Greetings from Saugus Iron Works National Historic Site

Napoleon at the First Iron Works 2

“Let me illustrate the capabilities employed here: we just went back to Athens in a hurry. We have sort of a Grecian background (Greek if you must) all the way back to awed gods in the flesh, the whole lot of them, cloud-borne and those sequestered beneath. There were so many the crowd held us back, but we caught sight of our special one still lost in a dream fog. Her name leaps among the gods, which makes me ask, what is the name of your dream?


“No, her name.”

“Her’s her name for now. Her is what I use when speaking about her.”

“What name do you use when speaking to her or Her?”

“‘You,’ is all I know, all I use, like 'Hey, You’ or 'How are You this day?’”

“She is all dream, then? Her?”

“That she is.”

“We’re not setting you up for plain sex, if that’s all you want. We are not 'Arrangers of the Sort.

"What will happen to Her then, if you do not make my dream come true?”

“This I can guarantee from the ground up, that you will find Her looking for you time and time again, on Her own.”

“You mean, I’ll never find the real Her?”

“Isn’t that the best part of this whole charade among strange gods, spirits? Isn’t this why you have come upon us, seeking Her? For some kind of recognition, hope, a future connection beyond the dream that’s never left you, the Her that’s never left you? We hope you’ve never hurt Her, Hera in another goddess form, Hera who never lets go of a pain or a hurt upon her being, who holds grudges, who may be hiding from you who has come here looking for Her who is hiding from you, Her or Hera’s kind of revenge. Ernie Co, in business for good, held out his hand, saying, "Five dollars, please, the normal formal charge.”

His smile was charming.

Escapades leap to mind, like Death at the First Iron Works of America, the way another friend throws light our way, as he says:

I was on a special detail at the reconstruction site of America’s first iron works in my hometown of Saugus, Massachusetts. Regularly I am a Saugus cop, but I get what extra work I can. None of it was ever like this day’s work, back in 1952, more than half a century ago. I was sharp as a tack then, kept my eye and ears open, loved new edges.

At one moment I had my eye on 72-year-old Napoleon deMars, an earth surgeon with one glass eye and one wooden leg, but a steady machine with a shovel in his hands. I swore I could sense some curiosity and sudden coldness when his long-handled shovel painstakingly pried up a buried object.

I saw, as quickly as he did, that it was disinterment! White of bone came up at him, right from the grave. It was a human skull, opened at a wedge in the frontal lobe, and he and I knew it most likely had been murder. The skull, and apparently some of its bones holding on to the last known form, lay at the end of his half day’s work, a trench at the First iron Works, a mere dozen miles from Boston’s Freedom Trail. The site was being excavated for and from history. It was September of 1952. Excavation had been under way since 1948, on a small scale, but steadily. Not a single piece of diesel-driven power equipment had been allowed in there as yet. It was a pick and shovel site, a whiskbroom site, toothpick and cotton swab country.

Now it was a graveyard. I was a new guard on duty, with old crime on my rounds.. Napoleon, felt nauseous.

Three people of varying importance were at the Iron Works site when the grisly discovery was made: Napoleon deMars, the seventy-two year old, one-eyed, one-legged earth surgeon; Dr. Roland Wells Robbins, site archeologist who had found the ruins of Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond a few years earlier, now in charge of unearthing the site of the very first iron works which had brought to America all the experience Europe was able to muster back in the 1600’s; and me, Silas Tully, police officer of the town, on the force six years after Marine Corps in the once-noisy Pacific.

On that September day, the faintest breath of salt coming off the river, at eleven o’clock in the morning, Napoleon deMars put down his shovel, a half-hour to lunchtime and he never stopped work, he never cursed his place in life. Here, at the Iron Works, at $2.35 an hour, the best pay he ever received, where he could shovel until he was eighty, he put his work aside.

He looked out over the First Iron Works in America, up off the banks of the Saugus River on the North Shore above Boston. The site was a conglomeration of excavations, mounds, slag piles, marked stone walls which had been retrieved from history, a half-dozen trenches cutting across a small piece of Saugus crooked as lightning, ragged as crossword puzzles, and the scattered artifacts to be catalogued, put away.

Napoleon walked with the marked limp he had carried with him for half a century. The broad band of a suspender hooked over one shoulder and slipped into his belt line where, down inside his pants, iconnected to the crude wooden leg he had worn for so long. In reality, this one was his third, and no lighter than the first. Around the site he looked for Rollie Robbins, boss man, a little prissy Napoleon had often thought, but more knowledgeable than any man in town on this kind of an excavation. Often enough he’d seen the light go on in Rollie’s eyes when a new discovery was made, when a ditch gave up clues or artifacts, when the 17th Century struggled up out of a pile of dirt or the bottom of a hole like a woodchuck checking the land.

