Volume II - No. 4
HOPEWELL VILLAGE AND THE COLONIAL IRON INDUSTRY
By Melvin J. Weig,
On August 3, 1938, was signed the departmental order designating Hopewell Village National Historic Site, a tract of about 214 acres embracing the remains of an important Colonial iron manufacturing community not far from Reading, Pennsylvania. The area already had been acquired by the federal government as a part of French Creek Recreational Demonstration Area and was recommended for designation by the Advisory Board on National Parks, Historic Sites, Buildings and Monuments. It will be administered by the National Park Service as one of the more than 70 historical areas held by the United States for the benefit, education and enjoyment of the people.
A far cry from our modern steel and iron industry, with its annual production valued at more than $4,000,000,000 (1), was the Hopewell Village of Colonial times, comfortably enclosed by the wooded hills of old Berks County, in the Schuylkill valley. Two and a half centuries ago this region was an almost virgin wilderness. The first settlers to discover it were a group of Swedes from a colony established on the Delaware about 1638. These people won their livelihood in trade with the Indians, shad fishing, and cultivation of the valleys rough but fertile lands. English, Welsh, Dutch and German settlers found homes along the Schuylkill River after 1681, when William Penn received his charter and grant from King Charles II. Not until 1716, however, when Thomas Rutter built the first bloomery forge in Pennsylvania near Pottstown, was any real attempt made to transform the colony's great natural resources of water power, iron ore, limestone and timber into pig iron. In 1719 or 1720, encouraged by success with this first experiment, Rutter secured aid from his friend Thomas Potts and others to build Colebrookdale, the first charcoal furnace in Pennsylvania. His example soon was followed by others, and by 1771 more than 50 forges and furnaces had been established in the province. (2)
Among those enterprising young men on both sides of the Atlantic whose imaginations were fired by the prospect of building a great American iron industry was William Bird. He was born in England in 1706, emigrated to Pennsylvania at an early age, and went to work at Pine Forge for Thomas Rutter. We find him there in 1733 as a woodchopper receiving wages of two shillings and nine pence a cord. Soon striking out for himself, he acquired extensive lands west of the Schuylkill and in the vicinity of Hay Creek, where he built the first Birdsboro Forge in 1740. (3) Three years later he began the construction of Hopewell Forge on French Creek at or near the present Hopewell Furnace site.(4) By 1756, having done a thriving business, he had taken up 12 tracts of land containing about 3,000 acres. His residence, built in 1751, still can be seen in Birdsboro, where it is used as a Y. M. C. A. building. Before long he had become an influential personage in Berks county, working with Conrad Weiser and other noted Pennsylvanians in the conduct of its political and economic life. His son Mark inherited most if not all of his property when he died in 1761. (5)
The name of Mark Bird, patriot, soldier and industrialist, is one to conjure with. In 1762, shortly after his father's death, he went into partnership with George Ross, a prominent Lancaster lawyer who later sign ed the Declaration of Independence; and together they built Mary Ann Furnace, the first blast furnace west of the Susquehanna River. (6) Eight or nine years later, apparently abandoning or dismantling his father's earlier Hopewell Forge, Mark Bird erected Hopewell Furnace on French Creek, some four or five miles from Birdsboro. (7) The dates 1770 and 1771 are inscribed on separate corners of the old stack, which now is destined for restoration and preservation by the National Park Service, together with the other historic remains in Hopewell Village.
Around this new furnace there soon developed a small, quasi-feudal community of colliers, woodchoppers, moulders, teamsters, blacksmiths, wheelwrights and other workers. (8) These lived with their families in numerous tenant houses built at the iron-master's expense. Mark Bird himself, or the manager to whom he entrusted the care of his business at Hopewell, lived in the so-called Big House, which was more pretentious than the workmen's dwellings. Nearly every economic want of the Hopewell employee was supplied from a common store, from family gardens and pastures, or from agricultural lands farmed under supervision of a general manager. Wagons and other equipment were constructed or repaired as necessary by the wheelwrights, blacksmiths and carpenters, separate shops being set up for such works Farm animals and mules to haul the ore, cordwood, charcoal and pig iron shipments, were stabled on the premises where they received the best of care. Thus life and industry progressed together in one and the same place. (9)
Nearly all the early Pennsylvania furnaces, Hopewell included, cast stoves and hollow ware, such as pots and kettles. Mahogany generally was used for making patterns, since it cracked and warped less than other woods. The first stove castings were flat plates of iron with tulips, hearts, Biblical figures, and mottoes on their outer surfaces. Finest of such castings are those in the Mercer collection at the Bucks County Historical Society in Doylestown, a collection in which Hopewell Furnace is well represented. An old stove bearing the words "Hopewell Furnace" and the date "1772" is still in existence at Birdsboro, and another of similar design was found in the Big House when that building was taken over by the federal government. Many of the oldest stoves in America, as a matter of fact, came from Berks County; and among them the Hopewell products were famous. (10)
