Maramec Spring Park provides an aesthetic blend of history and outdoor fun. This privately-owned oasis is located southeast of St. James, Mo., and is owned and operated by the James Foundation.
Note that the spelling of “Maramec” differs from that of the Meramec River.
The park property was once the site of an impressive frontier enterprise, the Maramec Iron Works. Mining and smelting artifacts, such as old iron smelters, have been woven into the park design. A museum on the premises provides information about the early use of the property.
The iron works was founded by partners Thomas James and Samuel Massey 190 years ago. James was a successful ironmonger and Massey was his trusted sidekick, serving as superintendent of Marble Furnace in Ohio.
It is believed that Massey and James learned about the iron deposits near St. James from Shawanese Indians who had camped on the James property while traveling through Ohio. James recognized the red hematite in their face paint and knew it came from a location rich in iron ore. The lore is that these Indians led Massey and James to the site.
When the pioneer entrepreneurs saw the expansive forests, the quantity of iron ore available and the substantial water flow of the spring, they realized it was the perfect place for them to establish a trans-Mississippi iron works.
The timber could be used to produce charcoal to fire a smelter. The water power supplied by the spring would provide adequate power for the mill, and the high grade ore they found promised success.
Although other iron smelters had been built west of the Mississippi, they had floundered and eventually failed. The Maramec Iron Works, which was in operation for 50 years, was to be the first to bring serious iron production to Missouri.
Returning to Ohio, James engaged Massey to transport mining equipment and supplies to Missouri. The men knew they would have to make a substantial clearing in the wilderness and build a smelter and housing for the workers. They would be building a town in an area almost inaccessible as there were no roads to the site.
Massey took some supplies by barge down the Ohio River to Cincinnati, where he purchased a keel boat and more supplies, then continued his journey. With the help of John Stanton, Samuel Massey and 12 workers reached the site on Aug. 12, 1826.
The iron works would eventually be the impetus for much road building in the area. Beginning between 1840 and 1850, iron from the Maramec Iron Furnace was hauled 65 miles by ox teams to Hermann, Mo., to be shipped down the Missouri River to St. Louis.
On the return trip, the ox teams were loaded with goods and provisions for the iron works and the company store. Early wagon trails utilized by the iron works evolved into present-day highways such as Interstate 44 and Highway 19.
The first priorities were to build a company store and housing for the workers before winter set in. Then, they set themselves to building a safe, functioning smelter, which was a major undertaking. It is a job that had to be done right. It is a serious over-simplification to say that any cracks in the walls or floor of a smelter would likely result in an explosion.
Slaves, mostly leased from area slaveholders, were brought in to do much of the hard mining work. Early mining was chiefly a pick-and-shovel operation. Some slaveholders refused to lease slaves to Maramec Iron Works after seeing how hard the slaves were worked, often spending 12 hours a day digging ore out of the hills to line the pockets of the investors.
In the frontier era, Missouri settlers needed iron products for homesteads, including cooking utensils, plows, axes, wagon rims, and much more. The early iron works produced a wide variety of items to meet these needs. One of their most popular items was the large iron kettle, such as were used by housewives for laundry, making soap or apple butter over an outdoor fire. Smaller kettles were produced that were suitable for use in a fireplace.
In 1833, when the books were balanced for the first time, it was learned that the iron works had yielded profits of nearly $37,000 after four years of operation. The partners had invested over $58,000 cash and over $10,000 in borrowed funds. The stock, property and equipment were estimated to be worth over $100,000.
On the frontier, money was hard to come by. With nearly 500 people to provide for, the iron works had to purchase most of their provisions. The land was taken up with timber for charcoal, leaving little space in which to plant gardens or orchards.
Barter was used to the extent possible, trading iron for merchandise. By 1870, gross annual sales were estimated to be more than $50,000. Maramec Iron Works eventually produced their own currency.
By 1840, things had changed. The company, now under control of Thomas James’ son, William, was primarily producing iron for industrial use by factories in St. Louis. The business expanded. Based on the increased demand for nails and other products, Samuel Massey convinced James to add a rolling and slitting mill.
With this equipment, they could convert blooms into flat bars or small rods suitable for nail production. Also coal was discovered in the area and they planned to use it to fuel the new equipment.
Unfortunately, local coal contained too much sulphur and iron pyrites to be feasible for manufacturing iron. The rolling mill was a failure. James blamed Massey for the costly mistake.
After a couple of years of friction between the two partners, William James persuaded his father to purchase Massey’s one-third interest. On July 13, 1847, Massey sold his interest, spent a couple of years mining copper near the iron works, then went to Franklin County, Mo., where he engaged in farming.
By the time the Civil War began, rolling mills were being built in St. Louis. In fact, by 1848, there were already 12 foundries in St. Louis and they all needed to be supplied with iron.
Despite a shortage of workers during the war, Maramec Iron Works experienced a boom from 1863 to 1872. The cost of shipping declined when the railroad was built to nearby St. James in 1860.
A crash followed between 1873 and 1878. The furnace shut down in 1875 and William James filed for bankruptcy and was left penniless at age 55. The beautiful home — “Dunsmoor” — he had built at nearby St. James became the original Missouri Veteran’s Home. The furnace changed ownership a couple of times but permanently closed in 1891.
In the 1920s, Lucy Wortham James, great-granddaughter of Thomas James, purchased her family’s ancestral lands with a plan for opening the historic iron works to the public. The James Foundation came into being and maintains the park and other assets yet today.
The furnace stack remains at Maramec Spring Park as do the refinery forges and hammers. A historic cemetery remains as a monument to those who lived and died at the iron works.
The park offers other amenities such as a cafe, store, camping (some sites with electric), wildlife viewing, fish feeding, picnicking, shelters, playgrounds and fishing.
For more information call (573) 265-7124 weekdays from 8 a.m.-4 p.m., or check out their website at www.maramecspringpark.com.
(Sue Blesi is a staff writer for the River Hills Traveler. She can be reached at email@example.com.)
Here are the cutlines for my story. You might want to split it for two issues as it kept growing. If so, you might want to use two photos in each issue. Note: Spelling is correct. Also, the postcard refers to Maramec Springs (plural), but all other references I have found use the singular form for the park; Maramec Spring Park.
Picturesque bridge invites visitors to explore the park. Two hundred acres of the 1860-acre property is open to the public.
Historic iron smelter left from the Maramec Iron Works era occupies a prominent place at Maramec Spring Park today.
Visitors to the park are welcomed by this sign.
A 1943 postcard depicts the mill at Maramec Spring Park.