Located a few miles south of Lebanon, Pennsylvania, the Cornwall Iron Furnace is a fine example of the early industrial activity that helped make America a world power. Typical of the furnaces which dotted the Pennsylvania countryside in the 18th and 19th centuries that supported the thriving local iron industry, Cornwall Iron Furnace is the only surviving intact charcoal cold blast furnace in the Western Hemisphere.
Established in 1742 by Peter Grubb, Cornwall Iron Furnace smelted iron ore into molten metal, which was poured into forms to create heavy iron bars, known as pigs. The next steps in the iron making process involved heating the iron pigs on a forge and beating them into shape with a hammer. The Cornwall operation also included a foundry where molten iron was poured into molds to create cast iron products ranging from cannon barrels and bells to frying pans.
All of the raw materials necessary for the smelting process; iron ore, limestone, and wood to make charcoal were found locally. A highly skilled laborer, known as a founder, blended ore and charcoal in the furnace and maintained the correct temperature until the molten metal was ready to pour off, which usually took about twelve hours. The founder’s work was critical and must be precise. Any error in judgment could ruin a batch of metal, damage the furnace, or even result in an explosion that could kill or injure furnace workers. An idle furnace did not make any money, and ironmasters kept their furnaces working (known as being “in blast”) 24 hours a day for months at a time.
Wood does not burn hot enough to smelt iron in a blast furnace, so ironmasters used charcoal, which burns faster and twice as hot as wood. Charcoal also provided carbon, necessary for the chemical process of making iron. When he established Cornwall Iron Furnace, Peter Grubb acquired 10,000 acres of surrounding woodland to provide wood for making charcoal.
A large workforce was required for the furnace operation – woodcutters to provide wood, colliers to make charcoal, and men to labor in the furnace. Just as southern cotton planters owned plantations, Cornwall was an iron plantation, using slave labor, indentured servants from Germany and Ireland, and hired workers. By 1779, the furnace had 23 workers, fourteen of whom were slaves. Slaves worked at both skilled jobs and as unskilled laborers such as woodcutters, miners, and teamsters. While most of the slave labor was male, five women slaves were also listed in the furnace’s records, most making charcoal. Indentured servants were mostly unskilled laborers who agreed to work for room, board, and clothing for a certain number of years in exchange for passage to America.
Cornwall Iron Furnace was the centerpiece of a small community of artisans’ shops, stores, churches, schools, and the home of the wealthy ironmaster who owned the operation. By 1754, the ironworks included a general store, shoemaker’s shop, blacksmith shop, and gristmill. Farm laborers raised crops and cared for the animals, while domestic servants cooked, did laundry and worked as maids. In addition to the workforce at the ironworks, jobs listed in the Cornwall timekeepers record book include corn huskers, reapers and cradlers, butchers, apple and potato pickers, flax pullers, mowers, haymakers, dung spreaders, cider makers, and sheep shearers. In June 1827, eight of the 32 workers listed were women.
Peter Grubb came to Pennsylvania from Connecticut in the 1730s and discovered a rich deposit of iron ore. After establishing his iron furnace, Grubb leased it to the Cornwall Company, a consortium of twelve Quaker businessmen. The furnace produced 24 tons of iron a week, while the foundry produced stove plates, cast iron kettles, and frying pans to be sold locally. Cornwall’s pig iron was sold to blacksmiths and other local foundries, and shipped to foundries as far away as England.
Peter Grubb had died by the time the Cornwall Company’s lease on the furnace expired in 1765, His two sons, Curttis and Peter, continued the operation, and when the call came for iron for George Washington’s army, Cornwall Furnace was ready, producing 42 cannon, more than 86 tons of cannonballs and shot, shot pans, and stoves to support the American struggle for independence.
Robert Coleman had come to America as a 16 year old Irish immigrant in 1764. Curttis and Peter Grubb hired him as a clerk, and Coleman began investing his wages in the iron industry. Leveraging his wartime profits, Coleman created an iron dynasty, and by 1798 he had purchased the Cornwall Furnace.
Coleman was an astute businessman, and he doubled the production of Cornwall Furnace. Coleman died a millionaire in 1877. Eventually, competition from anthracite furnaces, many of them owned by the Coleman family, caused the charcoal-fired Cornwall Furnace to lose money, and on February 11, 1883, the operation ceased. The ore mine, located just south of the furnace, operated until 1973.
In 1932, Robert Coleman’s great-granddaughter gave Cornwall Furnace to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Today the furnace is administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
Today visitors can tour a small museum about the iron furnace’s history in the 19th century Charcoal House, and take a guided tour of the elegant Gothic Revival furnace buildings, where the iron smelting process took place. Other outbuildings and equipment on the property include the roasting oven, coal bins, blacksmith shop, wagon shop, stable, manager’s house, open pit mine, paymaster’s office, miner’s village, and the beautiful mansion Curttis and Peter Grubb built in 1773.
Cornwall Iron Furnace is open to visitors Thursday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and on Sundays from noon to 5 p.m. The facility is closed on major holidays. The admission fee to tour the furnace is $8 for ages 12 – 64, $7 for age 65 and older, $4 for ages 3 – 11, and children age 2 and under are free. Parking is limited to passenger vehicles, as the parking area will not accommodate most RVs. For more information on Cornwall Iron Furnace, call 717-272-9711 or visit their website at https://www.cornwallironfurnace.org/
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Be sure to enter out latest Free Drawing. This week’s prize is audiobook of Free Ride, the thirteenth book in my pal Ben Rehder’s excellent Blanco County mystery series. If you like small town mysteries that come with a chuckle or two (or more), you really need to try Ben’s Blanco County series. To enter, click on this Free Drawing link or the tab at the top of this page and enter your name (first and last) in the comments section at the bottom of that page (not this one). Only one entry per person per drawing please, and you must enter with your real name. To prevent spam or multiple entries, the names of cartoon or movie characters are not allowed. The winner will be drawn Sunday evening.
Thought For The Day – Relax, we’re all crazy. It’s not a competition.