Pennsylvania: Hopewell Furnace

Part of the Hopewell Village National Historic Site, this is a restoration of a typical iron plantation of eighteenth and nineteenth century American ironmaking communities. Such communities were the foundation of the country’s later Industrial Revolution.

Site Office

Hopewell Furnace

2 Mark Bird Lane

Elverson, PA 19520

ph.: (610) 582-8773

fax: (610) 582-2768

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In 1771, Mark Bird, a colonial ironmaster, entrepreneur, and patriot, opened Hopewell Furnace near French Creek in southern Berks County, Pennsylvania. The furnace was a natural outgrowth of his father’s Hopewell Forge near the Schuylkill River at Birdsboro. The elder Bird had become prosperous, owning two forges, a furnace, and more than three thousand acres at his death in 1761.

Like his father and other colonial ironmasters, young Mark Bird operated his furnace in direct defiance of Britain’s Iron Act of 1750. The act was designed to curtail the making of finished iron products by the colonists. It demanded that Americans make only pig iron and ship it to England. British ironworks would then make the finished ironware, such as bells and stove plates, and sell it to the colonists at great profit. The colonial ironmasters could make much more money by ignoring the act and illegally selling the finished products directly to their countrymen.

Early History

Historical records on Hopewell before 1784 are sketchy or nonexistent, but a surviving Franklin stove plate proves that Bird did defy the Iron Act. It has the imprint “Mark Bird–Hopewell Furnace–1772.” Hopewell was not the first ironworks on the North American continent. That honor belonged to an ironmaster who attempted to start a forge near Jamestown, Virginia, in 1621. Neither was Hopewell the most successful. It was typical of such iron plantations, and its site lent itself to restoration.

Hopewell was typical because the raw materials–timber, ore, limestone, and water–were close and abundant. There were good roads between Hopewell and its forges and markets. Skilled and unskilled workers were plentiful. Young Bird himself became prosperous. By 1770, he owned thousands of acres of woodland, iron mines, water rights, and eighteen slaves, the single largest slaveholding in Berks County.

The Revolutionary War

By the time the Revolutionary War started, Bird was deeply involved in the war effort as ironmaster, entrepreneur, and patriot. As ironmaster, he saw to it that the cannon, shot, and shell that Hopewell furnished the Continental army were the finest possible. As entrepreneur, he sold such wares to the army, often for Continental Congress IOUs. As patriot, he served as delegate to the Pennsylvania Committee of Correspondence and the Provincial Conference of 1775, as a member of the Pennsylvania Assembly, and as a judge on the Berks County Court. Bird’s two brothers-in-law, both ironmasters, were signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Bird was also a colonel in the Berks County Militia and used his own resources to provide three hundred militiamen with clothing, tents, and provisions. During 1778, when he served as deputy quartermaster general, he shipped one thousand barrels of flour to George Washington’s starving troops at Valley Forge. Bird knew that route well. He had sent many a shipment of pig iron to that forge. However, Bird died a ruined man, hiding from his creditors in North Carolina. His downfall resulted from bad investments, overexpansion of his operations, and unpaid bills by the Continental Congress.

In 1788, Bird’s Hopewell Plantation was auctioned off to James Old and Cadwallader Morris to satisfy debts. It passed through several other hands until finally, in 1800, Hopewell was bought by the partnership of Daniel Buckley and his brothers-in-law Matthew and Thomas Brooke. Those families operated Hopewell for eighty-three years.

The Furnace in Its Heyday

The restored site shows the operations as they were in the furnace’s heyday, 1820 to 1840. The cold-blast furnace made iron from ore found in the vicinity. The burning charcoal fuel was kept under control by bellows that fed cold air into the bottom of the furnace through an opening called a tuyere. The bellows was operated by a water wheel that, in prosperous times, ran twenty-four hours a day. Charcoal, iron ore, and limestone were dumped into the top of the furnace in that order. The charcoal fires at temperatures of 2,600 to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit melted the iron ore into liquid form. The limestone, used as flux, helped remove impurities from the ore.

The molten iron flowed out the bottom of the furnace into sand beds to form ingots or “pig iron.” Molten iron also flowed into casts for such things as stove plates, pots, sash weights, and tools. Pig iron bars, anconies (or bars with knobbed ends), or merchant bars were sent to forges, either on site or at places such as Valley Forge, to be hammered into finished ironwork. Blacksmiths made the iron into nails, horseshoes, and wheel rims.

Social Organization and Craftsmen

Hopewell village was a paternalistic, pyramidal society with the ironmaster at the top. Under the master were the clerk and founder (a technician, not an owner). In descending order were keepers, fillers, guttermen, molders and molders’ helpers, colliers, miners, teamsters, and woodcutters.

