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Nicholas G. Norcross

The New England Timber King

An In-Law of the Saunders', Nicholas G. Norcross, who was known as The New England Timber King, had been very active in deepening and widening the Pemigewasset and Merrimack Rivers to make them suitable for floating timber to his mills in Lowell, Massachusetts.  He purchased 80,000 acres of land then known as Elkins Grant, which would later become Livermore.  Upon the death of Mr Norcross, the Saunders brothers, (Daniel, Charles and Caleb)  successfully obtained the rights to Elkins grant and created the Sawyer River Enterprise.  80,000 acres of land is an area about 10 miles long and 12 miles wide.  I have found little documentation about exactly who Mr Norcross bought this acreage from, although Jasper Elkins acquired the land through an act of the N.H. Legislature in 1830, so presumably it would have been from Mr. Elkins or his estate. 

NICHOLAS GAUBERT NORCROSS was a lumber baron, the "New England Timber King", who apparently fell on some financial hard times, and then moved to Lowell in 1844 to take up lumbering operations there. He opened a sawmill and planing mill with one John Fiske, operating as Fiske & Norcross. He also had a woodworking machinery retailing operation, Norcross & Co. He sold the latter business in 1848 or '49 to a competitor, S. C. Hills, and worked on designing a new circular sawmill and a planer.


Both of Norcross's designs were quite successful. The innovation in his sawmill design was an arbor that could move laterally to accommodate small sideways motion of the log. There were two important innovations in his planer: first, the air currents from the movement of the cutter-head directed the shavings into a chute; and second, the then-traditional pressure rollers were replaced by a pressure bar that could be placed much closer to the cutter-head and hence prevent tearout. The major flaw in Norcross's design is that adjusting the lumber size required inserting or removing spaces between the cylinders and the platen. In that respect, it was inferior to the other planers that had been developed to compete against the Woodworth planer, but those other planers had been all either lost in court against the Woodworth cartel, or they had been bought out by them. The market was eager for a legitimate competitor to the Woodworth planer.

Norcross began by building one planer that was operated by his own planing mill. It was no surprise when the Woodworth cartel promptly filed suit against Fiske & Norcross for patent infringement. But to the astonishment of all, Norcross ultimately prevailed (after a nearly four-year court battle) in the U. S. Supreme Court, even though his machine was a more direct infringement on Woodworth's patent than some others that lost infringement lawsuits. According to Charles Tompkins' 1889 book, The History of the Planing-Mill, the owners of this Norcross patent had quietly made a deal with the Woodworth cartel: they would support the cartel's attempt to get another patent extension if the Norcross planer could "compete" in the same marketplace. This was a good deal for the Woodworth owners because the Norcross machine was, overall, not much better than the Woodworth planer, and the presence of competition in the marketplace might tame the growing resentment against the Woodworth cartel. Apparently it was not difficult to control the outcome of the court ruling. Even before the lawsuit was finished, quite a few Norcross machines were sold, with the Norcross patent owners indemnifying the purchasers for any damages if the Woodworth cartel prevailed in court.

In both the Norcross planer and the Woodworth planer, a pair of upper and lower feed-rolls were mounted to a frame (Norcross's rolls were somewhat larger than Woodworth's). The feed-rolls were geared using star gears that allowed a certain amount of adjustment to accommodate different stock thicknesses. Different sized gears were also provided as necessary. A slotted bedplate was situated close behind and below the rolls, with the planing cylinder beneath the slot so that the knives could protrude slightly through the slot. This contrasts with the Woodworth planer and all modern planers where the cutter-head is above the bed rather than below it. In this respect the Norcross planer works somewhat like a modern jointer. An upper press-plate provided a surface to hold the wood down against the cutter. The cylinder bearings were attached to this upper press-plate via arms passing down through the main bed-plate. To adjust the machine for different thicknesses of lumber, cast-iron strips were inserted between the press-plate and the cylinder boxes. This adjustment method was clunky but effective and solid.


