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Pennsylvania Forges and Furnaces


Forges and Furnaces in the Province Of Pennsylvania [†]

Portions of the text below were adapted from a 1914 publication by the "Colonial Dames of America." [] Adaptation copyright © 2008, The Gombach Group.

Nearly two hundred years ago, in the early days of the "Holy Experiment," the wonderful natural resources of the province of Pennsylvania, — the great ore beds, the thickly wooded country giving endless charcoal, and the strong streams promising water power, — impelled many capable and hopeful men to attempt the making of iron. Besides capacity and hope, however, money was needed for even the smallest beginnings; and in going over the records one finds, in many cases, that a few years sufficed to bring the undertaking either to permanent grief or to a new owner. While this was the fate of some, others, faithful to the early visions of being great ironmasters, held on their way and realized their dreams; — handing down to our day their names, their industries, and their fortunes. We still have with us the descendants of Thomas Rutter, and Thomas Potts, and Anthony Morris; of James Logan, and Peter Grubb, and Robert Coleman; and of many others. Of those who fell by the wayside, the "iron band of Circumstance" being too much for them, the most noted possibly is Henry William Stiegel; — and why should we doubt that the place he occupies in our tradition and history; — picturesque, brilliant, unfortunate, — may be to him some compensation if his shade ever returns for the yearly Giving of the Red Rose in his memory?

As far as it is possible, some account of each of these pioneers will be given in the sketches which follow, of the forges and furnaces started in Pennsylvania before 1776. We must disclaim however any intention to touch on the scientific side of the making of iron; that is utterly beyond our scope: we shall be satisfied if we are able to give glimpses of the life on these great estates (for "great" many of them grew to be), and to put on record the names more or less important, of the founders of the early wealth of Pennsylvania.

Until 1682, the year of Penn's arrival, the settlers on the Delaware, under the Swedes, the Dutch, and the Duke of York, seem to have made no effort to manufacture iron in any form. The energy of Penn changed all that. He wrote in 1683 of the existence of "mineral of iron and copper in various places." Having iron furnaces himself at Hawkhurst in England, he naturally wished to encourage the manufacture of iron in his own province. Although there is no record of the Proprietor's connection with any iron making in Pennsylvania, there are a few allusions to a mining venture of which he had great hope, which seem of sufficient interest to mention.

A contemporary English historian, John Oldmixon, gives some side lights on Penn's more practical and worldly outlook, of a kind not freely afforded as by his biographers, but which tally with much in his letters to his Secretary Logan, and others, when dealing with personal and business matters. Oldmixon visited the Colonies while Penn was here, and also made extensive journeyings in the West Indies. In speaking of the notable men who had welcomed him on his arrival he says,[1] "Mr. Docwra and Dr. Cox were both so kind as to inform me fully of the Jerseys, and Mr. Pen did me the same favor for Pennsylvania, those three gentlemen doing me the Honour to admit me into their Friendship." "Mr. Pen," he continues, "was a very sanguine person: he was generous and free of his Thoughts and Expressions, which were not always sufficiently guarded." In speaking of the early settlements here he says, "Sir William, Mr. Pen's Father, had a Kinsman who was one of the first planters at New England, and it was from him doubtless that he had exact and particular Information of the Advantages that might be made of Lands and Settlements in this Continent of America; but young Mr. Pen having filled his head with Quakerisms did not for some years apply himself strenuously to solicit the promised Grant, till at last finding his friends the Quakers were harassed all over England by Spiritual Courts, he resolved to put himself at the head of as many of them as would go with him and remove to the Country of which he obtained the Grant" (in 1681).[2] Dean Swift said of this many-sided Penn that he talked very agreeably and with great spirit. While dwelling on his gayer side, the comment of Friends in Reading Meeting might be recalled: that he was "facetious in conversation." He rarely made use of the terms "Thee" and "Thou," and as is well known he wore buckles and wigs; the latter from necessity, it is said, having early lost his hair. With much political acumen and experience he was not a skillful judge of character; hence arose many of his difficulties. A fortunate man in many respects, he was for years especially favored in the devotion of the Secretary of the Province, James Logan, who agreed and remonstrated with him, advised and obeyed him, in the most faithful and patient fashion.

Anxious and harried as Penn was in his later years by stress of political, financial, and family troubles, he seems, at this time, to have had a short period of confident expectation as to the relief that might come to him if mines of value were actually discovered in his Pennsylvania dominions. Rumors reached him in 1708, only four years before his final breakdown from paralysis, that the King of the Shawnee Indians was quietly working mines for Mitchel, a "Swiss acquainted with mining" and others, including Governor Evans. His eager pleasure is shown in the following letter to Logan: "I am glad ... that mines so rich are so certainly found, for that will clear the country and me of all other encumbrances, and enable me to reward those that have approved themselves faithful to me and my just interest. Clap somebody upon them, as servants for me, and by next opportunity send me some of the ore, to get it tried by some of the ablest separators here." And later he writes: "Pray go to the bottom with Colonel Evans about the mines, and what has become of Mitchel? Who are let in the secret where they are?"

