Friday, October 02, 2009

A Blast

...a cold blast furnace, that is. Or more specifically, the Cornwall Iron Furnace in Lebanon, Pennsylvania.

Our day trip for the area was just a few miles down the road from the campground, but a world away in history. The Cornwall Iron Furnace was built in 1742 by Peter Grubb who took advantage of the rich natural resources of limestone, iron ore and thousands of acres of wood to create the company that would eventually become the Cornwall Iron Furnace. Mr. Grubb called it Cornwall after Cornwall, England where his father was from. The second owners, the Coleman family, revamped and renovated the business to create the complex that still stands today; the American Society of Mechanical Engineers says it is “the only one of America’s hundreds of 19th century charcoal fueled blast furnaces to survive fully intact.”

The complex has a small self-guided tour area but for a small fee you can take the 1 hour guided tour with a very knowledgeable staff member. You will watch a short video of how the blast furnace was fueled and the work involved to make iron back in the 18th century. It's an amazing process. The guide will take you through the various rooms of the blast furnace building where you'll peer down the 36 foot blast furnace itself, see the huge wooden water driven (later steam driven) wheel that powered the bellows that shot air into the furnace to increase the heat and see where the employeed poured the boiling hot iron into sand forms to create "pig iron". You'll be told that it took an acre of trees to make enough charcoal to fuel the blast furnace for one day, as the furnace was in operation 24 hours a day, and that the complex sat on 10,000 acres of woods that were used to fuel the factory. Very near the furnace was the iron ore pit which produced iron ore until 1972 when it started to flood after Hurricane Agnes passed over the area. Now there is a lake where once thousands of tons of iron ore were removed.

The Cornwall Iron Furnace is part of the National Historical Landmark District here in Lebanon, PA, but the sad truth is that the funding to maintain this fascinating historic site has been cut so much that being open is a day to day situation. The Iron Furnace is the last and ONLY complete blast furnace standing in the United States and it may have to close. Our country is not so old that we can afford to lose a site of such historical significance that is in such excellent condition. The Gothic Revival architecture of the outbuildings, the huge gear driven wheel that powered the blowers that still works, the dedication of the Coleman family who donated the complex to the state of Pennsylvania should not be lost. Visiting historical sites is part of the pleasure of RV travel for Denny and I; we have learned more history, geography and geology than from any classes we had in school. To see, to touch, to hear the stories is to make history come alive. It would be a shame to see this site shut down due to budget constraints and it would be a vast disservice to the public.

Okay. Off the soapbox.

Huge rooms stored limestone and charcoal to which were layered with iron ore in the furnace to create pig iron. The Gothic styling of the windows is church-like.

This water driven "hammer" pounded pig iron bars into workable iron to make wrought iron, cast iron implements and items such as horse shoes. The iron was pounded, heated and pounded again until it reached a more malleable form.

The room housing the blast furnace (the red area). The wagons were for hauling the charcoal in from the forests. It took workers several days to create a mound of charcoal in a complex system of creating a huge hive-like mound of wood covered with sand and leaves and they watched over nine mounds at a time. The making of the charcoal was a fascinating process in itself.

The "great wheel" powered the blowing equipment that was used to force cold air inot the blast furnace, adding oxygen to the flames to make the temperature in the furnace hot enough to melt the iron ore. The wheel is 24 feet in diameter and my picture gives no indication of the size of the equipment in this room.

A panel made for a cast iron stove. In the 1700s, there were no metal molds for the stoves, so wooden templates were carved with a raised design, which was then pressed into a box of wet sand (I'm really simplifying the process here) tamped down heavily and then removed, leaving a pattern in the sand. Hot, liquid iron fresh from the furnace was ladled into the mold which created the panel. An ironworker could make several panels a day (remember, they worked twelve hour shifts, 84 hours a week).

The Cornwall Iron Furnace sent a lot of their stove panels to Germany, hence the writing in German on the decorations. Again, these were made by pressing carved wooden templates into boxes filled with wet sand.

An outbuilding near the iron works.

The stone homes built for the iron furnace workers still stand and are part of a residential neighborhood today. Most are doubles and driving down the street is truly stepping back in time.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wonderful pictures of the place. Quite a step back into history. Love the stone homes.

And speaking of furnaces... we turned ours on last night. **sigh**

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