Bell circa 1840-1850
|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". Today he is remembered mostly for founding one of the largest non-sectarian all-boys private secondary schools in the United States, which bears his name.
Montgomery Bell was born on January 3, 1769 in Chester County, Pennsylvania. His father, John Bell, was an Irish emigrant to the United States. His mother was Mary Patterson. He was of Scotch-Irish descent on both sides.
Bell served a three-year apprenticeship to a tanner and later became a hatmaker with an older brother. At age 20, he left Pennsylvania for Lexington, Kentucky where a widowed older sister lived and opened a hat-making business paying for the education of his sister's children.
Bell moved to Middle Tennessee and became involved in the iron business purchasing James Robertson's iron works at Cumberland Furnace, Tennessee in 1804 for $16,000. Bell expanded his operations and built other furnaces and mills including a hammer mill south of Charlotte, Tennessee on Jones Creek using water power.
By 1808, Bell was buying wood at 50 cents per cord for charcoal to fuel his Cumberland Furnaces which cast cannonballs used in the War of 1812 by General Andrew Jackson's troops at the Battle of New Orleans. Bell built another forge and hammer mill called "Pattison Forge" after his mother's maiden name. Bell finished a tunnel approximately 100 yards (91 m) long through a narrow limestone and sandstone ridge from a point seven-miles upstream creating a 4-foot fall to operate his hammers and forge. There had been an earlier plan to shorten the river path for flatboats to ship goods. Bell named another of his iron works "Worley Furnace" after James Worley, a slave.
Bell made the Narrows his operational headquarters and built a home there which he called Bell View. A nearby unincorporated community where many of his workers lived is called Bell Town. Bell suffered losses in the Panic of 1819 and in 1824 he advertised the Narrows and other properties for sale in the Nashville Whig. Bell offered to sell his ironworks to the U.S. Army for an Armory but floods on the Harpeth were well known and that idea failed. The Narrows property was not sold during Bell's life but much was lost through looting, flooding, and the effects of time. The tunnel remains and part of the Tennessee State Park system.
As early as 1835, Bell 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 died on April 1, 1855 in Dickson County, Tennessee which location became Cheatham County in 1856. He was buried near the Narrows property in a cemetery near his Bell View 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.
- Dalton, Robert E. (Spring 1976). "Montgomery Bell and the Narrows of Harpeth". Tennessee Historical Quarterly. 35 (1): 3–28. JSTOR 42623550. (Registration required (. ))
- John F. Baker, The Washingtons of Wessyngton Plantation: Stories of My Family's Journey to Freedom, New York City: Simon and Schuster, 2010, p. 87 
- Corlew, Robert E., A History of Dickson County (Nashville, 1956, reprinted 1980), Tennessee Historical Society
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