Chances are you’ve seen one of these relics. You may have come across one while hiking and wondered why a giant chimney was in the middle of nowhere, but two hundred years ago “nowhere” was “somewhere.” Iron Furnaces dot the wooded landscape of Pennsylvania and when they were in operation they created and supported small communities. These types of furnaces were first constructed in the early 1700s and eventually, as the country began to modernize, more of them popped up all along the countryside.
You need three things to have a thriving iron furnace: a water source, lots of wood and iron ore. Berks and Schuylkill counties (and so many others) seem idyllic, I think. The woods and rivers of this area are plentiful. That’s usually where you’ll see these old kiln-like structures – in the woods and near a creek. But iron ore? What is that? Iron ore is a type of rock from which metallic iron can be extracted.
Okay, real quick, in the simplest terms, this is how I think it worked… Once mined, the iron ore was hauled to the furnace and fed into the top with some charcoal. Timber was constantly fueling the ongoing fire. It burned all the time and when it did it was pretty darn hot – 3000 degrees hot! Bellows would be used to supply air for the fire. They were powered by a water wheel in the nearby creek or river. The ore would be smelted into pig iron (or crude iron) and then shipped out to be used in the commercial production of iron and steel products.
Entire towns centered around the furnace. You needed tons of people to make it happen. Trees has to be felled and cut. Charcoal had to be produced. Ore had to be mined. The furnace had to be maintained 24-7. These are just a few of the jobs that aided in the whole process. And, of course, there was someone running the show who’s making all the money: The Iron Master. Tell me that doesn’t sound cool… The Iron Master!
Above are images from the Swatara Furnace, located in Pine Grove Township, Schuylkill County. Situated along Mill Creek, it ran from about 1830 to 1860 and was the first charcoal furnace erected in the county. The area was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1991. It’s considered a good example of the iron plantations of that era. The “historic district” also includes the ironmaster’s mansion, a barn, the foreman’s house, and worker’s house; all sit on the opposite side of the creek and privately owned, but you can see them from the road.
There are so many of these furnaces still standing just waiting for visitors to explore them. Check out the following websites to learn more and, above all, get out and explore!
https://explorepahistory.com/story.php?storyId=1-9-17 The Pennsylvania Iron Industry: Furnace and Forge of America
https://www.facebook.com/paironworks/ Iron Furnaces in Pennsylvania
http://www.oldindustry.org/PA_HTML/PaIron.html Pennsylvania Iron Furnaces