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

Not infrequently, the history of how an object, artifact, or even building or structure has been preserved for the future is every bit at least as interesting as the reasons for which it was saved. Historical organizations and cultural institutions – from large city museums to county historical societies – brim with compelling “behind-the-scenes” stories that provide fascinating commentary on individuals and institutions and their motives. The thoughts and perceptions of previous generations in the field of public history reveal how our collective past is dealt with – sometimes by design, often by circumstance, and even by accident.

The story of discovery – and rediscovery – of an eighteenth-century forge in southeastern Pennsylvania is one such saga that parallels the importance of the object itself.

In 1998, a project was underway at the Cornwall Iron Furnace, administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC), to install new heat­ing and air conditioning systems in the visitors center, formerly the charcoal building of the vast Lebanon County iron plantation (see “A Blast from the Past: Cornwall Iron Furnace” by Sharon Hemes Silverman, Spring 1998). The work entailed removing items stored in bays of the building. Removing items from the fourth bay proved to be a major – and frustrating – challenge. Stored in this bay were parts of several types of mills, one of which was horse-powered, an original paper lining machine, and parts of a forge that once stood on Hay Creek, near Scar­let’s Mill, in adjacent Berks County.

Storage conditions were far less than ideal The area lacked climate controls and the objects, for the most part, rested direct­ly on the earthen floor. PHMC staff mem­bers sorted, examined, inventoried, and relocated the disparate pieces until they felt confident they were able to positively identify the parts.

Most of the material was merely being stored at Cornwall Iron Furnace and had no connection with the historic site’s mission and interpretation, save one. The Hay Creek Forge, originally located three miles south of Birdsboro, was directly related to the historic site’s interpretive theme chronicling the Commonwealth’s iron industry for visitors from throughout the world. Forges had been built at Cornwall, but none survived. As the remains of what had been labeled as the Hay Creek Forge were extracted from the darkness of the fourth bay, it became clear that this object was unusual, if not unique. Staff members realized that it may be, if not the last of its kind, one of the few extant examples dating to the eighteenth century.

The Hay Creek Forge was a trip ham­mer forge, in which a heavy hammer was raised by waterpower and positioned to strike heated iron stock on an anvil. The action was meant to forge, or hammer, the heavy iron stock into useful shapes and tools. Surviving was the original hammer, anvil, trip wheel, gearing and framing. One of the most interesting parts of the equipment which did not survive – except in vintage photographs – was the water­-powered air tromph, or blast box, that supplied an enormous amount of air to the forge in order to sufficiently heat the iron stock to make it malleable under the falling hammer.

PHMC staff members sorted and arranged the forge equipment as it had originally been configured. They determined that the forge directly related to the mission of Cornwall Iron Furnace and should be included in the proposed orientation exhibit. Researching the history of this object was the first order of business and what emerged was a fascinating tale of how it was preserved and interpreted over the years.

Researchers found a rich store of infor­mation at Hopewell Village National His­toric Site, in Berks County, including pho­tographs, made about 1929, of the forge in its original location! Photographs also doc­umented most of its internal workings. In addition, written records were available. The search next led historians to the His­torical Society of Berks County, in Read­ing, and the Pennsylvania State Archives, in Harrisburg, both of which yielded information on the history of the forge. Examining these holdings, and guided by the vintage photographs, the saga of the Hay Creek Forge began to unfold for the researchers.

