Richmond’s Tredegar Iron Works, known primarily for its role as chief cannon maker to the Confederacy during the American Civil War, has a long and storied history beyond those four years of bloody conflict. For over a century Tredegar was one of Richmond’s most powerful economic and industrial enterprises; the largest employer in the city for much of its existence, its workers produced everything from the simplest of horseshoes to the complex mechanisms required of locomotive and stationary engines. A Southern dynamo, its products were sold across the nation, and around the globe; ironically, the same company that provided structural iron for the United States Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. in 1859 also rolled the iron plating for the C.S.S. Virginia just three years later. However, the history of the Tredegar Iron Works extends into the past much further than its 1837 founding along the banks of the James River. Its heritage spans 3,000 miles of ocean, two continents, and several centuries.
Wales, particularly the southeastern portion of the country, has always been a land abundant in rich natural deposits, chiefly those of limestone, coal, and iron ore – three materials vital to the production of iron. A combination of native ingenuity and prodigious mineral resources allowed Wales to become a major supplier of the iron that propelled Britain’s industrial revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Sirhowy Valley, named for the Sirhowy River which runs through the region and encompassing such industrial centers as Merthyr Tydfil, Ebbw Vale, Dowlais, and Pen-y-Darren, became a hub of manufacturing, supplying the coal and iron that helped fuel industrial progress the world over.
One company town in particular, roughly 20 miles north of the capitol city of Cardiff, would leave an impact not only on Welsh history, but on that of the United States as well. “Tredegar” is a name with a history that dates to at least the 15th century, if not earlier; one of the earliest possible references to this area in Welsh history can be found in the tales of Teigr ap Tegonwy, a legendary Welsh monarch analogous to the more-famous King Arthur, who was said to hold court at “Tref-Deigr.” Joining many other iron works and coal mines that were scattered across the valley, The Tredegar Iron Company was founded in 1800 and, soon after, an eponymous workers’ settlement began to coalesce nearby. The resulting, modern town of Tredegar has produced many individuals of remarkable achievement and renown, both in the United Kingdom and abroad. It is the hometown of Aneurin Bevan (1897-1960), recognized as the father of Britain’s nationalized healthcare system, the National Health Service; James John Davis (1873-1947), United States Secretary of Labor under Presidents Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover, and vocal proponent of workers’ rights (particularly in the iron and steel industries), was born in Tredegar and emigrated to America as a child.
In the early 19th century, a group of Tredegar workmen followed a path laid by many of their forebears and travelled to the United States to aid the young republic’s burgeoning iron industry; the efforts of this particular group, however, would, in time, leave a lasting impact upon the course of Virginia and United States history. A gathering of historians and authors, from both Tredegar, Wales as well as its Richmond namesake, have come together to tell that story.
– Article by: Nathan Vernon Madison, co-producer of the documentary “How The Welsh Changed the World: The Tale of the Two Tredegars”
Join us at The American Civil War Museum April 24 at 6:00 p.m. for the U.S. Premiere of How The Welsh Changed the World: The Tale of the Two Tredegars.
Be one of the first to see the film, hear from the filmmakers and enjoy cocktails and hors d'oeuvres. Seating is limited.