A: The letter is in the Massachusetts Historical Society archives. There are three of them there.
Q: So, you have read all three of them?
A: Yes. That stamp that I was telling you about. That’s what provoked the research into those letters. They found that in the archeology: that stamp. It’s a steel-faced stamp. It shows use of steel and wrought iron together, which was a common practice at the time. But it had those initials on it, so the historian in the project here went back and researched. He had definite connections to the Historical Society, so he found them in the Winthrop papers. He sort of paraphrased them in the book he wrote, “Iron Works on the Saugus.” He didn’t say he got them there, but I knew he spent time in the Massachusetts Historical Society, so that’s where I went to try to track things down.
Q: Of the many rangers who have come and gone over the years, you are one who is actually rooted into the history of this place.
A: Yeah, but I didn’t know that until maybe eight or 10 years ago. I knew of other ones [personal connections], but even that was after I started here.
Q: So, you’ve got the great-, great-, great-grandfather.
A: I probably have at least five different 17th Century connections to this place. One was James Leonard, and he was a hammerman here. He went down to around Taunton. That family at around the time of the Revolution, they were kind of run out of town as loyalists. And that part of my family came back in the 1920s after being over there since 1783, in Canada. And then other parts of the family went up to Maine, and they were there for generations and came back down to Salem.
Q: So, members of your family over the centuries have lived right here in Saugus.
A: Well, just that one guy who lived here in 1654.
Q: William Curtis?
Q: What do you think is the most popular aspect of the park here?
A: I think it’s the waterwheels. When all of the waterwheels are running, where else can you go and see seven working waterwheels? There’s no place. When they did the archeology here, I think they found actual evidence of about three waterwheels, maybe four, so some of the ones that are down there, there’s speculation. They knew what some of the machinery was, so they tried to recalculate what those waterwheels might have looked like, but the blast furnace waterwheel is just incredible because we have the original stuff in the museum, and then this one is reproduced in exactly the same spot where the original was. That’s something you wouldn’t see in the Park Service today.
Q: So, all total, you’ve got seven waterwheels?
A: Yeah. There may have been nine or 10 here originally.
Q: And how often do you have all seven running at one time?
A: I’d say out of the 30 years that I have been here, there may have been two years total when all seven waterwheels worked, but I think we are going to get back to having most of the seven working. I think we have a pretty good plan of resources and a setup for feeding into the system. And I think it will become – like every couple of years, we’ll put in as part of a cyclical maintenance plan, another waterwheel. They won’t have to be totally broken in order to be reconstructed. I have a feeling that we’re going to be in pretty good shape for a while.
Q: Of the Rangers who work at the Iron Works, you have the most seniority?
A: If you are talking about time – yes. The only person who has been here longer than me is Dave Bogdan; he’s the only person who’s been here longer than me; he’s been here a lot longer than me, like 14 years longer than me. I think he started in ’74. He’s in maintenance.
Q: So, most of the people come here to see the waterwheels?
A: I don’t know if that is necessarily the case. I’d like to think it’s the case, maybe, when they leave. Because we don’t have them going all of the time, a lot of times we don’t push the fact that the waterwheels work. It’s more of a very pleasant surprise when people can see them. A lot of the reason people come here is because of those passport books, I think. And there are people who come here – not as much as in the past – but because it’s an ironworks. Things change, even from year to year. There are a couple of video games that are out there. One of them is called Fallout 4. One of them includes Saugus Iron Works. It doesn’t look anything like this, but it produces interest.
Q: There’s a video game on the Saugus Iron Works?
A: It’s called Fallout 4, and one of the landmarks is the Iron Works. Anyway, there’s a lot of interaction between teenagers and their parents over building things. And this is a really good example of an opportunity for people to understand engineering in a basic, kind of functional form. It attracts a lot of people for good reasons.
Q: What does it entail to get the waterwheel going?
