Ironville Historic District
The Ironville Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document.  Adaptation copyright © 2009, The Gombach Group.
The hamlet of Ironville is situated in the Adirondacks in Essex County just west of Crown Point, surrounded by wooded mountains and lakes.
Of the thriving ironworks, which included a dozen buildings, some of them quite large, almost nothing remains. The company store is now a cellar hole; the gorge and the separator are in ruins; the sawmill and grist mill have shared their fate. The railroad right-of-way is overgrown with trees. It is difficult to imagine the industrial activity of past years when confronted with only traces of its existence.
Luckily, the modest wooden dwellings of Ironville did not share the fate of the ironworks. The Penfield Homestead (1828) is the focal point of the Ironville Historic District, due to its size and central location. It is two stories high with an L-shaped plan. The south elevation is three bays wide with a central entrance while the east elevation is seven bays wide with the entrance off-center. Both entrances are surmounted by graceful Federal period fanlights. The window sash has 4-over-4 lights and all windows are shuttered. The roof consists of two gables which meet at the corner due to the L-shaped plan. Beveled siding covers the walls.
The first structure to be built in Ironville was the boarding house (1827). This original building remains and is a simple one and a half story structure with a boxed cornice and a rear wing. It has a one-story porch across the entire facade and is covered with beveled siding. Stylistically, it has no particular characteristics.
The influence of the Greek Revival period may be seen in the Congregational Church with its symmetrical facade, pediment and pilasters (1842) and the parsonage, which has a typical entrance of the period complete with transom, sidelights and cornice.
About the same time (1840's), Harwood House was constructed. This structure resembles the parsonage and the church because of its street-facing gable and pilasters, but it has in addition a one-story porch across the facade and a side wing of later vintage.
The building now used as a grange hall was built in the 1870's as a store — it has the square plan and conical roof with simple brackets derived from the Italian villa rage. Its simplicity, however, is a far cry from the villas which inspired the style.
The Ironville Schoolhouse is very small and has been gutted to house fire equipment. Three other old structures comprised the hamlet and they are simple wood buildings in keeping with the rest.
The Ironville Historic District consists of the Penfield Homestead, the cemetery and eleven other buildings located along Furnace Road. It also includes a portion of Penfield Pond, the sites of demolished industrial structures on the south side of the abandoned railroad right-of-way.
Ironville was a focal point of the Adirondack iron industry for over seventy years. As a by-product of its iron industry, Ironville became the site of the first industrial use of electricity and indirectly participated in the birth of the electric motor.
Although good ore existed elsewhere in the Adirondacks, Ironville had the advantage of being near Lake Champlain and hence connected to the major manufacturing centers by water. It was the completion of the Champlain Canal in 1823 that made possible the development of iron mining in the area. Previous attempts to exploit the mineral resources of the Adirondacks had failed for lack of transportation. Besides the natural advantage of its location, Ironville was surrounded by abundant forests with which to make charcoal, excellent water power and limestone for the flux.
The history of Ironville began somewhat before the mining era. In 1807, Allen Penfield migrated westward from Vermont, bringing with him a man named Timothy Taft. The two men established a store and sawmill at the Ironville site. Apparently buying and selling brought them considerable prosperity, for when iron ore was found in the locality in 1826 they immediately purchased the land and set to work building an iron works.
It was one of those coincidences of fate that iron was discovered in the vicinity of energetic progressive men like Penfield and Taft, who were capable of divining the potential of the fund and taking action to exploit it.
Put's Creek in Ironville was dammed to form a pond over a mile and a half long which furnished power for the plant. A forge with two water wheels was erected by 1828 and the operation began. The top quality ore turned out by the Penfield and Taft works was immediately recognized for its purity and strength. The Forge was hardly a year old when its product, made into ship's chains, received unqualified endorsement from both the United States Navy and an independent manufacturer in New York City.
The Penfield Pit was not the only iron mine n the vicinity. Two others, the Hammond Pit and the North Pit, were discovered and worked by other families. Crown Point iron became synonymous with excellence and the whole region prospered.
After over forty years of ownership and management by Allen Penfield, the Penfield Pit changed hands in 1872. At this time, all the local iron interest and activities were consolidated and reorganized under the stimulus of investments by the President of the D & H Railroad and the Hammond Family. Allen Penfield and his son-in-law, Allen Harwood, sold out all their holdings in Ironville: gorge, separator, water rights, saw mill and grist mill.
A railroad was then constructed to connect the company's assets and to facilitate transportation to the Lake. Unfortunately, poor management caused the company to falter and the opening of the Mesabi Range in Minnesota signalled the end of the iron age in the Adirondacks.
An interesting side result of the Ironville industry was the invention of the electric motor by Thomas Davenport. This occurred in 1833 as a result of an unusual chain of events.
Allen Penfield was ever alert to technological improvements in the mining industry, especially if they pertained to the separation of the iron from its matrix. The processes then in use were both time consuming and wasteful. He may have heard about a magnetic ore separator which had been invented by Samuel Browning in 1812 but which had never come into use because its manufacture required magnetite, then a rare mineral.
However, the Penfield Pit contained magnetite and Professor Joseph Henry of Albany was a customer who bought small quantities for use in his experiment in electromagnetism. Apparently, Penfield put two and two together, for in 1831 he sent steel points for a magnetic ore separator to Henry to be permanently magnetized with Henry's electromagnet. A magnetized separator machine using the points was built at the works that summer. The separator was a simple cylinder with the magnetized iron points attached to its surface. As it revolved over the ore the iron particles adhered and were brushed off.
The next step was a request to Henry for an electromagnet with attached voltaic battery to be used at Ironville to recharge the separator when needed. Henry complied with the request and Penfield's electromagnet was often displayed as a public curiosity, suspending a heavy anvil, much to the wonder of visitors to the Forge.
One of these curious visitors was Thomas Davenport, a blacksmith of Brandon, Vermont. Fascinated by the electromagnet, Davenport purchased it for $75. From that day on, Davenport's chief occupation became the development of electric machines. Though he received academic honors, Davenport, like so many others ahead of their time, died in poverty.
Visiting the hamlet of Ironville today, it hardly seems possible that this was once the scene of such activity and import. All of the buildings which housed the vigorous iron industry are gone and their very foundations obliterated with trees and weeds.
The homes of the iron workers, the church, boarding houses, Grange Hall, inn and schoolhouse are still there, however. In addition, the fine home which Allen Penfield built in 1828, now converted to a museum, preserves the memory of Ironville in its golden years.
Barker, Elmer Eugene. The Story of Crown Point Iron. The Penfield Foundation, Historical Publication No. 3, Ironville, NY. 1969. Reprinted from October 1942 New York State History Magazine.
Allen, Richard Sanders. The Crown Point Iron Company's Railroad — 1873-1893. The Penfield Foundation, Historical Publication No. 2, Ironville, NY. 1969.
Allen, Richard Sanders. Separation and Inspiration concerning the First Industrial Application of Electricity in America. The Penfield Foundation, Historical Publication No. 1, Ironville, NY. 1967.