Iron Pioneering in the Schuylkill Valley

The Rise and Fall of the Prominence of the Schuylkill River Valley Ironworks in Pennsylvania

The Schuylkill River drainage area in eastern Pennsylvania was the cradle of the Pennsylvania charcoal iron industry. It remained the center of the Pennsylvania (and even the colonial) iron industry from its inception in 1716 through the Revolutionary War. The Schuylkill ironworks gave Pennsylvania a preeminent position in the Colonies in iron production. When Pennsylvania Assemblyman, blacksmith and Baptist minister, Thomas Rutter of Germantown went up the Schuylkill River in 1715 and along the Manatawny Creek to search for an ore source and a place to build Pennsylvania's first ironwork, he also searched for a fast-flowing stream to provide the power he would need to run it. Trees for charcoal required as a fuel source were not an issue, Pennsylvania's forests were unending and apparently limitless. He found this combination at present-day Pine Forge in Berks County northwest of Pottstown and erected an ironwork. It was Pennsylvania's first and its financial success assured the development and eventual growth of an industry which became synonymous with the state and guaranteed it a prominent part in the American Industrial Revolution.

Rutter's ironwork was built on the Manatawny Creek, which enters the Schuylkill at modern-day Pottstown. Before the advent of steam engines, the power provided by the water, generally harnessed through dams and a race, worked the iron master's bellows and trip hammers. Also, before the advent of canals and railroads, the works had to be erected on or immediately adjacent to their water source. Hemmed in from expanding farther north by the Iroquois Nation and restricted by English colonial policy to go westward, iron masters were restricted as to where they established their ironworks in Pennsylvania. By the Revolution, iron making had extended well up the Schuylkill and Susquehanna Valleys and even into the Juniata Valley. But until after the Revolution, it would be primarily on the Schuylkill River's streams and their tributaries that the Pennsylvania ironmasters erected most of their early ironworks. The Schuylkill Valley became the major source of iron production in pre-Revolutionary America.

After Rutter's success, other entrepreneurs came after him taking advantage of the waterpower provided by the Schuylkill River basin's sources. The drainage area, with its 128-mile-long river as its spine, drains parts of Chester, Berks, Montgomery, Lehigh, Schuylkill and Lebanon Counties. Unlike those to the immediate west in Lancaster County which flow to the Susquehanna River, the Schuylkill's many fast-flowing streams run from the Piedmont area toward the southeast and eventually into the Delaware River at Philadelphia and eventually to the Atlantic Ocean.

While it was this water that powered the ironworks, it was the region's iron ore that created the industry. The area drained by the Schuylkill River had large rich deposits of hematite and magnetic iron ore that were near the surface and accessible using trench-mining techniques of the period. The furnaces would be built in these areas and plotting their location on a map provides a good indication of where iron ore is located in that part of Pennsylvania. As a result of the combination of the ore and the power the water provided, the iron industry in the Schuylkill Valley developed early. By the 1760s, numerous ironworks, small gristmills and sawmills had been erected along the Schuylkill's waterways. (Oil mills, which crushed fruit, nuts, and seeds to extract oil, were also often mentioned in tax records.) Between 1716 and 1775, no less than 30 iron and steel furnaces and forges and were built on their banks.

Of historic note, the first Franklin stove, later a staple of the Pennsylvania furnaces, was produced for Robert Grace at Reading Furnace in 1742. By the mid-1700s, a mature and fairly sophisticated production and distribution system had been developed and by 1770, the Schuylkill foundries were producing a significant percentage of the Colonial iron production. The Swedish historian, the Rev. Israel Acrelius, writing in 1759, was discussing the Schuylkill Valley works when he noted: "Pennsylvania, in regard to its iron-works, is the most advanced of all the American colonies."

In the summer of 1775, battles at Lexington and Concord were fought and shortly after the Provincial Committee of Correspondence of Pennsylvania began to take measures for the military defense of the colony. One of the first concerns was to protect the lines of shipping and the coastline. The first line of defense was directed toward merchant ships already afloat to arm them. While the idea was good in theory, there were no cannon with which to arm them. The solution was provided by the Schuylkill Valley ironmasters. Within a year, they were producing cannon to arm the American army and navy.

Schuylkill iron masters Samuel Potts and Thomas Rutter at Warwick, John Patton at Berkshire and Oley, Mark Bird at Hopewell and James Old at Reading all produced cannon, shot, shell and armaments for the early war effort. The story of the trials and tribulations they went through to arm Washington's army is fascinating and worth retelling. Some historians have conceded that without this early and continued support by the Pennsylvania ironmasters, the American cause could have been in jeopardy indeed.