But it was not peacetime manufacturing alone which engaged Mark Bird's attention. In 1775, when the War for American Independence began, he served as Lieutenant-Colonel of the Second Battalion, Berks County Militia, which was formed of companies enlisted in and near Birdsboro. Later, in August 1776, as a Colonel, he fitted out 300 men of that battalion with uniforms, tents and provisions, all at his own expense. He entered the field and went to Washington's relief soon after the disastrous Battle of Brandywine in late 1777. (11) Mark Bird's chief services to the American cause, however, were those, not of a soldier, but of a philanthropist and munitions-maker. A report to the executive council of the Continental Congress, dated February 19, 1778, shows that he sent 1,000 barrels of flour to Philadelphia. The minutes of the Continental Congress for June 24, 1777, March 11, 1778, April 8, 1780 and September 10, 1783, refer to large quantities of iron supplies received from him. An interesting order of 1777 discharged 11 men from the militia so that they still might be "employed by Colonel Mark Bird, in the canon foundry and nail works in Berks County in Pennsylvania, carried on by him for the use of the United States." Orders of $50,000 and $125,691 were issued, or recommended to be issued, in Bird's favor by the Continental Congress in 1778 and 1780 respectively. It is believed, however, that the iron-master never collected large amounts owed to him by the United States. On September 15, 1783, he addressed a memorial to the Continental Congress, requesting that the Great Chain which had been stretched across the Hudson River at West Point to obstruct British navigation be delivered to him in part payment on his account. This plea was denied "on the ground that he was a creditor of the United States along with the others, and no particular order should be given in his behalf." (12)
The fortunes of Mark Bird went rapidly downhill after that. There was a disastrous flood on Hay Creek which ruined much of his property. Then came those post-war depression days when two or three Continental dollars would buy hardly a crust of bread. In 1784, trying desperately to get again upon solid ground, he borrowed 200,000 Spanish milled dollars from John Nixon, a wealthy Philadelphia merchant. But the die was cast. Two years later, obliged to satisfy this date, he assigned all his Hopewell and Birdsboro property to Nixon, who advertised it for sheriff's sale in April, 1788. About the same time Bird moved to North Carolina, where he died in comparative poverty. The end was tragic indeed for this man whose landed estates once had spread into four of the original Thirteen Colonies, and whose services to his adopted country, by any fair reckoning, had been so considerable. (13)
Hopewell Furnace and its surrounding woodland were sold twice at sheriff's sales between 1786 and 1800, and changed hands six or seven times during that period. Daniel Buckley, Thomas Brooks and Matthew Brooke acquired the property in 1800. From that time forth it was owned by the Brooke family, either in whole or in part, until negotiations for its transfer to the federal government were undertaken in 1934. (14)
Except for a few intermittent periods, Hopewell Furnace remained in operation until June, 1883, when it was blown out for the last time. It never changed to hot blast, which, coming into almost universal use after 1850, inaugurated a new era in the iron industry. Castings continued to be made at Hopewell until 1840 when the patterns were sold to a small foundry at Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania. After this nearly all Hopewell pig iron went to various forges in the state where it obtained prices ranging from $28 to $45 a ton, f. o. b. the furnace bank. The highest price ever paid was $99 a ton in 1864 when, as a result of the War Between the States, the cost of all commodities boomed sky high. A. Whitney & Sons, the big railroad carwheel manufacturers of Philadelphia, bought the entire Hopewell output from 1870 to 1883, since for many years none but good cold blast charcoal iron would give a chilled face on the tread. It is therefore probable that Hopewell iron has rolled over several of our transcontinental railroads. After 1883, when the making of such iron was no longer profitable and the furnace ceased to operate, the woodland around it continued to make good returns for several years, big lime plants in Chester Valley taking the annual growth at a fair price. (15) The active days of Hopewell Furnace were over, however, symbolizing in their passing the end of a long and picturesque period in the iron industry, yielding place to newer and more efficient techniques.
The story of Hopewell hardly would be complete without some description of processes used in manufacturing cold blast charcoal iron. Making charcoal naturally was one of the most important jobs. Good timber, preferably oak, was cut into specific lengths by the woodchoppers, hauled to hearth locations in the forest, and there transformed into charcoal under supervision of the colliers. These latter were perhaps the most trusted employees. They usually worked in pairs, each man taking a 12-hour shift, and lived with their jobs in crude log shelters -- for every charcoal "pit" needed constant watching, lest it take open fire and the wood be consumed. The finished product was hauled to a charcoal house near the furnace stack and stored there until used. (16)
Iron ore and limestone were brought to the stack which was usually not more than 30 or 35 feet high, since more layers of ore and limestone than this permitted would crush the light charcoal and thus prevent combustion. The stack structure consisted of a fire-brick bosh or inner lining, reinforced on the outside with native stone, which at the bottom formed a wall some 10 or 12 feet thick. Near its base was a hearth where the molten iron was tapped out; a hole to facilitate removal of the slag formed by fusion of the ore impurities with the limestone; and a blast-pipe, commonly called a tuyère, through which the blast was fed. Water from hillside streams was conveyed by raceways to the furnace where it operated a large wooden wheel and machinery cleverly designed to produce an almost constant pressure blast. (17)
The actual smelting process has been described graphically by the late Harker A. Long, who went to Hopewell in 1867 and whose attachment for what he always called the "dear old property" was exceptionally strong:
The capacity of Hopewell Furnace was about 1,200 tons of pig iron a year. This was about the average for early cold blast furnaces. (19)
While long years of inactivity and neglect have left their mark on Hopewell Village, its basic features are still in existence. The bridge house, wheel house and wheelwright shop have vanished, together with the little old schoolhouse which once stood on the road to Joanna Furnace. Against this, however, we must balance many well preserved ruins. Among these are the furnace stack itself, the Big House and several of its out-buildings, the charcoal house, the blacksmith shop, the now dismantled waterwheel and blast machinery last used in 1883 (20), the old furnace races and four or five tenant houses.