Hay Creek Forge is believed to be what has become known as the upper forge erected in 1740 by ironmaster William Bird (1706-1761) the year after he acquired the land on the creek from Francis Hughes. The forge was later operated by his son Mark Bird (1739-1816), who also owned Hopewell Furnace, the heart of an enor­mous iron empire of nearly ten thousand acres, which consisted of a stone building with an arched brick forge at one end and at the other a hammer, anvil, and gearing. A water wheel powered the hammer and bellows, or air blast box. The Colebrook­dale Furnace, erected in 1720 by Thomas Rutter and Company on Ironstone Creek in Berks County, supplied pig iron for the Hay Creek Forge until Bird opened Hopewell Furnace on the French Creek, also in Berks County, in 1770. Mark Bird’s son-in-law, John Lewis Barde, owned the facility on Hay Creek until his death in 1798. It was next owned by an individual named Griffith, who acquired it in 1811 to make scythes, the first mention of a specific product being turned out at the forge. Griffith’s daughter apparently inherited the forge and married Isaac Sands, who also produced scythes, as well as axes. The manufacture of scythes and axes is consis­tent with this type of trip-hammer forge.

Southeastern Pennsylvania – particu­larly Berks, Lebanon, Chester, and Mont­gomery Counties – was attractive to early ironmasters and, subsequently, forge own­ers. Streams for water power, thickly forested tracts for making charcoal, and an abundance of rich and accessible iron ore deposits made the region ideal for the iron industry. It was important for furnaces to be built as close to possible to the natural resources because iron ore was heavy and charcoal too brittle to transport any appreciable distance. Many mistakenly believe the terms “forge” and “furnace” are synonymous. A forge was a shop with a furnace where metal was heated and wrought into useful tools or devices, while a furnace, usually referred to as a blast furnace, produced pig iron by the reaction of a flow of air introduced under pressure into the bottom of the furnace shaft with a mixture of iron ore, coke, and flux fed into the top.

Berks County alone was home to dozens of furnaces and forges in the eighteenth century. In addition to the Hay Creek Forge, the county also counted Rutter’s Forge (1716), Pool Forge (1725), Pine Forge (1725), Spring Forge (1729), and Pottsgrove Forge (1752), all on the Manatawny Creek; Mount Pleasant Forge (1743) on the Perkiomen Creek; Charming Forge (1747) on the Tulpehocken Creek; Moselem Forge (1760) on the Maiden Creek; Gibraltar (Seyfert) Forge (1770) on the Allegheny Creek; the Oley Forges (1780) on the Furnace Creek; Rockland Forges (1783) on the Beaver Creek; and Antietam (Burkhart’s) Forges (1792) on the Antietam Creek. Furnaces in Berks County included Mount Pleasant (1737); Hereford (1745); Elizabeth (1750); Roxborough (1755); Shearwell (1760); Windsor (1768); Dale (1791); Sally Ann (1791); Joanna (1791); Reading (1791); and Mary Ann (1795).

Historian Arthur Cecil Bining offered a rather romanticized vignette of work in an eighteenth-century forge in his seminal work, Pennsylvania Iron Manufacture in the Eighteenth Century, originally published in 1938 by the Pennsylvania Historical Commission, forerunner of the present-day PHMC.

The forge, where the pig iron was refined and hammered into blooms, or bars of wrought iron, was generally not far distant [from a fur­nace on an iron plantation, an operation typically measuring thousand of acres]. The dull, unvaried turning of the water wheel, the irregular splash of falling water, the rhythmic slump of the hammer, and the droning sound of the anvil were a part of life on the plantation. Within the forge, half-naked human beings of strong physique swung the white-hot pasty metal from the hearths to the great ham­mers by means of wide-jawed tongs. Under the steady strokes of the hammers, amid showers of scintillating sparks, the forgemen drew the bar to given sizes. Bar iron from the forges was used by blacksmiths to make tools, implements, and ironware of different sorts.

For decades, the forge on Hay Creek remained virtually unknown to scholars and historians. For years, visitors to Val­ley Forge Park, created in 1893, repeatedly asked guides where the “Valley Forge” had been located, and by the 1920s, mem­bers of the Valley Forge Park Commis­sion became interested in relocating an authentic eighteenth-century forge to the park so that visitors might understand why the area was so named. Historians knew several forges had been erected in the area. In 1929, workers discovered the foundations of what had been a large forge on the western end (or “upper site”) of the park, in Chester County, where they uncovered a waterwheel and a bar of pig iron stamped “Andover.” Not much later, the remains of another forge were uncovered on the eastern side (or “lower site”) of the Valley Creek, in Montgomery County. The excavations and the exciting finds propelled the park commissioners to seriously consider the erection of a period forge in the park.