To this Logan replies, in due time, that he is trying to get the desired information. It must be remembered that the path of the faithful Secretary was seldom other than thorny: constant watchfulness was needed as early as 1707 to circumvent the French in their efforts to undermine the allegiance of the Indians to their English neighbors, and trading among the Indians was not allowed except under special license. Despite prohibitions the Frenchmen crept in, as traders, miners, or colonists.[3] A few of them, James Le Tort, for example, and Peter Bezalion (whose grave is in the Episcopal Churchyard at Compass, in Lancaster county; he died in 1742, aged eighty years) were licensed and valuable traders; valued, that is, except when they seemed to swerve from their allegiance, in which case they were called to Philadelphia and given a taste of jail life. Mitchel and T. Grey are also mentioned in the Colonial Records as fellow workers.

Disappointment, his usual portion in his later years, was again meted out to Penn: and he writes to Logan early in the next year: "Mitchel has been with me, and by him and T. Grey I learn the misunderstanding between the late Governor and thy self, if they say true, has cost me dear: for they assure me he and company may, and they believe do, make 100. if not twice told, weekly. The Indians chiefly discovered the mine and work it on the spot, and he told me the way of it. It is the King of the Shawnee Indians, and some few of his subjects that perform the business for him, viz., Colonel Evans."

Logan somewhat later writes of Evans, "That story of his getting, by the mines, I believe to be very fiction. Evans has been very free with me upon that head (mines). There has been none opened, and I fear Mitchel has tricked us all, — he has gone over to England with an intention we believe of putting his countrymen, the Swiss, upon purchasing from the Queen a tract beyond the Potomac, where, he thinks, they lie. It will therefore nearly concern thee to have an eye to all his motions. He is subtile and scarce to be trusted."[4]

These debatable mines may possibly have been the copper mines on Mine Ridge, a few miles south of Lancaster, near the Philadelphia Pike, where, "in 1843 the remains of an ancient shaft were visible. They were supposed to have been opened by French adventurers or persons from Maryland, about the time of Penn."[5] An early mention of iron in the Province is in a " Description of Pennsylvania" by courtesy called "rhymed," written in 1692 by Richard Frame, and published by Bradford:

"A certain place here is where some begun To try some mettle and have made it run, Wherein was iron absolutely found At once was known about some forty pound."

But just where this "mettle" was found he does not say.

Although we avoid entirely, and that for the best of reasons, the scientific and technical side of iron making, it seems advisable to give, as concisely as possible, the primitive processes of the early forges and furnaces and the usual method of charcoal burning.

Early bloomaries in Pennsylvania were very like the Catalan forge or bloomary [bloomery] which originated in Catalonia, Spain, about the tenth century. They were not unlike a large blacksmith fire with a deep fire pot, in which the blast was introduced at the side instead of the bottom of the fire, and while yielding but a small output a day they were used on account of the small expense and labor involved in their erection.[6]

In the fires of the forges pig iron was converted into blooms which were usually round pieces of metal, about a foot long. The word bloomary was often used to describe a forge. This was because the product derived from the heated ore was obtained in the form of a lump or bloom of malleable iron. The word is derived from the Anglo-Saxon bloma, a lump. The product of the early forges was blooms and hammered iron in the shape of flat or square bars; these were shaped into vessels by blacksmiths and skilled artisans, who made a specialty of that class of work.

As a rule the old furnaces were built into the side of a hill, in order that the ore, limestone, and charcoal could be filled from the upper level into the stack. Built upon one general principle, the charcoal furnaces varied materially in size and appearance. "The interior of the furnace-stack was lined with a wall of fire brick, or else with fine-grained white sandstone, both of which were well adapted to resist the extraordinary heat to which it was exposed. The lining was constructed a few inches from the main stack, the space between being filled with fragments of stone, sand, and occasionally coarse mortar. This served to protect the stack from the decomposing effect of heat. The furnace stack was, moreover, secured from expansion by strong iron girders embedded in it. The quantity of material filled in the top of the furnace stack was measured and called a charge. There were two charges or heats in the twenty-four hours.

The iron, melted in the furnace and run into "pigs" in the sand bed was not fit for other than casting use until it had been re-heated, puddled in a forge, and hammered into blooms. Puddling meant stirring and turning it with long iron bars in a small oven. In this way certain impurities were eliminated.