A: Well, when we do a tour and the waterwheel is working, we usually have to have a couple of people running the tour for safety purposes: One runs the waterwheels and watches out for people’s safety and the other one runs the door. We have to coordinate to work together and decide what we are going to do at any point. It’s really good when the Rangers work together and anticipate what’s going to happen. It makes the waterwheels special, but all it comes down to is yanking on a rod and making things go. There’s timing issues and strength issues.
Q: It takes so many people to get the waterwheel going?
A: It’s generally only one person. It’s not especially skilled, but it takes some practice in order to make it work. And again, the coordination and how the Rangers work between themselves, I think is the real skill in what’s going on there.
Q: How many minutes does it take to get it going?
A: Oh, it only takes a couple of seconds to yank on it and the water comes out. Closing the gate sometimes is difficult. It depends on which wheel it is.
Q: And once you get one going, you got all seven going?
A: No. We usually do them sequentially as we go through: one at a time. That way, we can keep an eye on the safety. We have to watch the entire park, because people get excited when they see a waterwheel working. And they kind of get attracted to it, so we want to make sure that our Rangers take the time to talk to people and tell them that it’s going to run and “come over here and join the tour.” That prevents people from running and twisting their ankles and not having the right instructions when it comes time to actually see the wheel.
Q: What’s the shelf life of one of those waterwheels?
A: I think it depends on which one it is. I would say about 14 to 15 years. The hammer wheel is probably about eight years, because it has a lot of torque when it’s going back and forth. There’s a lot of force that goes on that really twists it.
Q: So, you have to replace it every eight years.
A: Yes. If every two years we replaced one of seven wheels, we’d be in really good shape.
Q: So, you would try to keep the replacement schedule staggered?
Q: And what’s the ballpark, economically, and the time frame for replacing a waterwheel?
A: Typically, money doesn’t seem to be the issue; it’s more the resources themselves. Where do we get a waterwheel shaft that big, like you see over there? Where do you get that kind of thing? And it has been that we go to National Forests. And I think it’s a great thing the United States has – in its Department of Agriculture – the resources to plant and harvest trees for the country’s use, so we have a specialist in maintenance who will go out and track down these trees with the Forest Service and load these things onto a truck.
Q: Any particular state?
A: I think we have gotten some from Maryland and Pennsylvania, mostly, recently.
Q: So, when you need a shaft, you get the lumber from a National Forest?
Q: So, what’s the logistics for providing the lumber for the waterwheel?
A: The most recent waterwheel that we put in, that tree was harvested in the 1990s. I don’t know what the numbers are for the costs. Most of it comes from shipping: what it cost to get it physically from there to here. I don’t think the trees themselves cost us anything, but it’s all the work around turning the shafts. I know we go to Mystic Seaport and have that done. They have a giant lathe there that was built to make masts for liberty ships during World War II.
Q: Do you have nicknames for these wheels?
A: No. We just refer to them in ways that we can pass on the name so that other people can reference them like the north and south slitting end wheel, so if you’re down there, you can figure out what that means – or the north or southeast forge wheel, the hammer wheel, the paddle wheel and the blast furnace wheel. Those are what we use as names, so it’s obvious to anyone who might come in and might be doing this work in the future, where it is. As long as they know where the blast furnace and other exhibits are, they can figure it out.
Q: So, the wheels are definitely a major attraction.
A: Oh yeah. When I started here, the waterwheels were all working. But there was a period in the 1970s when the waterwheels were not working. One of the Rangers was giving a tour, and the paddlewheel just kind of blew apart – centrifugal force – it all kind of fell apart, so from that day they shut it down, and over the course of the next three years, through the bicentennial, they reconstructed the waterwheels and they came back online. The effect of that in the 1970s was the Rangers were very descriptive of how the waterwheels, had they been working, would work, so by the 1980s, that description was still there. But it wasn’t necessary once we had the waterwheels working again. You just turn it on and you watch it, and you can figure out how it works. And you can take that time to explain other parts of the Iron Works. Because looking at it, you can understand how things work, so an actual life experience is worth far more than a thousand words as far as that goes.