The Valley Forge Park Commission could not find an appropriate forge and engaged George W. Schultz, of Reading, reputedly an expert on the history of the iron industry, to conduct a search. Schultz was assisted by Charles B. Montgomery of the Historical Society of Berks County, headquartered in Reading, and a park commission committee. Schultz discovered an authentic forge on Hay Creek. As late as the 1920s, the operation was remarkably intact, and included the forge building, water wheel, tilt hammer, open hearth, blast box, bellows, and imple­ments. Schultz claimed that the Hay Creek Forge was the only forge of its kind in existence. He immediately set out to acquire it for the park.

Schultz commenced negotiations with B. Frank Sands and his sister Mary Sands, descendants of I. R. Sands who, according to a map of Robeson Township appearing in the 1876 Illustrated Historical Atlas of Berks County, Pennsylvania, operated a blacksmith shop in the forge building. The Sandses did not wish to sell at first, but Schultz persisted and convinced them to part with the forge. He then put up some of his own money to secure an option to buy the equipment and tools for eight hundred dollars, or twenty-five hundred dollars for everything, including the building, which would be removed and re-cre­ated at Valley Forge Park. The park was a state-owned attraction, and the Common­wealth committed to purchase the forge building and contents in 1929. Official records, however, contain no mention of a purchase price.

The park commission planned to rebuild the forge “up the creek” at Valley Forge, and engaged architect Horace Wells Sellers, F.A.I.A. (1857-1933), to “supervise the knocking down of the building, the proper identification and the resetting of it and all its apparatus on the Valley Creek within the park.” Sellers was a logical choice. A great-grandson of artist Charles Willson Peale and an 1877 graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, he was an expert on colonial period history. He served on a committee of the Philadelphia chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) that restored Independence Hall and Congress Hall, and was a mem­ber of committees that restored Christ Church and Washington’s Headquarters at Valley Forge. He was elected a fellow of the AIA in 1912.

The park commission envisioned a working exhibit that would not only be interpretive, but would also produce items to sell to visitors. In spite of unbridled enthusiasm, though the project withered.

Five years passed, and the Commonwealth had still not removed the forge building or any of the equipment from the Sands property. Sands sought assistance from Schultz. The disgruntled Schultz accused state government of violating its purchase contract with Sands. If the state took only the equipment, Sands planned to install a new water wheel and set up wood-turning machinery to make insulator holders for telephone poles. He even considered charging the Commonwealth rent. In addition, curiosity-seekers constantly trespassed on Sands’s property. All B. Franks Sands wanted was a resolution to the sale and his privacy, which Schultz summarized in 1934.

This Hay Creek Forge, building and equip­ment, was bought in 1929 from B. Frank Sands and Mary Sands for prompt removal. The ground upon which it stands was not included or deeded. Mr. Sands came to Read­ing to see me yesterday. His sister died and was buried a week ago. He is single and has waited for 5 years for the State to remove the forge so he can erect another structure, make use of his valuable water power and carry on another line of business for livelihood.

He informs me he wants the forge removed in a reasonable time, as it is falling to pieces from 5 years of neglect. He is afraid to go in there for fear the chimney will fall down. The water-wheel has rotted and fallen apart. The roof leaks and the rain pours in making a mess, but the interior equipment is fairly well preserved. He expressed himself that from now on if the State leaves the forge on his ground, he should be compensated by rent of at least $15 a month. (The fact is I believe he could claim rent from 1929 if he choose, but he is fair and considerate). I am just repeating as above, about what his sentiments are. He does not want to sell his homestead where he has lived all his life. He desires privacy. In the last 5 years he has been invaded by tourists, committees, news reporters, photographers, buyers of antiques, taking up his time.

