At a Pennsylvania "iron plantation" park rangers are discovering unique stories about the industrial revolution.
By John Grossmann
At Hopewell Furnace, history glows anew. And once again, the back story is as compelling as the tale of this long-running eastern Pennsylvania iron plantation that produced cast-iron stoves for homemakers, munitions for General George Washington’s troops, and iron for Union cannons.
Located about a dozen miles southwest of Reading in the ore-rich Pennsylvania Highlands, Hopewell Furnace took advantage of thick local hardwood forests, readily available iron ore, and limestone to produce the charcoal that kept the furnace burning. The waters of French Creek provided the power. The furnace made pig iron (or unmolded iron) for local forges and household items such as the famous Hopewell Stoves, which made their way into more than 60,000 homes. Finished products headed by wagon to the Schuylkill Canal, by barge to Philadelphia, and onward by ship. By the mid-19th century Hopewell’s signature stoves were popular as far as London.
This long-abandoned but scenic industrial site and company town passed to federal control during the Great Depression, when President Roosevelt dispatched 400 members of the Civilian Conservation Corps to create a recreational park for Philadelphia-area residents. As a group of preservation-minded World War I veterans were digging man-made lakes, says park superintendent Edie Shean-Hammond, they realized the historical significance of the buildings about to be bulldozed. “Why are we destroying America’s heritage?” they asked. “You need to take a second look at this place. It’s a complete colonial village.”
Today, 71 years after Hopewell Furnace became the second national historic site in the Park Service (Salem Maritime debuted five months earlier), park officials are adding an important human chapter to the iron plantation’s industrial story after taking that second “second look.” The park, says Shean-Hammond, “is going through a renaissance because of the rediscovery of information that’s been buried for years.”
Detailed employee payroll records sat silently in company ledgers dating from 1814 to 1883, when operations ceased. That left a sizable gap stretching back to Hopewell’s 1771 founding by a slave-owning ironmaster named Mark Bird. But a careful re-examination of the two dozen surviving ledgers by Frances Delmar, chief of interpretation at Hopewell Furnace, has recast the site’s history. Delmar looked well beyond furnace firings and production totals to wages and purchases at the company store and caught sight of an untold story of racial and gender equality. Until recently, rangers talked primarily about the process of making iron. Now, says Delmar, “The interpreters talk about who worked here and how they lived.”
In many ways, the village was well named, for Hopewell appears to have been an early, uncelebrated oasis of enlightened stewardship and civil rights. Not only was it an important stop on the Underground Railroad, providing shelter and jobs for Canada-bound African Americans fleeing slavery in the mid-1800s, but ledger entries show that under 19th-century owner Clement Brooke, the unheard-of concept of “equal pay for equal work” prevailed. Black men earned as much as the white men working with them side by side; women, too, were generally paid fair wages, serving not only as woodcutters but in some furnace jobs, including finish work on the iron stove plates.
“We believe Hopewell had the first integrated public schools in Pennsylvania,” says Delmar. “And not only by race but by gender, with boys and girls together.” The village’s residents, she says, lived in a general state of harmony. “Imagine,” says Shean-Hammond, “inter-racial weddings in Hopewell village in the 1830s when there were race riots going on in Philadelphia.”
Still, Delmar nixes any notion of utopia. Life was hard and dirty. Ashes from the furnace darkened the snow for miles around. And the work was dangerous, notably for young boys charged with knocking ice off the water wheel in winter. But generations of families stayed because the good invariably outweighed the bad.
Today, visitors to the site and neighboring French Creek State Park can go boating, stay overnight in cabins, step out on 12 miles of hiking trails, and in the fall, enjoy the added pleasure of picking apples from an orchard boasting 30 different varieties. Three times a year, some 40 dedicated volunteers demonstrate charcoal making around the clock, showcasing this trade that was so essential to 18th- and 19th-century iron making. When “in blast,” or full production, the furnace consumed an acre of forest a day. Here, too, Hopewell practiced enlightened stewardship: Owner Mark Bird specified that a cut acre not be touched for 30 years, so the land could recover.
Although the park’s signage doesn’t yet make note of the recent discoveries about the progressive social environment at Hopewell Furnace, the rangers’ interpretive talks do. “Hopewell was a haven of freedom,” says Frank Gilyard, Sr., director of the Central Pennsylvania African American Museum in Reading. “This is a story that needs to be told.”