Jun 12, 2008
|Hopewell Furnace - Thursday, June 12
We spent Wednesday in camp at French Creek, then on Thursday we took off on a bike ride and hike to see Hopewell Furnace. Like many of the attractions Madolyn finds, Hopewell Furnace was one neither of us had ever heard of before, but true to her track record of picking winners it turned out to be a unique and wonderful find.
Getting there required a three and a half mile round trip through the woods. The trail was good, and while it descended several hundred feet into a valley it was stepped and built with switchbacks that made the trip down and back OK.
We finally emerged into a wide valley, and the scene before us was right out of the 18th and 19th centuries. An iron making furnace with all it's supporting structures stood waiting to be explored, and nearby was a Visitor Center with friendly rangers eager to explain and interpret it for us.
For background it is best to quote from the park brochure:
"In America's industrial infancy, tall stone structures venting smoke and flames were a familiar part of the rural landscape. These charcoal fueled iron furnaces produced the versatile metal crucial to the nation's growth. For over a century, Hopewell was one of hundreds of 'iron plantations' built around this technology. Here generations of ironmasters, craftsmen and workers produced iron goods during war and peace - ranging from cannon and shot to the well known Hopewell stove and domestic items such as pots and sash weights. Shared social and family bonds in an atmosphere of reasonable cooperation made these plantations stable and productive communities, the base on which America's iron and steel industry was founded."
When Mark Bird built Hopewell Furnace in 1771 he was already an important figure in the booming colonial iron making industry. For years British ministers had been alarmed by the colonial industry, and had tried to limit it to producing only raw materials - pig iron bars that could be shipped to England and there turned into finished products that could be sold at a profit - hopefully back to the colonies. Their efforts met with continuing failure, and colonials were openly defying their ban on building more furnaces.
It was in this atmosphere that Hopewell emerged, and the timing could not have been better for a country that was soon to go to war. Four years later, when the two year conflict erupted into open warfare, Hopewell was in a position to provide valuable war materials in the form of cannon and shot to the struggling Continental Army.
In the depression that followed the revolution Bird failed financially and lost the furnace and foundry. Subsequent owners opened it again, but again it failed and closed in 1808. Not until 1816 were conditions right and the furnace fired again. This time the ownership concentrated on making stoves, and under the leadership of owner Clement Brooks the company flourished and prospered until changing technology caught up with it and drove it out of business for the last time in 1883. All in all, Hopewell had survived an incredible 112 years, and it contributed to the American economy and to the growth of the most powerful iron and steel industry in the world - at least until the Japanese came along.
We started our self guided tour with a movie and the exhibits at the Visitor Center, then brochure and map in hand we spent the next hour and a half walking the grounds and imagining the place as it once was, a busy, thriving, self supporting community of strong and industrious people. An American success story if ever there was one.
The Visitor Center and brochure described in fascinating detail the process for making iron, the process for making charcoal to melt it, and the jobs and duties of the various people who worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week to make it happen.
Historians compare these ventures to feudal life, and have called them Iron Plantations for their resemblance to the cohesive and self sufficient communities that grew up around the various crops. It's a good comparison, with the only difference being the higher degree of technical skill required to produce a crop of iron.
The hike back up the hill was a hot and tiring one, but we both agreed that seeing Hopewell had been well worth the effort.