Teach PA History
Pennsylvania's Iron Furnaces: Forging the Industrialization of the Nation
Background Information for Teachers

The importance of iron during the colonial period and subsequent Industrial Revolution cannot be understated. Most major products of industrialization– tools, cannon, railroad cars and the rails they rode on–required the strength of iron. As the iron industry grew, so did the industrious nature of the pioneers. In the beginning iron was created as a rural process of mining ore, smelting with charcoal, and then shipping pig iron to separate facilities for transformation into more functional wrought iron. Over time, the introduction of mineral fuels–first anthracite coal and later bituminous coal and coke–freed the iron industry from the rural shackles of the charcoal industry. The introduction of the steam engine replaced the burdensome water wheel used by early cold blast furnaces. Please read the Overview Essay: The Pennsylvania Iron Industry: Furnace and Forge of America and related stories to be prepared to discuss the different eras of iron production in Pennsylvania. For this lesson it will be necessary to focus on the technological advances of the iron industry, the increasing scale of iron companies, and the business acumen needed to run the iron furnaces and foundries. The following summary facts from the chapter essays will help focus the lesson.

Charcoal Industry - 1716-1840

  • The necessary ingredients of iron production were iron ore, charcoal from deforestation, a water source, and limestone.

  • Much of the early iron industry worked on a plantation system. The plantation master had a paternal relationship with the workers who lived in the company town.

  • Forges reshaped the pig iron and were in close proximity to the furnaces.

  • The Cold blast furnace used bellows driven by a water-wheel to increase the temperature of the charcoal and iron ore, which increased production.

Mineral Fuels and Transformation of the Industry (1840-1880)

  • Anthracite coal first supplanted charcoal as fuel. Anthracite burned hotter which decreased the amount of time needed to tap the furnace and make molten iron. The locations of furnaces were dictated more by transportation sources and less by the availability of forest.

  • Bituminous coal and coke further improved the efficiency of the smelting process by providing a consistent and higher temperature. The location of bituminous coal created a western shift and dominance of the steel industry.

  • Technological advancements included a steam-powered engine to work the bellows and trip hammers used in the forging process. Warm-air was reused to further increase the blast temperature. Many iron works incorporated vertical integration, gaining control of all the steps involved in turning a raw material into a finished product.

  • The explosion of the railroad during the Reconstruction Period provided customers and transportation for the booming iron industry.

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