Monday, March 12, 2012

Why Is There a Horseshoe in Our Museum? The Story of Henry Burden.

Henry Burden was born near Dunblaine, Scotland, April 20, 1791. His father took care of sheep but he sent his son to a school of engineering in Edinburgh. After graduation, he returned to his father’s farm and made a number of agricultural implements, many of them operated by a water-wheel.  In 1819, he emigrated to American with letters of introduction to General Stephen Van Rensselaer and John C. Calhoun, an Ulster-Scot.

In America, he continued the practice of making tools and machines which were exhibited at fairs to farmers. In 1820 he invented the first cultivator patented in America. In 1822, he went to Troy, New York and took charge of an “iron and nail factory.” He invented a machine for making railroad spikes. It was patented May 26, 1825 and five years later, invented a machine to make horseshoe nails. In 1835, he invented a machine for making horseshoes with additional improvements in 1845. His new machine in 1857 for making horseshoes was considered his greatest invention.

At the start of the Civil War, the North had approximately 3.4 million horses. The South had 1.7 million. The total number of horses killed in the war is estimated at more than 1 million. It is reported that, in the beginning of the war, more horses were killed than men; and at Gettysburg some 1,500 horses died. At the Henry Burden Iron Works the capacity for horseshoes during the war was 60 a minute, or 51,000,000 annually. During the war, the Iron Works was taken over by the government with Henry Burden as the manager.

Henry Burden was also interested in steam navigation. His plans for the construction of a “long vessel” were adopted in the building of the Hendrick Hudson. The ship was a “schooner-rigged screw steamer” which I think means it combined the use of wind and a steam engine. Maybe like our hybrid cars of today? It was captured by Union forces while trying to run the blockade during the Civil War. She was then converted to a gun ship and used to stop blockade runners along the coast of Florida. The SS Hendrick Hudson was lost near Havana, Cuba on November 13, 1867.

Henry Burden died in Troy, New York, on January 18, 1871. He was succeeded in business by his sons. James Abercrombie Burden who attended Yale college became a celebrated inventor like his father.  He invented a machine that could take one piece of iron, and in one heat, make it into horseshoes with nail holes punched at the rate of 70 per minute. We have one horseshoe in the Scottish American Museum in honor of the Burden family. The horseshoe belonged to “Sugar” who lived on the “Rockin’R” ranch in Oklahoma.

The Burden family belonged to the Presbyterian church and in honor of their mother built a stone church along the Hudson river at Troy. Inside the church a plaque read: “Woodside Memorial Church, dedicated to the service of the Triune God, has been erected to the memory of Helen Burden by her husband Henry Burden, in accordance with her long cherished and earnest desire.” I don’t believe the church is still active.

Henry Burden is a member of the Scottish American Hall of Fame.

Wayne Rethford
President Emeritus

History Tour - March 31, 2012
April History Club meeting is cancelled.


  1. A screw vessel uses what we now call a propeller, it is after all a water screw, to differentiate it from side-wheelers, paddles on the side, and stern wheelers, paddles at the back.
    Steam was notoriously unreliable back then, and trusted as much as it deserved. Consequently most ocean going vessels had sails as a backup.


  2. Excellent post Wayne and I guess the Civil War marks the beginning of what became the Military-Industrial complex (so nicknamed by Ike). Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, and Marshall Field (to name a few) all grew vast fortunes during the War while paying substitutes to fight in their place which I suspect encouraged these men to donate a large portion of their estates towards public institutions. Mr. Burden must have been quite a vigorous man to have managed such an operation while in his seventies-which would have been quite an advanced age in that era.

  3. A very interesting post, Wayne. 70 horseshoes a minute is quite incredible for the time!