Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

For more than a century, Hopewell Furnace in southeastern Pennsylvania had exemplified the technological growing pains of a nation initially built on agriculture but destined to become the industrial titan of the western hemisphere. Between 1771, when Mark Bird (1739-1816) established his furnace at the headwaters of French Creek in Berks County, and 1883, when the­ fires finally cooled, Hopewell Furnace produced pig iron, iron cooking articles, and cast iron stoves.

Today, in an exacting restoration by the National Park Service of an early nineteenth-century iron community, visitors can explore an industrial complex that would have been not much different from others in Berks, Lebanon, Chester, and Montgomery Counties. Hopewell Furnace represents more than two hundred operations that provided material for both domes­tic and industrial concerns in the rapidly expanding America of the pre-Civil War era. In the self-contained villages surrounding large and prosperous furnaces, there existed a way of life every bit as distinctive as the tobacco and cotton plantations that punctuated the antebellum South. In fact, Pennsylvania’s iron-making village were frequently called iron plantations. Several historians characterized them as “semi-feudal” while Jackson Kemper III, author of American Charcoal-Making in the Era of the Cold-Blast Fur­nace (1941), went so far as to specifically describe Hopewell as “a little feudal village.”

Historians have long contended that the Keystone State was the country’s most important producer of iron. Penn­sylvania possessed rich resources of ore and limestone, great tracts of timber to produce charcoal, and swiftly running streams that provided waterpower. It was inevitable that some enterprising entre­preneur, in this case Mark Bird, would acquire vast parcels of land in Union Township, Berks County, to erect a furnace. He followed in the footsteps of speculators who had been exploiting southeastern Pennsylvania’s abundant natural resources, including his father, William Bird (1706-1761), from whom he had inherited forested lands valued at nearly thirteen thousand pounds (see “To Forge History for the Future” by John C. Leighow Jr., Winter 2003). Mark Bird was a brother-in-law of two early ironmakers, patriots James Wilson (1742-1798) and George Ross (1730-1779), both of whom had signed the Declaration of Independence. Hopewell Furnace was not Mark Bird’s only investment in the eighteenth-century iron industry; he also owned Birdsboro Forge, Slitting Mill and Steel Furnace, and was a partner in Gibraltar (Seyfert) Forge and Spring Forge, both in Berks County, and the Delaware Falls Iron Works, near Trenton, New Jersey, of which Wilson was his partner. “Hopewell” was a popular name given by colonial era owners to their iron works. William Bird named one of his forges Hopewell in 1744.

By 1772, Bird’s Hopewell Furnace was in full operation, documented by an extant six-plate stove bearing the imprint Mark Bird – Hopewell Furnace – 1772. The early history of Hopewell is unclear because the furnace books, ledgers, and records have not survived. Like its many neighboring furnaces, including Cornwall Iron Furnace in adjacent Lebanon County, Hopewell helped arm American forces during the Revolutionary War. In addition, Bird, at his own expense, pro­vided uniforms, tents, and provisions for three hundred soldiers.

The early history of Hopewell Fur­nace is punctuated by shutdowns, economic catastrophes, forced public sales, partnership dissolutions, and bankrupt­cies. Owners and partners included John Nixon, Cadwallader Morris, James Old (who purchased it three times!), Ben­jamin Morris, Daniel Buckley, Thomas Brooke, Mathew Brooke, Charles Brooke, Clement Buckley, M. Brooke Buckley, Clement Brooke, Maria Brooke Clingan, and Charles Clingan.

Although it was the hub of an independent and self-contained community, Hopewell Furnace was not run like the stereotype of a late nineteenth-century factory, with long hours, low wages, and arbitrary rules. On the contrary, Hopewell’s workers regarded themselves as craftsmen who sold their services for an amount which both employer and employee honored, rather than as labor­ers who were forced to accept wages based on an hourly scale imposed by the company.

Iron plantations such as Hopewell were laid out on social and economic foundations that differed from their agrarian counterparts in the South, but nonetheless there did exist parallels in their size, rural setting, and concentration on a primary product. Although the industrial buildings dominated the plan­tation, one easily recognizable dwelling, called by some “the big house,” was the ironmaster’s residence. The ironmaster often emulated the style of the English landed gentry, complete with elegant car­riages and dressage. He had achieved the pinnacle of a self-contained society that often numbered more than two hundred individuals, all of whose work was either directly or indirectly tethered to the production of iron. His home at Hopewell served not only as his and his family’s residence, but also as business headquarters, boarding house, and social center. The building was well designed for such diverse uses; the main floor contained four spacious rooms, including a kitchen, and a stairway that led to six bedrooms on the second floor. The ground floor, accessible from a courtyard to the dwelling’s rear, contained a dining room and storage areas, and an attic provided quarters for servants. In 1850, ironmaster Charles M. Clingan, his wife Maria T., and their sons Clement B. and William W. resided at the big house, with a gardener and six servants described as either “Negro” or “Mulatto” by the federal census. To make life and work as practical and as accommodating as possible for their workers, the furnace owners built tenant houses, which they leased to employees, while a large boarding house accommodated single men.

