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|Born||January 3, 1769
Chester County, Pennsylvania
|Died||April 1, 1855
Dickson County, Tennessee
Montgomery Bell (January 3, 1769, Chester County, Pennsylvania – April 1, 1855, Dickson County, Tennessee) was a manufacturing entrepreneur who was crucial to the economic development of early Middle Tennessee. He was known as the "Iron Master of the Harpeth" and the "Iron Master of Middle Tennessee".
Montgomery Bell was born on January 3, 1769. He received very little formal education during his childhood but served a three-year apprenticeship to a leather tanner. He was later instructed in hatmaking by an older brother and apparently practiced this trade with some success during his teen years. Just before turning twenty, he left Pennsylvania for Lexington, Kentucky, where an older sister had recently been widowed. He established himself as a hatmaker in the area, paying for the education of his sister's children and at times employing as many as twenty other people before deciding to move further south.
Greatly interested in the industrial potential of water power, he was drawn to Middle Tennessee, where there were sizable streams and an abundance of iron ores, particularly hematite, in some areas. In 1804, he purchased James Robertson's iron works at Cumberland Furnace for the then-large sum of $16,000, soon expanding them into one of the largest operations of the sort in the entire Southern United States. He also built other furnaces and mills, notably a hammer mill south of Charlotte on Jones Creek, where the water was diverted through a limestone dam built by slave labor.
By 1808, he was advertising in Nashville newspapers to buy wood at 50 cents per cord. Bell was greatly enriched by a government contract for cannonballs for use in the War of 1812; cannonballs made at his Cumberland Furnace works were those used by Andrew Jackson's forces in the Battle of New Orleans. At least some of this wealth was reinvested in what is generally considered to be his greatest project at the "Narrows of the Harpeth", which he called "Pattison Forge" after his mother's maiden name (a nearby historical marker misidentifies it as "Patterson Forge"). Here, Bell, again using slave labor, blasted a tunnel approximately 100 yards (91 m) long [state park signs at the tunnel give its length as 200 feet] through a narrow limestone and sandstone ridge across a point where the Harpeth River made a seven-mile (11 km) horseshoe bend. He named one of his iron works "Worley Furnace" after one of his slaves, James Worley. The resulting power ran Bell's iron milling operations and was so successful that apparently some previous projects, such as the Jones Creek mill, were eventually abandoned.
He eventually made the Narrows the site of the headquarters of all of his operations and built a home there. He suffered some financial reverses due to the Panic of 1819 and its aftermath; in 1824 he advertised the Narrows and other of his properties for sale in the Nashville Whig newspaper, but at least the Narrows property was not sold at this time, nor in his lifetime. Subsequent looting, flooding, and the effects of time have meant that the only remaining evidence of this large operation today is the tunnel, which still remains and is part of a state park, and some slag.
As early as 1835, he sent 50 of his freed slaves to Liberia. In 1853, he sent 50 more of them. He eventually emancipated 150 more of his slaves. Additionally, he hired a teacher from Philadelphia to teach them how to read and write, at a time when this was illegal.
He never married.
He died on April 1, 1855 in Dickinson County, Tennessee. He was buried near the Narrows property in a cemetery in what was then still Dickson County; with the establishment of Cheatham County in the year following his death the place of his death and burial were included in the new county, not the one that he had for so long called home.
He bequeathed $20,000 toward "the education of children not less than ten nor more than fourteen years old who are not able to support and educate themselves and whose parents are not able to do so." This was the foundational grant for the Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville, Tennessee.
The Montgomery Bell State Park is named in his honor.
- Corlew, Robert E., A History of Dickson County (Nashville, 1956, reprinted 1980), Tennessee Historical Society