Two and one-half tons of ore, and 180 bushels of charcoal produced about one ton of metal. The output of iron was about 28 tons a week, as against the 75 to 600 tons a day produced by the modern furnaces. The limestone introduced was for fluxing or eliminating impurities, and the quantity used depended on the richness or metallic content of the ore. "Before using the ore it was washed by a big water wheel attached to a long lateral shaft which had heavy iron teeth running around it spirally and which revolved in a trough. The teeth stirred the ore in the water and finally threw it out in a pile from which it was gathered up in a cart. Lumps of ore that were too large to wash were purified and reduced by burning. They were stacked in the oven, charcoal filled between, and the huge pieces heated enough to break them."[7] Besides the ordinary furnacemen, cast boys, miners, and colliers, there were two keepers who took turns of twelve hours each to watch the furnace, a master miner, a chief collier, and a manager.

Charcoal burning required both skill and patience. The process was intricate, depending for success on the state of the weather as well as on the watchfulness of the colliers. Necessarily there was great difference in the value of wood for making charcoal; the more compact and fine-grained it was the better coal it yielded, chiefly because of its containing less water and sap. Tough oak, therefore, was worth more than pine. "The trees were felled, and trimmed, and cut into lengths four feet long, and ranked in cords, by the wood choppers, who were paid so much a cord. They were followed by the colliers, who stacked the wood in a conical shape, standing the sticks on end. The cones at the base were about 25 feet in diameter, and up through the middle the sticks were put sufficiently far apart to form a chimney. After the wood was thus carefully arranged, brush wood and loose earth were thrown over the pile, so as to smother the flame, and prevent it bursting out from the mass of wood. For the purpose of attracting the fire all around the wood, holes were made in the sides to create draft through which the watery elements of the wood were expelled, by the heat of the hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon, which was, in turn, held in check by the exclusion of atmospheric air. Were the air allowed to circulate the entire mass of wood would be reduced to ashes. The burning lasted two or three days and nights, according to the nature of the wood, — and the success attending the operation."

Nearly all Colonial Furnaces cast stoves, and "hollow ware," — commonly called pots and kettles. Of the decorations of these early stoves we cannot do better than quote Mr. Henry C. Mercer, an authority on the subject. He speaks of "the existence of plates of cast iron about two feet square, elaborately decorated with Biblical scenes, hearts, tulips, mottoes, and Scriptural quotations," which within the last twenty-five years have been rescued from scrap heaps, or "found as pavings for fireplaces, smoke houses, and bake ovens, or as the sluices of dams and the bridges of gutters."[8] The most valued plates found now are those of the five-plate jamb stove, or wall warming stove. " Made of five plates, sometimes without, sometimes with a sheet iron pipe, and sometimes connecting its smoke egress with an adjoining chimney through the wall brick end, it was cast at the old furnaces in Pennsylvania from the year 1741 or earlier until about the year 1760. Built with an open end against a wall through which its fuel was introduced from outside the room into which the stove protruded, it is to this wall box that most of the important decorated plates pertain."[8] These stove plates were evidently intended, as the tiles of the times were, to instill moral lessons, and, with the accompanying texts or mottoes, they undoubtedly served as object-primers for young intelligences.

Carrying their moulds from furnace to furnace, the German workmen wrought well: Many of their designs are imaginative and fine, if primitive, and the elastic and phonetic spelling on the plates is more than interesting; to decipher it is an art. The names of the German peasant artists have almost entirely perished; the gathered-up remnants, "iron heirlooms," show indeed a "leaven of art " in even the early household necessities of the Province.

Firebacks as well as stoves were made at an early date. These were placed at the back of the open fireplaces, to protect the bricks or mortar; — often there were side pieces as well, forming a fireplace lining. Illustrations of these and the stove plates will be given in connection with the furnaces where they were made, as far as we have been able to procure them. The process of moulding firebacks is interesting. The patterns were made in wood, and then pressed into sand which had been wet and pounded, to make it hard and unyielding enough to retain the impression of the wooden pattern, which was then carefully removed, and the melted iron allowed to flow into the impression thus made.

It may be well to begin our chronicles of the early iron works and their owners, with a quotation from J. Leander Bishop's "History of American Manufactures": "There are," he says, "few reliable statistics either of the number or product of iron works in any of the States in the eighteenth century." With these chastening words perpetually in mind, we go on, having in view two objects; the first, to be accurate as far as possible within our narrow limits; the second, to bring together, in fairly chronological order, some of the overlooked and forgotten details of early provincial existence, in the great State of which we are so justly proud.

Endnotes

  1. British Empire in America, II, London, 1741.
  2. British Empire in America, II.
  3. Lancaster County Indians, by H. Frank Eshleman, p.173
  4. Logan and Penn Correspondence, Vol. II.
  5. Day's Historical Collections, p. 388.
  6. Cornwall Furnace and Ore Banks, by H. C. Grittinger.
  7. Pictorial Sketch Book of Pennsylvania, by Eli Bowen.
  8. The Decorated Stove Plates of the Pennsylvania Germans, by H. C. Mercer.

[] Committee on Historical Research, Pennsylvania Society of the Comonial Dames of America, Forges and Furnaces in the Province of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 1914.


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