Our youngest son turned 9 over Memorial Day weekend. He likes to get out and explore new places so, after gfit opening and birthday breakfast, we decided to take a day trip to Hopewell Furnace. Despite being relatively close to home, it is a National Historic Site we had not visited in our four years of living in PA so it was high time we went to check it out.
As Hopewell Furnace was in operation prior to the American Revolution, it is considered to be one of America’s oldest industrial sites and, therefore, a place of historic significance. We began our trip in the Visitor’s Centre with a video providing us with a useful potted history of the “iron plantation”. We learned about the site having been chosen because of a confluence of natural resources, about the evolving treatment of and attitude African-American workers – ranging from slavery to early desegregation and the Underground Railroad – and of female employees, its contribution to the War of Independence, and about the process of manufacturing iron as it was undertaken from the 1770s through to its closure in the 1880s.
As with all National Parks sites, Hopewell Furnace was beautifully maintained and easy to navigate. We found that we could walk in a loop and take in all of the buildings and ruins. Hopewell operated as a charcoal furnace for most of its existence because the price of hauling coal to the site was prohibitive so we saw the area where charcoal would have been created. We had learned that the furnace could consume as much as 800 bushels of charcoal in one day so it must have been a demanding job. We all enjoyed seeing the blast furnace, not simply because it was very cool inside on such a hot day. I normally find it pretty challenging to engage with industrial heritage but I had no difficulty imagining the workers operating inside the furnace as it all seemed so visually clear. We had seen where the “ingredients” would be dropped into the shaft in order to be super-heated, and then the bit at the bottom of the “chimney” from where the molten metal would flow once the seal was broken. There was then a nearby area where the skilled workers would pour the iron into sand moulds in order to manufacture various items. We were all somewhat mesmerised by the water wheel. Sure it was a nifty piece of engineering and critical to the manufacturing process but I think for at least the boys and me it was really just that there is something aesthetically pleasing and calming about watching a wheel rotate.
We had been informed that the workers’ houses were not yet open to the public for the season but, in fact, we found that a couple of them were open. They had been furnished with reproduction furniture and household items which was fantastic as it helped us understand how families utilised the space and also allowed the kids to engage a bit more since the experience became tactile. My husband and the birthday boy even played a quick card game in one of the houses. Industrial history doesn’t really do it for me so it was the social history regarding issues like racial (in)equality and the lives of the workers that really helped to anchor my interest in the site.
After some time spent befriending Maximilian the horse, our final stop was the Ironmaster’s house. The ground floor is open for viewing, with barriers keeping visitors back from the furniture and other artefacts that bring each room to life. I think what my kids most enjoyed about the “big house”, however, was the porch complete with rocking chairs. After months of dismal weather, they have not yet readjusted to heat and sunlight. They better get used to it, however, as I intend for us to be outdoors a lot this summer after hibernating for months.