Second in importance to the ironmas­ter was the company clerk who not only kept the books for the furnace, but who also managed it in the ironmaster’s absence. Ironmasters chose clerks for their intelligence and common sense, business acumen, and ability to write leg­ibly. Next in line, the founder was in charge of day-to-day operations in the cast house. He supervised charging of the furnace with ore, charcoal, and limestone, adjusted the air blast so the furnace operated at peak efficiency, and determined when the furnace was ready to be tapped (the draining off of molten iron).

Throughout Hopewell Furnace’s histo­ry, woodcutters constituted the largest group of employees. Of the nearly two hundred and fifty employees at Hopewell between 1835 and 1837, one hundred and twelve worked as woodcut­ters. The next largest group was made up of twenty-seven independent teamsters, several of them black, followed by nine­teen molders. Other job categories includ­ed collier, laborer, and miner (each of which employed eighteen), carpenter, farm worker, founder, patternmaker, mason, and wheelwright. When the furnace was in blast, moulders worked in two twelve-hour shifts. Each shift was signaled by the ringing of the casting house bell. Villagers accepted the noise of the busy complex and, in many ways, enjoyed a better way of life than their counterparts in crowded, smoky cities.

The end of a blast – the period during which the furnace was in operation – called for celebration, but ironmaster Clement Brooke frowned on gambling and drinking. Brooke realized that inebriation impaired operations and imperiled workers and so he banned the sale of liquor at the company store in the village. Although he outspokenly advocated tem­perance, he made little, if any, attempt to regulate the lives of his workers when they were not working. Except for furnace workers, Sunday was a day for rest and relaxation, which included attending church services. Brooke and his family attended St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Warwick, just south of Hopewell. Vil­lagers worshipped at Bethesda Baptist, also known as Lloyd’s Church, less than a mile away, or attended services at churches in Morgantown, Douglassville, or Robeson Township.

The decade of the 1830s was the most prosperous in Hopewell’s history. Clement Brooke’s success as ironmaster was due, in part, from his training in furnace operation and business. He had lived at Hopewell as early as 1800 as an assistant to the clerk. By 1803, his name appeared in journals documenting his stints as substi­tute keeper at the furnace, a highly responsible position for a young man. President Andrew Jackson’s Secretary of the Treasury Louis McLane (1786-1857) issued a report on Hopewell to Congress in 1832 that indicated prosperity: “Men employed – 168; Supposed No. of dependents – 800; No. of Horses – 84; Pig Metal – 1,000 Tons; Castings – 700 Tons.” The furnace operated continuously for nearly four hundred and fifty days, from January 3, 1836, to April 10, 1837, and pro­duced nearly twelve hundred tons of mixed castings. It would not be long until Hopewell Furnace would be overshadowed – and then bypassed – by technological advancements in the industry. Cou­pled with the Panic of 1837, the new technology spelled gloom for the furnace. Brooke’s retirement as manager in 1848 only worsened Hopewell’s prospects.

An entirely new and different era, the Industrial Revolution, was dawning with rampant, unprecedented innovations in the mining of coal, the production of steam, and the manufacture of steel. Owners of cold-blast charcoal iron fur­naces found it increasingly difficult to compete with the new breed of hot-blast anthracite coal furnaces springing up in urban centers to the west. Hopewell’s management made a few attempts to adapt to the new technology, including the construction of an anthracite furnace in 1853, but these only stemmed the inevitable. Periods during which the fur­nace was out of blast grew more frequent and longer. It became apparent that the end was nearing. The final blast at Hopewell ended on June 15, 1883, signal­ing the demise of the iron industry in southeastern Pennsylvania. America’s centers of iron and steel making had moved west to Pittsburgh and south to Birmingham, Alabama, both of which were close to vast deposits of coal and ore, as well as to pools of workers.

Even though Hopewell Furnace ceased operation, the property remained productive. The forest was logged for timber to make railroad ties and fence posts, stone was quarried, and farming continued. In 1902, the making of char­coal was revived, albeit briefly, for iron manufacturers in Philadelphia. The iron­master’s mansion housed a caretaker and served as a summer home for the owners, who were living in Philadelphia.

It didn’t take long for Hopewell to fall into disrepair. By 1900, the village was deserted. Many of the buildings and structures had deteriorated, the furnace was falling apart, and the forest had begun to reclaim the land. In 1930, A. Louise Clingan Brooke, whose family had owned the property for nearly a century and a half, offered some of the oper­ation’s machinery to Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute. Institute officials accepted her gift and hurriedly erected a shed to house the artifacts until they could be moved to Philadelphia. The objects remained in temporary storage at Hopewell for five years, until the federal government acquired nearly six thousand acres of the former iron plantation, the bulk of it from Brooke.