Once the Woodworth planer cartel lost its monopoly in 1856, however, the Norcross tonguing and grooving machines quickly fell into disuse, replaced by integrated planer-matchers. That helps explain why the Norcross cartel had supported the Woodworth cartel.

Information Sources

  • The New York Legal Observer, Vol. 1, October 1842—April, 1843, has a report on a proceeding in the U. S. District Court of Maine at Portland: "Ex parte the creditors of Nicholas G. Norcross, in the matter of his Petition for a Decree". Norcross had declared bankruptcy, and he had been in a partnership operating as "Fisk & Norcross" ("Fisk" was actually John Fiske). The partnership itself was not insolvent, nor was Fiske. The judge ruled that Norcross's creditors had no right to "interfere with the administration of the effects of the firm", which had been effectively dissolved by bankruptcy. It was Fiske's responsibility to wind up the affairs of the partnership.

  • A History of the Boston and Maine Railroad, by Bruce D. Heald, 2007, quotes the 1871 book The Merrimack River by J. W. Meader:

    In 1844, Nicholas G. Norcross, who had already made himself rich and earned the title of "The New England Timber King" on the Penobscot, came to Lowell and established himself permanently on the Merrimack...Mr. Norcross prefaced his operation by the outlay of more than one hundred thousand dollars in improving the channel and adapting it to his purposes. He blasted rocks and removed obstructions, bought land and provided for the stringing of booms for timber harbor, bought rights in some of the important falls, built two dams on the Pemigewasset at Woodstock, New Hampshire, and purchased the Elkins Grant of eighty thousand acres of heavy timber adjoining the above town, Lincoln, and several others. He also bought a tract of forty thousand acres in the un-granted lands of New Hampshire and several other tracts...

    In 1845, Mr. Norcross built a large lumber mill at Lowell, where, with gangs of saws, upright and circular, he wrought out much of the lumber for the mills and dwellings of the city. This mill was twice destroyed by fire, but was soon rebuilt. He also built a large mill at Lawrence, which was managed by his brother, J. W. Norcross. Mr. Norcross died in 1860, since which the business has been conducted by I. W. Norcross, Charles W. Saunders and N. W. Norcross.

  • An 1849 Scientific American ad from S. C. Hills (a big New York woodworking machinery dealer) says, "Messrs. Norcross & Co., agents for the purchase and sale of machinery, have transferred their business to the subscriber..." Presumably G. Norcross was the co-owner of Norcross & Co., and, after selling his dealership to S. C. Hills he became a manufacturer.

  • Booklet dated September 1, 1850, and available online through Google Book. The booklet, from Norcross Machine Company, is entitled, "N. G. Norcross's planing machine patented February 12, 1850, and circular saw-mill. Affidavits of skilful experts, showing that the Norcross machine is different from, and superior to, the Woodworth machine."

  • The 1850-10-19 Scientific American, in an article about exhibits at the Fair of the American Institute, says:

    We have not much to say about Planing Machines—all these have been exhibited at the Fair before, except Norcross's and Kittle's—Norcross's was patented on the 12th of last February; it employs rotary cutters. Mr. Norcross, (who lives in Lowell,) has got up pamphlets with great care, by some lawyer whose researches into the number of patents granted for planing machines, has been very laborious and extended.
  • 1852-1853 Scientific American ads.

  • The decision of the Supreme Court of the United States in the case of the administrators of the Woodworth patent versus John Fiske and Norcross is available online through Google Books.

  • An 1854 ad says,

    The Supreme Court of the U.S., at the Term of 1853 and 1854, having decided that the patent granted to Nicholas G. Norcross, of date Feb. 12, 1850, for a Rotary Planing Machine for Planing Boards and Planks, is not an infringement of the Woodworth Patent, rights to use N. G. Norcross's patented machine can be purchased...