It was during the eight-year Revolutionary War that the Schuylkill ironworks experienced both their zenith and the beginning of their decline. Almost to a man, the ironmasters supported the war effort and a large number became colonels in the Pennsylvania militia. Production at their furnaces became synonymous with that support. Cannon, arms, ammunition, skelps for muskets, trenching tools, bayonets etc. were supplied to the Continental armies and to the militia. Although the War initially stimulated the industry, by the end, a number of factors combined to dramatically change the health of the eastern Pennsylvania industry. While iron production would remain an important industry for years to come, by 1790, eastern Pennsylvania lost its dominance, both in the state and nation.

First, the drainage of manpower caused by the war dramatically affected the labor supply. Labor shortages, always a problem for the industry, became acute. Berks, Chester and Philadelphia all sent men to the Continental battalions. During the war, furnaces producing arms for the Publick received exemptions for their skilled workforce from mandatory militia call-ups and duties. However, fully seventy percent of a furnace's labor force were woodcutters, teamsters, laborers, colliers, and miners and these positions did not. Shortage in these jobs caused blasts to be shorter or delayed. The workforce at forges did not generally receive any exemptions. Particularly before the militia reorganization, without a consistent labor force, forge output during the early war years and the income it produced was at best spotty, at worse non-existent. Many were closed during the war.

Additionally, many of the furnaces received government contracts, but a bankrupt government proved to be a poor, very slow payer. In both instances, creditors foreclosed and bankruptcy after the war among ironmasters was common. France began supplying needed arms and armaments and contracts were not renewed. This combined with the problems of wartime hyperinflation, debased currency, overproduction that had occurred supplying the government during the war, and foreign (cheaper) competition at the end of the war caused many of the early Schuylkill ironworks to be foreclosed by creditors.

After the war, the industry itself experienced large technological changes. Hot blast replaced cold bast air and bellows were replaced by blowing tubs. Furnace boshes became bigger, stacks larger. The Schuylkill ironworks were some of the oldest in the colonies and their physical plants were older and less efficient. Furnace technology changed continually and rapidly and extensive capital improvements were needed to remain competitive.

The end of the Revolution also removed the two factors, which initially restricted the industry. With the removal of British opposition and the Indian threat, lands to the immediate north and west were opened to settlement. This land was cheaper and the forests that covered it were still virgin. Consequently, a large number of new ironworks were opened and Pennsylvania iron production moved steadily westward from the Schuylkill Valley to the Susquehanna Valley and its tributaries; to the Juniata River and the ports on the Union Canal; and eventually to Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania where it would remain. Many of the Schuylkill ironmasters with their workers began to move with it or migrate south to Virginia where land was cheaper and opened works there.

By 1800, the consolidation of forges, furnaces and slitting mills at one location also began. As it became technologically feasible and financially advantageous to continue this trend, consolidation at one site became the norm. With the advent of steam, the works no longer had to be located near the water on which they were originally dependent and steam engines could replace flowing water for power. By the 1830s, the progression from the independently owned, cottage-industry style ironworks which typified the Schuylkill Valley works, to the huge iron and steel producing complexes after the Civil War, began in earnest. Stand-alone independent ironworks were either modernized, which generally required large amounts of capitalization, or were abandoned. In the end, it was their distance from markets and railroads that determined the fate of many. In time, charcoal gave way to coke, and iron to steel. Many held on until the mid-1850s but by the Civil War only the largest works survived.

Today, the importance, which the Schuylkill Valley iron works played in the local and colonial economy, has been obscured by time. The furnaces, when in blast, no longer light up the valley's nighttime sky; the trip hammers no longer ring -- once familiar sights and sounds are forever gone. The entrepreneurs and capitalists who built the works, the ironmasters and the workmen who provided the skills and the labor, and the families who depended on all their livelihoods are all long dead and buried generally remembered only for a genealogical connection rather than their industrial contributions. With the exception of Hopewell Furnace National Historical Site and Joanna Furnace, few physical structures of the early Schuylkill charcoal ironworks remain. Other than some stove plates at museums, a variety of early furnace and forge business books at historical societies, and a couple of state and county historical markers, their existence and the role they played in Pennsylvania's Industrial Revolution and in the American Revolution has been largely forgotten. But it was on the streams and in the hills at the Schuylkill Valley forges and foundries where the Pennsylvania iron industry first started and where the American iron industry developed from infancy and began its march toward maturity.

-by Dan Graham. Copyright 2012 Dan Graham. All Rights Reserved. No part of this work may be used without express written permission from the author.