Q: Are there any old components of the waterwheels?
A: Like 17th Century? No. We do have what’s called the boyt. It’s one of the pillows that the shaft sits in from the Joseph Jenks Shop. We have an original one from the 17th Century. But that sort of stuff is in collections – things that we want to protect – so we don’t use them, but base some of the information off of that.
Q: During your 32 years here, what’s the most interesting visitor you’ve had?
A: I usually don’t like to talk about visitors. … One of my favorite things is learning from the engineers who come here and have had experiences in other places. Just a couple of weeks before I got married, a guy was here from Morwellham Quay. It was a tin mine in England. He said, “If you’re ever around, come and see me.” And I said, “Well, I’ll be there in a couple of weeks,” because that’s where I was going. And that was really fun: to get that tour of the tin mine in England; it was called Morwellham Quay. But you get all kinds of people who have come through here – geologists who are interested – everybody has their interest in the place. And it’s really fun to share that with all of the people. I just like those conversations with other people that know and who are curious.
Q: People from all over the word.
A: Yep. Germany, China, France, Scandinavia, Canada.
A: Scotland is kind of more recent. I did an interview one time in 2000 or 2001 with the BBC on the anniversary of the Scots Battle of Dunbar – on the 350th anniversary – so that was fun to do: to be on the BBC.
Q: Anything else that you would like to share, from the perspective of somebody who has worked here for 32 years?
A: When I started here, it was kind of a place where I figured I could work here and do some blacksmithing. I don’t know if I really connected in the early years of how important this place was, until the mid-90s, when something came out that said the potential was that they could close this many parks across the board, so I wrote to find out “where did that number come from?” Because Saugus was on that list. And so I wrote to find out “where did that number come from?” And I realized that it came from some political thing – I think within the Park Service – that said, “If we get a budget cut of 30-something percent, this is how many parks it could influence.” What they did is they took all of the lowest budgeted parks and lumped them together on a list. And, so I thought, what my job should be here is to bring forth the importance of this place so that closing parks isn’t going to be based on a list that is strictly numbers. We have to tell a story that allows people to understand how important the various parks are and maybe why they should be kept open, so since the mid-90s, I guess that’s been my major mission here for myself: to make sure people realize the importance of what happened here, whatever that is, to keep focused on that.
Q: So, did you actually write a letter?
A: No. It’s just the personal contact I have with people and how I do tours. And if I don’t get anything else across when somebody walks into the Visitor’s Center, I’ll ask them bluntly, almost rudely, “Why are you here? What brings you here?” So, maybe it’s because they are distant relatives or descendants of Scottish prisoners of war or ironworkers who were here, so we can look into that toolbox of things we have so that we can figure out the best thing we can do for those people here. But if there is nothing else that I get across to people in 10 seconds or an hour tour, it’s why this place is important to the American people and why Congress set this aside in the 1960s as a National Historic Site – and right now we’re in the middle of the 50th anniversary year – why this was set aside to tell that portion of the American story.
Q: Give me a two-minute summation of that, please. Why is this place important?
A: This is where the American iron and steel industry gained a foothold in this country in the 1640s. And because of its bankruptcy – which is another thing I like to say because we’re almost celebrating a bankruptcy here – is that because of that bankruptcy and the dispersal of skilled workers, it spread those technologies throughout New England, New Jersey and so forth.
Q: So, this place played a big part in the early colonies?
Q: Anything else that you would like to share?
A: Well, one of the first years I was here, there was a reunion of a family that took place here. They were broken up in World War II. And so different members of the family went in different directions and they all had a pair of different languages from each other as a result of the war. And they came here for a tour, and it was just interesting to find that right thread of people that could tell the story of the Iron Works through these people that were brought together again here after the war, for the first time, connecting with each other. They had been broken apart by the war. But this gave them a common experience through different languages.