    Given the litigious nature of the Woodworth patent holders, this Supreme Court decision must have been an effective sales tool against other planer makers. As pointed out in the book Planers, Matchers & Moulders in America, Norcross's machine was clumsy in use, because changing lumber size meant inserting or removing spacers between the cylinder and platen. Norcross did claim to be the first to use fixed platens in a planer; this type of platen was superior to the Woodworth planer's rollers because they could be placed much closer to the cutters. Another advantage of the Norcross planer was that it used the air currents created by the spinning cutter-head cylinder to propel shavings into a pit beneath the planer. The Norcross design's shavings collection later played a key role in the industry fight against the patent claim of the Boston Conductory Co.

  • The New York Times for May 30, 1855 had an article on a lawsuit between the owners of the Woodworth patent and some licensees of the Norcross planer patent.

  • The American Almanac and Repository of Useful Knowledge for 1861 has an obituary notice:

    July 14 (1860).—In Lowell, Mass., Nicholas G. Norcross, aged 54. He was a native of Orono, Maine, and was largely engaged in lumbering in that State, and afterwards on the Merrimack River in Massachusetts, and aided to develop the resources of the Canadian forests. He was the inventor of the Norcross Planing-Machine.
  • The New York Times of July 16, 1860 had a brief obituary:

    LOWELL, Mass., Saturday, July 14, NICHOLAS G. NORCROSS, an extensively known lumber dealer, died suddenly this morning of heart disease.
  • There is a Wikipedia page on Jonathan Norcross, younger brother of Nicholas G. Norcross, it has some information on Nicholas.

November 11, 1922=Obituary

Death Last Evening of One of Lowell's Oldest and Best Known Citizens.  "The Lowell Daily Sun"

Nicholas Warren Norcross, Civil war veteran, one time widely known Lowell contractor, always an active participant in important campaigns for the improvement of his home city, as well as closely affiliated with social and religious welfare movements for many years, passed away last evening after a long illness at the home of his son, Nicholas G. Norcorss, 227 Nesmith street. He was 90 years of age. The funeral service and burial will be private and friends of the bereaved family have been requested to kindly omit flowers.

Mr. Norcross had a fruitful and almost unique career in Lowell business life rarely squalled in many ways. Splendidly educated with a wonderful health reserve at all times and vigorously interested in all things pertaining to the welfare of his home city and his upbringing, this citizen familiar to many old Lowell history makers rounded out a long and highly useful record of activities that will be remembered.

Coming to Lowell in 1843 from Bangor, Me., where he was born Nov. 7, 1833, the son of Nicholas G. and Sophronia P. Norcross, he was educated in the public schools of Lowell and after graduating from the high school entered historic Groton academy where he completed his academic course.

At that time wood-paving was being tried out to solve certain street construction problems. Mr. Norcross took up the business at its very beginning and because a member of the firm of Fisk & Norcross which later became Norcross, Saunders & Co.

In 1860 Mr. Norcorss married Miss Ellen G. Crosby, daughter of Judge Crosby. Four children were born of this union, namely Nicholas G., Rebecca C., now Mrs. E. N. Burke; Josiah C., who is now located in Boston with the Edison Electric Illuminating Co., and Nathan C., who died in Tepic, Mexico, while employed in the engineering department of Mexican Central railroad.

In 1862, with the North and South engaged in the great struggle that was eventually to end in the reuinion of the warring states, Mr. Norcorss enlisted as a paymaster in the United States army, serving in that capacity throughout the war.

During his career as an active member of the firm of Norcross, Saunders & Co., this firm had the contract with the city of Lowell for the laying of the new wooden paving on many important Lowell thoroughfares. In those days the wood blocks were considered not only the "very latest," but the finest paving material possible for a city to use on its principle streets.

Mr. Norcross was always a deeply sympathetic participant in all social and religious affairs of St. Anne's church, and was also a member of the Vesper Country and the Longmeadow Golf clubs.

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