Restoration of Hopewell Village by the National Park Service already is under way. Work on the furnace stack was started in 1936 and is now more than half completed. The same is true of the old east head race, a truly marvelous example of Colonial engineering. Much research of both an archeological and documentary character remains to be accomplished before final restoration plans are drawn. The time will come, however, when water will run again through the races, turn the furnace wheel, and thus operate the blast machinery which is to be reproduced from original patterns. Restoration of the bridge and wheel houses, the Big House and the tenant dwellings is to follow in due course. Old-fashioned flowers and vegetables will be cultivated once more in the village gardens; and the blacksmith shop, where much of the old equipment is still in place, will bustle again with the activities of hearth and anvil. (21) When all is done the American people will have in Hopewell Village National Historic Site a restored late eighteenth and early nineteenth century iron-making community, an exhibit in life size portraying the humble but romantic be ginnings of a now great industry.
(1) The World Almanac, 1939, p. 573.
(2) Arthur C. Sylvester and Jackson Kemper, III, The Making of Charcoal as Followed by the Colliers of the Schuylkill Valley, an illustrated report prepared for the Service, January 22, 1937, pp. 1-2. For an excellent general account covering the establishment of the iron industry in Pennsylvania, see Arthur Cecil Bining, Pennsylvania Iron Manufacture in the Eighteenth Century (Publications of the Pennsylvania Historical Commission, Vol. IV, Harrisburg: 1938), p 8. This monograph embodies the most scholarly treatment of its subject yet to appear in print, end those who wish to pursue that subject further should consult the bibliography covered by its voluminous footnotes.
(3) Robert E. Brooke, Salient Events in the History of Birdsboro, a paper read before the Historical Society of Berks County, January 14, 1830, p. 1.
(4) Ibid., pp 2-3. See also Bining, op. cit., pp. 51 and 188; and Harkar A. Long, A Short History of the Hopewell Furnace Estate in Union Township, Berks County (Reading Eagle Press, Reading, published between 1930 and 1935). pp. 17-18. Mr. Long was connected prominently with the Hopewell property from 1867 until recent times. He gave invaluable aid to the Service in its research on this area before he died in 1938.
(5) Brooks, op. cit., pp. 3-4.
(6) Ibid., p. 5. Bird married his partner's sister Mary in 1763.
(7) Ibid., pp 4-5. See also Bining, op. cit., p. 51.
(8) Roy Edgar Appleman, Historical Report on the French Creek Area, a study prepared for the Service in August. 1935, p. 10. Mr. Appleman pioneered in the movement for restoration of Hopewell Village, the initial research basis for which is embodied in this report.
(9) For an excellent description of social and economic life in the early iron-making village, see Bining, op. cit., pp. 28-48.
(10) Appleman, op. cit., pp. 3-4 and 21.
(11) Brooks, op. cit. p. 5.
(12) Ibid., pp. 5-6. See also Bining, op. cit. p. 143.
(13) Ibid., pp. 142-43. Brooks, op. cit., p. 7. Long, op. cit., pp. 8-7. Appleman, op. cit., pp. 8-9.
(14) Ibid., pp. 9-10. Brooks, op. cit., pp. 7-13.
(15) Long, op. cit., pp. 9 and 11-16.
(16) Sylvester and Kemper, op. cit., pp. 8-21, gives a good description of the charcoal-making process.
(17) Long, op. cit., pp. 6 and 15-20. Appleman, op. cit., pp. 11, 15, 17 and 24-26, Bining, op. cit., pp. 83-94, devotes a chapter to describing the technique of early iron manufacturing in Pennsylvania.
(18) Op. cit., p. 19.
(19) Appleman, op. cit., p. 10.
(20) This machinery, now stored on the property, belongs to the Franklin Institute, of Philadelphia. Efforts to effect its transfer to the federal government are being made.
(21) A preliminary report and plan of the proposed restoration wee prepared for the Service in 1935-36 under the supervision of Mr. Appleman, whose work has been mentioned elsewhere in these notes. Together with additional historical and archeological research data yet to be collected, this will be basic to the final restoration.
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