I’m not going to lie, when I decided to visit Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site, I wasn’t overly excited. I figured it would be a pretty boring place with a bit of information about how iron used to be made and maybe a few historic buildings. And, while the site did focus on the furnace’s industrial history, I was really impressed by what I found and learned at Hopewell Furnace.
Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site is located in Berks County, Pennsylvania, just across the border from Chester County. The iron furnace was in operation from 1771-1883 and supplied weapons to the United States during both the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. The 800 acres of forest surrounding the site were once stripped bare to provide the massive amount of charcoal necessary to feed the furnaces.
Today, the site is a testament to America’s industrial past. Restored buildings dot the landscape and have great information about each step in the iron making process.
The highlight of the buildings is the old iron furnaces and waterwheel, which give you a great feel for the impressive scale of the operation. Other buildings around the site help to illuminate the story of Hopewell Furnace, but the most interesting aspect of the site isn’t one of the buildings or artifacts on display.
Instead, what makes the story of Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site so impressive is the progressive nature of the company, at least by mid-19th century standards.
You see, by 1830, more than 30 years before slavery would be abolished and more than a hundred years before the end of segregation and the women’s rights movement, Hopewell Furnace had a policy of equal pay for equal work. This means that people were paid the same for the same work, whether they were white or black, male or female.
Even more revolutionary, there was no segregation in daily life, meaning whites and blacks lived next to each other, shopped in the same stores, worshipped in the same churches, and used the same facilities.
The remarkable history of the site doesn’t stop there, though. Several of the buildings at Hopewell Furnace, including the large iron master’s home in the center of the village, also served as stops on the Underground Railroad. These very progressive initiatives make Hopewell Furnace incredibly important, not just for what was made there, but for its significance in the movement for equality.
Overall, Hopewell Furnace is a fascinating place to visit. Through the video in the visitors center, the signage around the property, and the audio tour in many of the buildings, you can learn not just about America’s industrial past, but all about how the country struggled with equality throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.
Because of this, visiting Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site is far from the uninspired place I initially imagined it to be.
Want to uncover even more of eastern PA’s industrial history? Check out Curtin Village, Cornwall Iron Furnace, the National Iron and Steel Heritage Museum, and the National Museum of Industrial History.
Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site
Hours: Park grounds are open Wednesday-Sunday: 9am-5pm
Address: 2 Mark Bird Lane