This project is part of the Anthropology program at Muhlenberg College. Students presenting their research here, including Morgan Backenstoss, Molly Caballero and Jake Shelor, are in the Anthropology CUE (Culminating Undergraduate Experience) class. The purpose of this class is to provide a space for students to utilize the insights, methods, theoretical perspectives and knowledge gained and developed through their anthropology major.
It must be stressed here that the goal of this project is not to argue that the history of this small space in the Lehigh Valley is crucial, but to demonstrate that by looking closely and trying to understand people and cultures on their own terms- especially those “without history,” we can better understand, not just colliers, founders, teamsters,etc., but all of humanity.
We have chosen to examine the charcoal-based iron industry of the Lehigh Valley of the mid-to-late nineteenth century, largely because little is known about the industry and the people.
The Lehigh Valley is widely known for iron and steel production, largely due to Bethlehem Steel. However, before steel and even before anthracite coal was used to power iron furnaces and mills in the cities of the Lehigh Valley, two small furnaces, known as the Lehigh and East Penn Furnaces, were operated in the northwestern portion of the Lehigh Valley. The major difference between these furnaces and their descendants was the type of fuel used. Until the late 1800s, all iron was smelted in furnaces fueled by charcoal. Even after the development of techniques to employ coal (anthracite from the northwest of the Lehigh Valley), charcoal-based iron production survived, largely because charcoal introduced fewer impurities. However, by the end of the nineteenth century, charcoal iron production had halted in the area.
The two furnaces were intimately associated with the Balliet family. In 1828, Stephen Balliet (in partnership with Samuel Hellfrich) purchased land in Washington Township (Lehigh County) and built the Lehigh (or Balliet’s) Furnace along Trout Creek. In 1837, Stephen built the East Penn Furnace (along with a forge for shaping raw iron) along Lizard Creek in East Penn Township (Carbon County). After Stephen’s death in 1854, his sons, Aaron, John and Paul, shared in the responsibility of owning and running the two furnaces. In 1864 the Lehigh Furnace was sold to the iron magnate Abraham Hewitt (of Cooper and Hewitt, NYC)- for a short period Lehigh Furnace lands were managed by Bernard Fernow, who would become a major promooter of forest management within the fledgling US Forest Service. John Balliet retained ownership and apparently managed East Penn Furnace until his death in 1886.
The two furnaces were placed in locations with relatively easy access to the four resources needed to smelt iron; iron ore, limestone, charcoal and moving water. Iron ore was derived from Balliet-owned quarries in Ironton, with smaller sources scattered throughout the Lehigh Valley. Limestone, which helped separate elemental iron from the ore, was ubiquitous throughout the valley. Charcoal, which was needed as a fuel, had a major impact on location. The two furnaces were constructed at the base of the Blue (or Kittatinny) Mountain. By the early 1800s most of the Lehigh Valley was settled, leaving few large tracts of woodland to be converted into charcoal. The exception was the large, steep, rocky ridge of the Blue Mountain. We know that in 1873, nearly 6000 acres were owned by Abraham Hewitt for use in the Lehigh Furnace. A similar amount was needed for the East Penn Furnace. The two furnaces required moving water to power the bellows that fanned the flames.
The following pages highlight the lives of people associated with the charcoal-based iron industry of the northwestern Lehigh Valley.
Images to add
Lehigh Furnace insurance sketch.
Image from big map (ink drawing of the furnace)
John Balliet (Mathews and Hungerford p. 555)