In the Brooke dynasty, the first owner lived in the “Big House,” or ironmaster’s mansion. At other iron plantations, the ironmaster lived in these luxurious quarters. According to historians W. David Lewis and Walter E. Hugins, an ironmaster was similar to a chief operating officer; he was a “capitalist, technician, market analyst, personnel director, bill collector, purchasing agent, and transportation expert.”

Next in line was the company clerk, who often lived in the mansion as well. He was bookkeeper and paymaster, he soothed irate customers, managed the company store, filled orders, and extended credit. He was a wage earner, but the wages were high and he could move up to ironmaster if very good at his job.

The founder’s job was to keep the furnace running at top efficiency by maintaining the temperature and knowing when the iron was ready to flow. He did this by keeping an eye on the color of the flame. A founder was usually the highest paid furnace worker. In the mid-1830’s, a founder with skill, experience, and judgment made about six hundred dollars a year.

A keeper took over when the founder was off duty. Fillers also aided the founder with the back-breaking work of dumping materials into the furnace. This meant filling and pushing barrow load after barrow load of charcoal, ore, and limestone. The barrows were pushed to the top of the furnace and dumped in. Fillers had to accurately estimate the amount of material in their loads and report it to the founder. According to Lewis and Huggins, they “had to endure the flame, smoke, and cinders at the tunnel head and work in all weather, but were paid little more than common laborers.”

Guttermen prepared the sand casting beds for pig iron. Guttermen, often boys, also stacked the ingots outside the cast house and carried cinders to the slag, or waste, heap.

Molders were highly skilled craftsmen and much more highly paid than fillers and guttermen. They received about ten dollars a ton for castings in 1836. Molders made curved stove plates with a technique called flask casting. It was a long task, both mentally and physically demanding. It involved two boxes that could be clamped together and nine steps that required steady hands when working with sand of varying consistencies and ladles of molten ore.

Colliers made charcoal from timber in the forests surrounding Hopewell. The task always involved sleepless nights watching the fire–they were paid to produce charcoal, not ashes. Using hardwood billets, short pieces of fire wood supplied by woodcutters, colliers built hearths in cleared areas in the woods, some thirty to forty feet in diameter. The billets were stacked around a central chimney, and the resulting cone-shaped structure was then covered with thin slats. The slats, in turn, were covered by leaves and charcoal dust to keep out excess air. Kindling was dropped down the chimney and ignited. The workers tended the pit night and day for two weeks and then raked out the charcoal, cooled it, and loaded it into furnace-bound wagons. Colliers worked from April to November, so they were outdoors in weather that was sometimes severe. Colliers worked as contractors. They were paid by the bushel of charcoal produced, minus the cost of the wood consumed. A good collier could produce thirty-five to forty bushels from a cord of wood. Annual incomes for colliers in 1825 could run from $150 to nearly $350.

Iron Mining

Iron ore mining at first was done from open pits with pick and shovel. Later, as the pits were exhausted, shafts and tunnels were used. Miners were not wage earners but were paid according to the weight of the ore brought to the furnace. They were not badly paid; they averaged more than half the income of skilled furnace workers.

Teamsters drove the vehicles, such as Conestoga wagons, the sole means of transporting large or heavy goods until the canals and railroads were built. They hauled ore, charcoal, and limestone, and most important, took finished products to market. They were paid by the load, plus expenses. Yearly pay was usually less than $100, but one David Hart averaged $475 a year from 1818 to 1840.

Woodcutters, a large segment of the workforce, were at the bottom of the pyramid. From 1835 to 1837, woodcutters accounted for 112 out of 213 Hopewell employees. Much of the work was done during the winter by part-time employees. They cut about two cords a day and were paid by the cord, the distance it was hauled, and the quality of the wood. The awful appetite of the furnaces helped in Hopewell’s later decline. Ecologically speaking, the strip ore mines ruined land and the furnace consumed an acre of hardwood trees a day. The owners used the clear-cutting method, which left the land bare and unable to grow new trees for thirty years.

African American, Women, and Child Workers

After the abolition of slavery in Pennsylvania in 1780, African Americans were employed at Hopewell. Many places in southeastern Pennsylvania were stops on the Underground Railroad. Hopewell was close to the Mason-Dixon Line and probably hired fugitive blacks from the South. Most of them held menial, low-paying jobs and eventually moved on to safer areas. Some, however, stayed on as laborers, teamsters, or semiskilled workers. Black workers were paid the same wages as white workers and neither housing nor schools were segregated.

All the jobs were hard and the hours long by today’s standards. The men had their outlet. Tradition says that to make a ton of iron required 2.5 tons of ore, 180 bushels of charcoal, and a gallon each of beer and whiskey.

Women and children also were employed at Hopewell, although the furnace site was described as “Heaven for horses but Hell for women.” Most of the women supplemented family incomes by selling needlepoint, eggs, and home-cooked or home-preserved products. Other sources of additional income included boarding single men and sewing, repairing, or laundering for both company and workers.