The federal government purchased the land in 1935 not so much for its his­torical significance, but for use in conservation programs promulgated by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. Government planners envisioned a “park and pleasuring ground.” A National Park Service historian, Roy Edgar Appleman (1904-1993), contended that the land was originally “acquired for use as a public park and recreational area, for the restoration of structures of historic interest, the conservation of natural resources, the preservation of scenic beau­ty, forestation and reforestation and for use in the connection with the construction of certain improvements necessary and appropriate to provide public facili­ties for the purposes of the project.”

By 1938, however, the reason for its preservation changed dramatically. Rec­ognizing that “certain lands and struc­tures in Hopewell Village, Pennsylvania, including the old furnace, mansion house, blacksmith shop, etc.,” possessed national significance, Acting Secretary of the Interior E. K. Burlew formally designated the area, on August 3, 1938, “a national historic site, having the name ‘Hopewell Village National Historic Site.'” (Each year on August 3, Hopewell hosts “Establishment Day” to mark its designation as a National Historic Site with costumed interpreters recalling early nineteenth-century activities, such as charcoal-making, traditional skills, and household crafts.) The National Park Service chose the word “village” instead of “furnace” in the site’s official title to emphasize its social and economic significance; its name was changed to Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site in 1985 to emphasize its role in America’s industrial history.

By 1935, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) had established two camps in the area to accommodate four hundred workers who repaired several buildings and laid some roadways. They stabilized the furnace, cleaned out the wheel pit, cut paths through the dense woods, enlarged Hopewell Lake, and cleared the forests for campsites and picnic areas. Individuals employed by the Works Progress Administration program also tackled some of the restoration work between 1935 and 1939. Beginning in 1938, the National Park Service assumed responsibility for restoring the village to its circa 1820-1840 appearance, the period that witnessed the most important stage in the evolution of the iron industry in the United States. World War II interrupted development of the historic site, and the gov­ernment decided to separate the historic and scenic areas and deeded, on November 25, 1946, five thousand acres, including the recreational area surrounding Hopewell Lake, to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, reducing the historic site to just shy of eight hundred and fifty acres. The property transferred to the Commonwealth is now part of French Creek State Park, which straddles Berks and Chester Counties.

As one strolls through Hopewell Fur­nace National Historic Site today, one can only imagine the frenzy of activity when the furnace was in blast. The cacophony of cutting wood, building shipping crates, hauling iron, stoking the fires, and rum­bling wagons must have been nearly deafening. Today, however, the village is quiet, save for fellow visitors and cos­tumed guides who interpret the historic site at its most productive. It’s quietly reassuring to discover, firsthand, that this iron plantation – so far removed in time and so distant from personal computers and satellite communication networks­ – still speaks for those who trod these very same lanes and roads in helping to build one of America’s greatest industries.


Travel Tips

Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site is open daily from 9 A.M. to 5 P.M., including Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, and Columbus Day. (The site is closed all other federal holidays.) Admission is charged. For information about activities scheduled through the year, write: Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site, 2 Mark Bird Ln., Elverson, PA 19520; telephone (610) 582-8773; TDD (610) 582-2093; or visit the Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site website.

Located in adjacent Lebanon County, Corn­wall Iron Furnace was a leading producer of iron from 1742 until 1883. Much like Hopewell Furnace, the Cornwall Iron Furnace was the center of an immense iron plantation. Designated a National Historic Landmark, it is a popular attraction along the Pennsylvania Trail of History, administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. Cornwall Iron Furnace offers visitors an opportunity to see what life was once like in a well-planned industrial complex, an important contributor to nation’s early economic prosperity. For information, write: Cornwall Iron Furnace, P. 0. Box 251, Cornwall, PA 17016; telephone (717) 272-9711; or visit the Cornwall Iron Furnace website. There is an admission charge.


For Further Reading

Bining, Arthur C. Pennsylvania Iron Man­ufacture in the Eighteenth Century. Har­risburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Muse­um Commission, 1979.

Bomberger, Bruce, and William Sisson. Made in Pennsylvania: An Overview of the Major Historical Industries of the Commonwealth. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania His­torical and Museum Commission, 1991.

Eggert, Gerald G. The Iron Industry in Pennsylvania. University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania Historical Association, 1994.

Lewis, W. David, and Walter E. Hugins. A Guide to Hopewell Village National Historic Site, Pennsylvania. Washington, D.C.: National Park Service, 1983.

Walker, Joseph E. Hopewell Village: A Social and Economic History of an Iron-Making Community. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1966.


The editor gratefully acknowledges the assis­tance of Jeffrey W. Collins, chief ranger at Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site, for his review of this article prior to publication.


Joe Zentner, a resident of Cary, North Carolina, holds a doctorate in political science from the University of Missouri. He taught at the University of Southwestern Louisiana (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette) for a quarter of a century, retiring in 1991 to pursue a career as a travel writer. His articles have appeared in a number of magazines, among them Motorhome, Military History, Harrisburg Magazine, Vietnam, America’s Civil War, South Carolina Wildlife, Kentucky Living, and Apprise (now Central PA Magazine). The author is a native of Topeka, Kansas.