Location: Elverson, Pennsylvania
Webpage: National Park
General Description: Hopewell Furnace is an example of an American 19th century “iron plantation” that use to dot the countryside of eastern Pennsylvania. Constructed by Mark Bird in 1771 and operating until 1883, Hopewell Furnace supplied pig iron and finished products. Ever since colonists brought blast furnace technology to America from Europe in the mid-1600s, the British crown was concerned with the rapid expansion of this industry. During the colonial period these blast furnaces were limited to the production of “pig iron” which would be shipped to England to be manufactured into finished products that could be sold back to the colonists. But with the abundant resources of iron ore, limestone, and wood for charcoal, the colonists were not about to give up this lucrative business. As tensions increased with Great Britain leading to the eruption of the Revolutionary War, Mark Bird, already an important figure in the iron industry, built Hopewell Furnace in eastern Pennsylvania in 1771. At the onset of the Revolutionary War the colonists were producing 1/7 of the world’s iron goods, bypassing Great Britain. The Pennsylvania iron industry played a critical role in supplying the new nation’s army. In fact, George Washington took his army to Valley Forge to protect the supply lines for the iron furnaces along the Schuylkill River. Mark Bird turned from casting stove plates to supplying cannon and shot. Unfortunately, he was heavily in debt after the war, as were most of the American iron masters. A 1786 flood added to the problems and in 1788 Hopewell Plantation was sold at a sheriff’s sale. New owners converted the furnace to peacetime production, but the operation remained unprofitable due to shipping costs. Attempts were made to convert the operation over to the more profitable anthracite coal and a furnace for this purpose was built, however, without a railroad close by it proved to be unprofitable and the furnace closed in 1808. By 1816 protective tariffs and improved transportation systems brightened the future of Hopewell Furnace. Under the leadership of Clement Brooke, Hopewell Furnace saw its most profitable years from 1816-1831 supplying iron products up and down the East Coast. The financial Panic of 1837 undermined this profitability and although the Civil War brought some relief in the 1860s, Hopewell Furnace could not compete and went “out of blast” for the last time in 1883. Today Hopewell Furnace serves as an example of this era in our history consisting of 848 acres of forests and the community. During its heyday, Hopewell Furnace was a thriving community in support of the Furnace including fields for crops, pasture for the horses, and forests for charcoal. Since an acre of forests could supply enough charcoal for only a day of operation of the furnace, hundreds of acres were needed just for this purpose.
1) The Visitor Center is a small structure at the edge of the “iron plantation”. It contains a few exhibits about the history and products made at Hopewell and a small gift shop. There are a few short films about the making of charcoal, making the molds for the cast iron stoves, and life in Hopewell that are well worth the time to view.
2) You can see the ruins of the failed attempt of the anthracite furnace. It is difficult to understand how the furnace operated on the basis of these ruins.
3) They have a continuous demonstration of the making of charcoal, which is a complex process that takes weeks to complete. While we were there they had finished the burn and had spread the charcoal out on the ground to cool.
4) The cooling shed was a huge structure to house all the charcoal needed for the furnace. They had a wagon outside the shed loaded with charcoal and you could see the clever way they had to empty the wagon. There were slats in the bottom that could be pulled out opening up the entire bed of the wagon!
5) Hopewell Furnace is the only iron furnace from that time period that is still in operating condition. All the others we have seen are reduced to just the stone chimney. However, at Hopewell you can see where they added iron ore, limestone, and charcoal to the top of the furnace and then pour out the iron at the bottom of the furnace. If it was a good batch they would remove the iron in small amounts to pour into their cast molds to make the parts of a stove. If not, then the iron would be directed to sand depressions in the floor to produce pig iron bars.
6) Hopewell Furnace is a cold blast furnace which means room temperature air is forced into the furnace to burn the charcoal and melt the ore. This air was forced in by the use of a water wheel that would operate a pair of bellows. Although the water wheel has been replaced a couple of times, you can still watch it pump air into the furnace.
7) Next to the floor of the furnace is the casting room where they would create the molds out of compressed sand. Today they provide demonstrations of this process and teach children how to make molds using plaster-of-paris.
8) In addition there are a number of other buildings necessary for the operation of the furnace, including a blacksmith shop, a schoolhouse, two tenant houses that could be rented by the worker families, a boarding house, barn, springhouse, smokehouse, and the ironmaster’s mansion.