Some skilled women earned regular wages for seamstressing, cooking, or candle-dipping in the ironmaster’s mansion. Others had their own furnace-related businesses, dealing in ore, stoves, or farm products.

Not all women were restricted to home activities. Hopewell records indicate that in the early 1830’s, two widows were paid seventy-five cents an hour for cleaning sand off stove plate castings. Although most “men’s work” at the time called for considerable physical strength, some women worked as miners, farm laborers, and woodcutters.

Children were also employed, such as the boy guttermen. Many learned a furnace trade by apprenticeship, most often with their fathers. They were also apprenticed out to various tradesmen. Indenture as a servant was also common. Clement Brooke once signed an agreement to take a five-year-old boy as an apprentice for sixteen years. Wives and children of workers were also hired as household staff for the ironmaster’s mansion. At Hopewell, the company provided a school and a company store. The company store was run for the employees’ convenience, not for profit, like later corporate company stores.

All worked a six-day week when times were good and the furnace was in constant use. When the furnace was down for lack of business or for repairs, no one was paid. There were no unemployment payments; those who had savings lived off them. Others had to scrabble.

On Sunday, the only day off, the main activity was churchgoing, a very important emotional, social, and intellectual experience. Some Hopewell workers went to Episcopal churches in Warwick, Douglasville, or Morgantown. Others attended the Bethesda Baptist Church. Forms of entertainment included “frollicks,” which were more like work than play. The host would provide whiskey for those willing to help in some mundane task, such as cutting firewood. There were also the timeless forms of entertainment at Hopewell–whiskey, dancing, and fighting.

Technological Improvements over the Years

Over the years, the Buckley-Brooke management team made capital improvements. One of these was the replacement of the outmoded leather bellows with devices called wooden piston tubs. Still using water-wheel power, the tubs forced air through leather valves and into the furnace. The valves allowed closer control of the air flow and increased the efficiency of the operation. Their usefulness was enhanced by a Hopewell innovation called “patent elastic piston springs.” To further increase profits, the plant decreased the production of pig iron and made more castings of finished products. The partnership also built a wheelhouse to protect the machinery and a stamping mill to recover iron from slag.

Hopewell’s prosperity in the 1830’s and 1840’s was due largely to the business acumen of Clement Brooke, son of one of the men who bought Mark Bird’s furnace. He inherited one-sixth of the property from his father in 1831. Two years later, he and his brother, Charles, bought a share of the Buckley holding. Clement Brooke was not just an owner’s son taking over a business his father helped build. He learned the business by working at the furnace part-time and as clerk, and he soon became an ironmaster in his own right. He had a reputation as one of the best in Pennsylvania.

Clement Brooke retired in 1848, after supervising the most prosperous period for Hopewell. The ironworks then started its decline, but not simply because he was no longer in charge. Times and technology were changing. The hot-blast furnace, the invention of the Bessemer steel-making process, the change from wood fuel to anthracite coal, and the depletion of nearby raw materials all played a role. An attempt to build an anthracite furnace on the site in 1853 proved abortive. The paternalistic, family-owned business approach was also doomed by the rise of corporate business, which required large amounts of capital unavailable to small businesses and strangled competition through monopolies. In 1883, the Hopewell Furnace was shut down for the last time.

Modern Preservation Efforts

Restoration began in 1935, when the federal government bought the property from Louise Clingan Brooke. The furnace stack, the ironmaster’s mansion, four tenant houses, spring house, company store, the blacksmith shop, and several other buildings were still standing. Initially, the government did not realize Hopewell’s historic value, and the Civilian Conservation Corps was assigned to make Hopewell into a recreation area. Thanks to historian Roy Appleman, it was named a National Historic Site in 1938 and restoration began.

Today’s visitors can see eighteen restored areas and workers in period garb doing tasks such as blacksmithing, gardening, cooking, weaving, candlemaking, and soapmaking.

The restored areas are the village roads, charcoal hearths, charcoal house and cooling shed, anthracite furnace, furnace bank, water wheel and its headraces, company store, cast house, furnace, cleaning shed, blacksmith shop, tenant house, schoolhouse, barn, spring house, smoke house, ironmaster’s mansion, and ironmaster’s garden. The Bethesda Baptist Church near Baptizing Creek can also be seen. Visitors can also view furnace products and wheeled vehicles like a two-wheel dump cart, freight wagon, and charcoal wagon.

For Further Information

  • Hindle, Brooke. “Mechanizing a Nation.” In Visiting Our Past: America’s Historylands. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 1986. Provides interesting sidelights.
  • Lewis, W. David, and Walter E. Hugins. Hopewell Furnace: A Guide to Hopewell Village National Historic Site, Pennsylvania. Washington, D.C.: National Park Service, 1983. A ninety-five-page, fully illustrated book that provides in-depth coverage of the furnace, the people, the times, and the technology. It also includes tour information.