He naturally came to me for aid and I feel I cannot ignore it. I also gave up very much time, work and expense to further what I felt was a worthy cause, and now suggest a repre­sentative of the State call upon Mr. B. Frank Sands and proceed to complete the original contract. He does not wish a Park made of his land, but desires to establish a business and live on his 7 aces in his quaint 8 room house, work at wheelwriting in peace and quiet as a private citizen.

What had transpired was a bitter debacle after which the Valley Forge Park Commission had a change of heart. A committee headed by historian Albert Cook Myers was charged by the commission to decide where the Hay Creek Forge should be located. Myers recom­mended that the forge be rebuilt at the lower site. Israel R. Pennypacker of Ard­more, a former newspaperman and brother to Governor Samuel W. Penny­packer, was chairman of the Valley Forge Park Commission at the time. He was considered by many to be a fairly reputable historian. Pennypacker strongly disagreed with many of Myers’s conclusions, and disseminated his arguments in a privately-printed pamphlet. He bitterly attacked the Myers report, claiming that it was rife with “irrelevant matters” that “only create a wilderness of words and a maze of blind paths none of which leads to a correct destination.”

It soon became clear to all involved that Albert Cook Myers and Israel R. Pen­nypacker could not reconcile their differences. The pair eventually submitted their independent reports to a panel of three lawyers, members of the park commission, headed by Judge Richard M. Koch. Koch’s findings did nothing more than exacerbate the antagonism, inciting Pen­nypacker to issue yet another acrid pamphlet. The controversy continued.

After hearing opposing views and conflicting evidence, the Valley Forge Park Commission voted on April 23, 1930, to erect the Hay Creek Forge at the upper, or western, site in the park. Myers dissented, and specifically requested that his negative vote be dearly recorded in the meeting minutes. The project would once again be delayed – the site the commissioners had approved was privately owned and it would take another six years before the park actually acquired it.

Lorett Treese, author of Valley Forge: Making and Remaking a National Symbol (1995), succinctly unraveled the seemingly unending twists and turns of this later-day “battle” at Valley Forge. “In the meantime, Dr. Myers studied the Hay Creek forge and expressed his opinion that it was not right for Valley Forge after all because it was neither Colonial nor Revolutionary, but had probably been constructed in the 1790s or early 1800s,” she wrote. “Further­more, he said, it was not built of stone indigenous to the Valley Forge area – and it was really not a forge at all, but a black­smith shop with a trip hammer powered by water where scythes and other farm tools had been made and repaired.”

George W. Schultz fired the next volley. He disagreed vehemently with Myers, arguing the forge was earlier than 1780, but he could not prove it. He pointed out that others were interested in the forge and its accouterments, including carmaker and collector Henry Ford, who had requested photographs of it. Schultz also mentioned Chicago and Philadelphia, specifically the Franklin Institute, as possible repositories. Nevertheless, the Valley Forge Park Commission remained resolute in its final decision: the forge would not be rebuilt on park grounds. Years later, according to Treese, Schultz lamented that his attempts to reconstruct a working forge at Valley Forge had been “blocked by politics and carpers.” (Nonetheless, the bitterness surrounding the acquisition of the Hay Creek Forge reflected the commissioners’ strident demand for historical accuracy, which also inspired, in 1925, a critical reevaluation of the restoration of Washington’s Headquarters undertaken by the Centennial and Memorial Association in the late nine­teenth century.)

