Last December, the day after Christmas, I had a day off and went to explore a near area not far from where I crew up. I spent the morning at New Holland Coffee Company, and the afternoon at Hopewell Furnace.
The furnace became a National Historic Site in 1938 and includes over 800 acres of land near French Creek State Park. The iron furnace was initially built by Mark Bird had begun operations back in 1771. Over the next 100 years, it became an important part of industrialization in both Pennsylvania as well as in the new nation.
The iron furnace was on what’s considered an iron plantation in French Creek Valley. The location was chosen due to its proximity to a forest (fuel for the furnace), running water, iron ore, and limestone. Another benefit was its location at an important intersection between Reading and Valley Force. This location was only a 3 day’s wagon ride from Philadelphia where finished goods could be taken to market for sale.
On the 3000+ original acres, there was the ironmaster’s house, two churches, the furnace, a company store, various tenant homes and other farms, as well as a school, and blacksmithing shop.
The Big House:
The house shown below is the Ironmaster’s house. It’s known as the “Big House” and has 19 rooms. It was the home for the Ironmaster’s family as well as servants and any single workers. Other miners lived in homes with their families close to the house while tenant houses were rented to other workers not far from the furnace site.
The big house was the heart of the village. It hosted weddings, parties, and was a hotel for traveling businessmen. There was a constant bustle of people entering and exiting and was also where many dined and enjoyed socializing.
Everyone had a job to do on the iron plantation. Men were working the furnace, farming, or engaging in other business activities while women ran the homes, cleaned the castings, and helped finish off other iron products. Even the children were put to work helping with the livestock and other farm duties.
Down the lane from the furnace is a blacksmith shop, company store, a school, and various homes for the iron workers. While only a few remain standing, it’s a joy to peek inside and see what the inside of these homes may have looked like back in the 1700-1800s.
The company store that sat on the property was manned by the clerk who lived at the big house. On the shelves were anything the workers could need including produce, clothing, cooking equipment, and tools. To pay for the items, it was paid for on an open account that would then be subtracted from the paycheck received from the company.
In the furnace, there were a variety of positions needed for things to run smoothly. One highly skilled job was the molders. They were paid $1.25/day. Another was the founder who determined when the iron would be tapped. Other jobs included the founder, colliers, miners, wood cutters, a blacksmith, teamsters, fillers, and those hauling material. The fillers would work about 12 hour days, both during day and night, and would charge the furnace with fuel every 30 minutes. Once the furnace was ready to be tapped, the bell was run and the dam stone opened. The workers had their products ready to take the liquid iron and prepare it to be made into its final product. These included stoves, skillets, pots, pans, farm equipment, and pig iron.
Mark Bird, the original owner, had helped the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War. He provided tents and provisions as well as flour to Washington’s army while they were stationed at nearby Valley Forge. His furnace produced iron for cannons, shells, and ammunition. After the war, Bird was in financial trouble. in 1786, he had to sell the furnace and over the next 30 or so years it continued to change hands without much output.
Then in 1825, it began a new growth. Under new owners, and a changing industry, the iron furnace at Hopewell was thriving once again. Transportation by canal and railroad emerged and there was no longer the reliance on only horse drawn wagon for items to go to sale. By 1820, the village had over 150 employees and items were being sent as to places like Boston and New York for sale rather than being limited to a Philadelphia market.
In the year of 1883, Hopewell fired it’s furnace for its last blast. The industry and railroads preferred new technology in anthracite rather than charcoal which was where Hopewell had specialized. Their time of growth had come to an end as new players entered the industry and had better as well as less expensive technology to give the customers what they wanted.
While Hopewell hasn’t produced iron for any product for over 120 years, it is still a place worth visiting. There are tours available and opportunities to hear in each building what it was used for an its impact on the iron economy. Take an afternoon and visit the site, walk some of the trails, and step into the history of the buildings that were noisy and bustling just a few hundred years ago.