Now, Napoleon had found this new discovery. He tried to reach back into history the way Rollie did. He marveled how Rollie pulled out of a small find, the way a rock sat on its neighbor or what it was made of or how the demarcation in a trench of the natural soil line could tell time as good as a calendar. Napoleon used his head to signal Rollie, and nodded to his current digging spot.

Roland Robbins, round faced, handsome in his outdoors way, beginning to widen at the belt line, tipped dark-rimmed glasses off his face and looked at Napoleon. He admired the old man, who kept his shovel moving more industriously than any other laborer. Napoleon was also a good luck talisman for Rollie, his charm piece. He remembered the day he had hired the old man, who began methodically shoveling his way through three hundred years of fill. His single eye was a marvelously good organ. A cannon ball popped off his shovel that first day; a half dozen clay pipe remnants (with one bowl intact) turned up an hour later, on the second day the crusted remains of a matchlock pistol were held in the air just as the crew broke for lunch. For that one moment Rollie the archeologist had palmed devilish antiquity.

“What is it, Napoleon?” Sweat was a dark stain on Napoleon’s shirt under the one-strap suspender. An off-yellow color it was, almost like an old tobacco stain, and made Rollie think of his grandfather for the first time in many years.

“Where I’m digging, boss. Down where you sent me yesterday to trench out. There’s a skeleton.” The old man’s one eye had remoteness in it. “It’s in the fill. It’s in some clay. I don’t think I hit it with my shovel, but the front of the skull has been crushed. I didn’t tell any of the others. It must have been a nasty death.”

A story wagged deep behind his one eye, his brow leaning over it darkly.

Rollie looked at his watch, smiled at Napoleon. “Thanks, Napoleon. Tell the others they can go for lunch. I’ll check it out myself.” Down the slope Rollie’s gait was deliberate, drawing no eyes. Down into the trench Napoleon had cut he eased himself. Neatness came at him immediately; the floor of the trench was level, the five-foot sides were cut down as if they had been carved or sculpted out of the sand and gravel and blue-gray hardpan. The pile thrown out humped a long mound stretching away from the trench. The neat trench itself was about eighteen feet long. Beneath him he saw the bones of the skeleton Napoleon had unearthed. The skull indeed was crushed in at the forehead. Arm bones and torso bones had been exposed. A quick little chill spun on Rollie’s skin and danced off someplace. Never before in any of his digs had he seen this. There’d been pots and pans and rocks and stones and clay pipes and glass bottles of every sort and pieces of wood with enough left of their grain that stories could still be extracted from them. But never the hard remains of a human being; just the subtle remains, the storied remains, never the boned and final remains.

The other workers thought it odd that Rollie and Napoleon during lunch had quickly set up a canvas tent over the trench. They hadn’t seen a tent on-site in almost a year. It was, obviously, now out of bounds for them.

The third party on the scene, a daily visitor to the site, was Officer Silas Tully of the Saugus Police Department. For a couple of years, he had watched as Rollie Robbins pieced together so much of the original site from piles of rock and slag heaps and baskets full of artifacts, and now wondered what a tent signified. Curious, he made his way down to the tent, stepping over trenches with his long legs, jumping over small piles of slag or rocks, avoiding larger holes and pits. Rollie and he had become, if not friends, at least daily conversationalists on the topic of excavation. Each loved the way details and mysteries worked on them and each found in the other a sense of mirror. The particulars of each calling worked resolutely.

Si Tully slipped aside the canvas door flap of the tent and stepped inside. Rollie looked up at him from the bottom of the trench, a nonplused look on his face as if a policeman was absolutely the last person he wanted on site. With some effort Rollie climbed the ladder out of the trench. Touching the blue sleeve of Silas’ shirt, a pained look, as if he had been surprised at the cookie jar or caught peeking in the girl’s bathroom, flooded his face. In the hanging light of a Coleman lamp buzzing its ignition as noisy as bees his face reddened deeply.

“Si, we just can’t let too many people in on this until we found out what it’s all about!” His eyes affected beseeching. “They’ll trample the hell out of the place. It’d take us months to recover. We can’t let strangers in here.”

“Find out what’s what all about?” Silas said, and then, swiftly directed, he looked along the length of Rollie’s arm pointing at the skull in the bottom of the trench, its forehead obviously crushed at a point of history.

Six years on the force and this was Si Tully’s first skull and, moreover, his first skeleton. Bodies he’d seen, that’s for sure, in the islands on the turnpike at crash scenes, laid out on the median strips more times than he cared to remember. This, though, was a new mystery to him; an unknown, a victim how long in the historic grave no one knew or might never know. Something told him that Rollie had made assessments, that one or more leads had already surfaced, that this gruesome crime would be solved. It was second nature to the archeologist. This could be most interesting, a bizarre and intriguing find at the archeological site, more than history unfurling itself.

Si spoke again. “It’s my town, Rollie, and it’s murder clear as a bell, and I’ve got to report it. You know that. No matter how old it is.” The former Marine, the military man, early in this new episode, could see lines being crossed, basic command structure being aborted.

Rollie had seen the quizzical light in Silas’ eyes before. Again, he touched him on the arm. This time it was as if he were drawing the young policeman into a strictest confidence; the secret of King Tut’s tomb, a hidden room beneath the Sphinx, a new Rosetta Stone unearthed in old Yankee Saugus. Consciously he decided not to tell Silas of the other waiting discovery; there were stars to be earned! Treach had paved the way.

Rollie stood beside the trench looking down at the skeleton, down where history was always telling him stories. A storyteller might have been reciting the sad and gruesome tale to him, a tale of love turned sour, of madness, a tale of clandestine deeds performed or perpetrated under cover of darkness. In the air he could feel hatred, and despair.

A man, he thought, a seaman perhaps, had come home from the high angry seas only to find more trouble at the hearth. His mind kept telling him it had a will of its own, despite the training, the years of experience. Mystery, he knew, did it. But, he thought with some eagerness, he lived on mysteries.

Robby still held Silas by the arm, working on the mystery, the love of details in the policeman which made his own life go ‘round. “I’m going to get Professor Hartley out here from Harvard. Loves this place he does and he’ll love this challenge. I can see him marshaling the forces at Harvard, getting his cronies in the labs to do us a few favors. His forensic friends will have a small busman’s holiday on this, their own little murder to play with. They’ll love it, the boys of the old school, in a deep, dark secret, rolling up their pant legs and getting down and dirty. They’ll give us the answer to every question we can come up with, you and me. Then, with it all laid out, you can go to the chief or the State or whoever else and lay a clean solved case right on the blotter.” There was affirmation in his eyes, in his voice.

He squeezed Silas’ arm. They were standing there on the edge of history. It could have been The Valley of Kings under their feet, or Chitzen-itsa or a Ming Dynasty tomb somewhere in China. Again, he squeezed Silas’ arm, brothers of the mystery.

Early Sunday morning two station wagons rolled into the parking area of the Iron Works. Rollie and Silas met Professor D’Jana K. Hartley, tall, effectively studious-looking in his tweed leathered elbows, but not in a boring way, and his cohorts from the ivy halls; two more archeologists, a forensic expert and his young sidekick with blond hair and extremely bright eyes, a professor of Humanities who looked to be the most intelligent of all, a man who carried from the trunk of one car a canvas bag of assorted gear, and a young good looking woman wearing denim, boots and a yellow blouse fitting her so well that most others would not believe she was from Harvard. None of the site diggers, that’s for sure, noting how compelling yellow was.

Napoleon deMars watched them approach. Leaning on his shovel near the tent, he was still on the clock, still at $2.35 an hour, and no one, not one soul, had entered the tent since he’d received his orders from Rollie. Perhaps the victim was as old as he was, perhaps a person he had known in his youth. His mind went skipping back through the years for a noted loss. Nothing came to mind. Napoleon watched the Harvards at work and admired the deftness of their hands with the small trowels and brushes they employed yet was certain the soft leather boots they wore must have cost a week’s pay. He tried to hear the whispers and small asides that connected them, made them such outlanders down in the hole he had cut into the earth.

Professor D’Jana Hartley’s people were crack specialists. Quietly they went their turn back into the minor history of the skeleton in the trench of the Iron Works. Small talk amongst them, as much whisper as anything could be, as if covering a trail of a known confidant, had scanned a series of possibilities: an indentured servant, probably a Scot, a slag toter or bog digger or barrow pusher, who had fallen astray, perhaps with another slave’s woman or the Iron Master’s wife, and they tittered at a remark about a new ax of Cane manufactured on the very spot and which had done the improbable deed; a late visitor to the site, pocketbook or pouch laden with crown coin or Spanish gold pieces, fallen under the swing of a metal bar, come slowly as an ingot of first life out of the very furnace whose ruins lay at their backs, in the hands of another indentured servant waiting to buy his way out of contract.

Now and then a giggle caught itself on the tall air. Napoleon, intently watching every move, hearing every sound, thought of his grandchildren at the cookie jar and smiled at the likeness of things. He’d work till ninety if they let him, and if the other leg would hold its own, here in this affable cradle of history. On the way home, he’d buy a box of cookies for the cookie jar; it was a fair swap.


Saugus Iron Works National Historic Site

Saugus Iron Works National Historic Siteprovides a trip back in time to the 17th and 18th centuries when the site was used for producing iron. A short stroll behind the visitor’s center and museum takes visitors to the main area of the site–a handful of reconstructed buildings clustered around–and with a lovely view of–the Saugus River.

State(s): Massachusetts

Established: 1968

“I spent parts of 8 years working beside the site archeologist, in the total recovery and rebuild of the site, and have written stories and essays about the site where i used to play as a boy and look over the site from my favorite chair beside a window, my movements now restricted by walker and cane in my 95th year, though I live just across the street from the park.”

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