For reasons unknown, the Common­wealth finally took action. On June 25, 1934, C. F. Hoban, director of the State Museum, then part of the Department of Public Instruction, noted the delivery of the forge in Harrisburg. “This is to advise you that the Hay Creek forge has arrived at the State Museum just as it was taken out of its housing at Scarlet’s Mill, Berks County,” he informed Lloyd L. Dunkle, secretary of the Board of Commissioners of Public Grounds and Buildings, then associated with the old state Department of Property and Supplies. Employees of the state Department of Forests and Waters dismantled and removed the equipment. They sawed off the main shaft, measuring two feet in diameter, at its juncture with the interior wall. The crew apparently did not save the water-powered blast box and there is no record of any of the implements and other material depicted in the photographs being taken out. Museum record keeping was not as precise and standardized as it is today, and it is possible that some of this material may have been removed, but its final destination not documented. It may yet surface.

The Hay Creek Forge was, reconstructed as an exhibit in the basement of the old State Museum, in 1999 renamed the Speaker Matthew J. Ryan Legislative Office Building, adjacent to the State Capitol. It was not its permanent home, however. The forge was transferred in the 1950s to the PHMC’s Landis Valley Museum in Lancaster and from there it ultimately went to Cornwall.

How long the forge lay neglected in storage in Cornwall Iron Furnace’s charcoal building is unknown. It was time enough to cause serious deterioration of some of the wooden parts stored directly on the dirt floor. After the parts were identified, they were treated and prepared for exhibition by conservators at the PHMCs Commonwealth Conservation Center in Harrisburg.

The building that housed the forge was not as fortunate. It was ravaged by fire about 1934, not long after the workings had been removed. Only the stone walls remained standing. A survey of the Berks County site submitted to the PHMC’s Bureau for Historic Preservation in 1990 indicates that the race remained discernible at the time, but nothing else above ground survived. Had the equipment not been removed, it too would have been lost, and only the photographic record would have remained to document this important piece and its role in Pennsylvania and American history.

The history of the Hay Creek Forge is indicative of how Americans perceive and preserve pieces of the past. Perhaps if the Valley Forge Park Commission had not been interested in acquiring such a forge, it might have been lost forever. If the Commonwealth had not removed the equipment from the forge building, everything would have disappeared. Through the twists and turns – often circuitous, frequently curious, repeatedly controversial – the Hay Creek Forge is being conserved and will be, once again, a veritable link to the distant past.


The Hay Creek Forge will serve as an impor­tant artifact in a major orientation exhibit being planned for installation at the Cornwall Iron Furnace. The forge will serve to introduce a discussion of the stage in the iron refining process after which pig iron is produced by a furnace. The forge is undergoing conservation at the PHMC’s Commonwealth Conservation Center in Harrisburg.


Cornwall Iron Furnace, one of more than two­-dozen attractions along The Pennsylvania Trail of History, is the country’s most complete charcoal-fueled iron-making complex. The exceptionally well-preserved furnace and unusual mid-nineteenth-century Gothic Revival-style structures house an 1849 steam engine and a giant wooden gear wheel measuring twenty-four feet in diameter. In operation from 1742 to 1883, Cornwall Iron Furnace pri­marily produced pig iron and domestic products, but also cast cannon for the American Revolution. The historic site has been designated a National Historic Landmark. For more information, write: Cornwall Iron Furnace, P.O. Box 251, Cornwall, PA 17016; telephone (717) 272-9711. There is an admission charge.


For Further Reading

Bining, Arthur Cecil. 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.

Gordon, Robert. American Iron, 1607-1900. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

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

Oblinger, Carl. Cornwall: The People and Culture of an Industrial Camelot, 1890- 1980. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1984.

Treese, Lorett. Valley Forge: Making and Remaking a National Symbol. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995.


John C. Leighow Jr. is a native Pennsylvan­ian, born in Danville, Montour County. He is a graduate of the Pennsylvania State University and Kutztown University, and earned his master of arts degree in American history. Since joining the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) in 1975, he has served in several capacities at the agency’s museums and historic sites, among them the Daniel Boone Homestead, Berks County, Bushy Run Battlefield, Westmore­land County, and the Somerset Historical Center, Somerset County. The author also headed the PHMC’s statewide placed property program and its bureau of historic sites and museums. He is currently chief of education and operations for The State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg.