2nd Manassas - Aug. 1862
Life and the Civil War
Northern Industry: Hopewell Furnace

Hopewell Furnace
Industrial capacity ranks high on the list of differences between the Northern and Southern states at the beginning of hostilities in the 1860s. The north had a much greater ability to produce the items needed to wage war or defend their homes. Due in part to the available quantity of the iron ore, limestone, and trees needed to run an iron furnace, many such establishments dotted the northern landscape. The Hopewell Furnace in Elverson, Pennsylvania is one such example. Now a National Historic Site, the United States National Park Service has preserved or restored much of the original furnace and the surrounding buildings. A walk among these structures, first built prior to the American Revolution, offers a glimpse of how early Americans produced iron items for the new country prior to and during the American Civil War.

Charcoal HearthTo produce pig iron or iron products, early furnace workers relied on charcoal for fuel. Rugged, hardworking men called Colliers would produce this valuable resource for the furnace. The process proved difficult, laborious, and often dangerous. Colliers and their assistants would first locate a site to establish several open-air charcoal hearths. To do so, they needed good, flat ground with an abundance of trees and available leaves for cover. Once they cleared the identified sites and leveled the ground, the Collier and his assistants cut down trees and then chopped the logs into the sizes needed to produce the charcoal. They would then create a triangular chimney at the center of the hearth from some of the gathered wood. Next, they would stack the remaining logs around the chimney, being careful to create a sturdy pile that was both safe to walk on and as tightly packed as possible.

Collier's HutOnce the Collier completed the stack, he would cover it with leaves and then soil to limit the amount of oxygen accessible to the logs. Wood placed in the chimney would be lit and then covered to avoid open, burning flames. The Collier and his assistant(s) would monitor the stacks 24 hours a day for about 10 to 14 days, ensuring the process continued as planned without an open burn destroying all of their hard work. They would monitor the leaf and soil cover crucial to depriving the pile of the amount of oxygen required for an open burn, and fix any openings that allowed too much air to enter into the pile. This sometimes involved walking on the smoldering pile which could prove hazardous should the construction prove to be less sturdy than desired. If all proceeded as planned, the result was the removal of water, creosote, and other impurities leaving the carbon necessary to fuel the furnace. Click here for a series of images showing the primary steps in this process.

Cooling shed.Collier's often lived in very primitive huts (above) near to their hearths to allow for constant observation and tending. The Collier could rebuild their huts as needed as they moved from location to location, a necessity given the large volume of trees harvested to produce the charcoal.

After the ten to fourteen days needed to cure the charcoal, the Collier would rake off the carefully packed soil and leaves, being ever watchful for any potential flare ups. He and his assistants would rake the charcoal into piles surrounding the hearth, separating them to avoid the potential loss of his entire stock from any unanticipated sudden fires. Once he was satisfied that the danger of any fire was past, he would load a wagon and take the often still warm charcoal to a cooling building. Once sufficiently cool, the charcoal would be poured into a storage shed for later use. A portion of the Hopewell storage building can bee seen to the right in the image here or to the left of the connecting shed (covered walkway) in the image below.

Hopewell Furnace Connecting shed.A worker called a "Filler" would haul the iron ore, limestone, and charcoal from the storage shed, through the covered connecting shed, to the awaiting iron furnace. He would then pour the contents into the furnace chimney in the combination and amounts as dictated by the Founder. The Founder supervised all of the workers employed at the furnace and answered only to the Ironmaster who often owned the foundry. The task of the Filler was grueling, back-breaking work given the furnace's ravenous appetite for the raw ingredients needed to produce the desired molten iron. Except for any possible needed repairs or necessary maintenance, the furnace usually remained fired 24 hours a day, seven days a week. According to the United States National Park Service, Fillers fed on average about "400 to 500 pounds of iron ore, 30 to 40 pounds of limestone, and about 15 bushels of charcoal" into the furnace every 30 minutes.

The Hopewell FurnaceTo the left you can see a current image of the base of the Hopewell Furnace. (Click here for some NPS diagrams of the inside of a working furnace and a working foundry.) In the early to mid 20th century, the National Park Service reconstructed much of the current structure surrounding the furnace since the foundry itself was closed in 1883 and fell into a serious state of disrepair. In 1938, the Federal Government established Hopewell as a National Historic Site.

As mentioned, the Founder monitored the entire process and determined when the iron was ready for tapping for use in molds or to produce pig iron, crude rods of iron which would be shipped to other locations to be again melted down and used for other products. At the bottom middle of this image, you can see the dam stone which the Founder used to hold back the molten iron until ready to be tapped.

Hopewell Water WheelNot yet mentioned is one remaining crucial element needed to fan the sometimes 3,000 degree temperatures inside the furnace. Water channeled from the surrounding hills flowed into a flume which powered a large water wheel (pictured). Pistons connected to the wheel pumped a steady supply of air into the base of the furnace. In the 1950s, the Park Service reconstructed and restored to working order the foundry's massive water wheel which still runs today. Click here for a brief video clip of the Hopewell Furnace Water Wheel and here for a diagram showing how this wheel fed air into the iron furnace.


** Web author's note. As indicated above, this page is intended to offer a glimpse of how some lived prior to and during the American Civil War. NPS staff state that the Hopewell Iron Furnace did not produce weaponry or ordinance for the American Civil War. It did however produce both cannon and cannon balls for the American Revolution. For more information about the Hopewell Iron Furnace National Historic Site, please visit their web site at www.nps.gov/hofu/. **