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The historic iron industry of the Upper Housatonic Valley

1734 - 1923

The historic iron industry in the Housatonic Valley Today, in 2011, you have to look pretty hard to find evidence of the industrial past of the Upper Housatonic Valley.  Yet where the upscale second (and third) homes, private schools, and artistic and cultural activities that characterize the area now stand was once a major "smokestack industry" area.  Iron and limestone mines, more than 40 blast furnaces, mountains stripped bare of trees to make charcoal, foundries, and railroad yards took advantage of the co-location here of the key natural resources needed to make iron:  high grade iron ore, limestone, forests to burn to make charcoal, and water power -- and then to fabricate such products as railroad wheels with the locally produced iron. 


If you have an interest in the development of the iron and steel industry in America, we offer a number of CD-ROMs that may interest you.  You'll find links to material about each of them further along on this page. We offer in one download two of the earlier articles about the history of the iron industry in Connecticut, both by Charles Rufus Harte, one of the first people to recognize the historic importance of that industry.  Included are (1) "The Early Iron Industry of Connecticut" by Keith and Harte, and (2) "Preserving a Typical Iron Furnace" by Harte.  Available in PDF format, 80+ pages, for $3.50. 

 Iron History of CT

People who live or vacation here today and enjoy the natural beauty yet yearn for the "good old days" probably should reconsider!  For nearly 200 years, this area was a contender for the title of "Smokestack America."  Between the continuous charcoal burning process on every mountain to create the charcoal needed for the blast furnaces and foundries, from smoke from the furnaces and foundries themselves, from the forges melting and casting the locally produced iron, and from the fabricating operations, a continuous pall of smoke must have hung over the area much of the time.  The noise of industrial processes -- can you imagine what something called a "hammer mill" might sound like? -- was pervasive and continuous.  Heavy industry sat cheek-by-jowl with residence and church, and even families like the Barnums and Richardsons, who owned major parts of the heavy industry here, lived within a short stroll of their forges and mills. 

Even though nature has since reclaimed our green hills and valleys, the Iron Heritage is still here.  Increasingly, its national historic importance is being recognized.  Our Congress even got around to recognizing this via our Upper  Housatonic Valley National Heritage Area.

Between the Lakes Group is participating in the process of finding our iron heritage and in making it more readily accessible to more people. 

The process is underway.  For the most part, the loss of history has been more or less arrested, although threats to the portions that remains can be expected to continue and even increase as developers find attractive targets in our area.  And there is much work still to be done before we will not only have saved the remaining structures, but also recaptured a complete picture of what life in this industrial area was really like.  

Below are some links to websites with more information about our area and its industrial past.  


Upper Housatonic Valley National Heritage Area

New to the area?  The Upper Housatonic Valley National Heritage Area group has a great map of the historic and cultural sites not only in Connecticut, but also in New York State and Massachusetts -- including those from the historic iron industry.

Upper Housatonic Valley National Historic Area to visit the website of the parent organization of the -- finally successful -- campaign to have the Upper Housatonic Valley designated a National Heritage Area.  The title of this section is an acronym for "Upper Housatonic Valley National Heritage Area, Inc.  That's a mouthful!  However, their charter is equally large:  "heightening appreciation of the region, preserving its natural and historic resources, improving the local economy and quality of life, controlling undesirable growth, and promoting the cleanup of the Housatonic River."  


The Barnum and Richardson Company church

Trinity Lime Rock -- the last living remnant of the iron industry in Connecticut

Trinity Lime Rock - The Church that Iron Built to visit the section of the award-winning Trinity Church Lime Rock website devoted to its history.  The page includes not only the history of that somewhat unusual Episcopal parish church -- the parish built by the Barnum and Richardson families, of Barnum Richardson Company (owners not only of eight area blast furnaces but much of the area iron fabricating capability as well), for  themselves and for their workers -- as recounted by several authors, but of the Barnum family and of the Lime Rock community as well.  

Since the village of Lime Rock was largely a "company town" at the time Trinity was established in 1872-73, it is likely that Trinity was perceived by its founders as a "company church" -- providing a convenient church for the management and welcoming the workers as well. 

Lime Rock, CT to visit the section of this website devoted to the village of Lime Rock, which includes some of our own Lime Rock material, some archival material from Trinity Church, Lime Rock (hosted here as a cooperative venture), and an opportunity to purchase a CD-ROM we produced that includes an illustrated history walk of Lime Rock.  (We make a contribution to that walk's sponsor, Trinity Church in Lime Rock, for every copy of the CD-ROM sold.)

Many entities -- corporate and otherwise -- made up the iron industry in our area.  Trinity Church Lime Rock has the distinction of being the oldest one still remaining in existence in the same corporate form, under the same ownership, in the same building, still functioning, and (probably because the death of the iron industry deprived it of its main source of funds) still essentially unchanged since the turn of the 20th century. 

History pages of Trinity Church Lime Rock


If you have an interest in the historic iron industry in other parts of the United States, let us recommend to you another CD-ROM from Between the Lakes Group called Johnstown:  the Great Flood and Afterward.

Johnstown, located in Cambria County, PA, was significant in the history of American iron as the site of the Cambria Iron & Steel Company.  Like Connecticut's Northwest Corner, the Johnstown locale contained the essential ingredients to make iron (and later, steel):  iron ore, limestone, coal, and water power (although the water power became at best a mixed blessing if not an outright tragedy in Johnstown.)

Johnstown:  the Great Flood and afterward to go to Johnstown:  the Great Flood and afterward

We also recommend a chapter on the economic geology and the history of iron, coal, and coke in Fayette County, PA that we publish as a download. 


Scrap Book of North Canaan

Circa 1898, John Rodemeyer, Jr., formerly editor of the local newspaper, wrote what was then -- and remains today -- the definitive history of North Canaan, CT.  Containing maps and abundant photographs in its eighty-odd pages, it was both a history of the township and a history of the iron industry that represented its most important industry, including the families that started it.  It also includes an often neglected aspect of the iron business that was particularly important (and still is) in Canaan:  the limestone business.  (You can have no real appreciation of why the school teams of North Canaan Elementary School are called "the Miners" until you understand the importance the limestone business has historically held in North Canaan -- and continues to hold today.)

Scrap Book of North Canaan can be classified as a rare book today.  We have obtained a copy, scanned it, and added a full index, as well as some ephemera.  The index is available on this website for your use.  

Scrap Book of North Canaan - more information to learn more about Scrap Book of North Canaan -- including the new index -- and see additional material about Canaan, including views of Canaan today.  If you already have access to a copy of Scrap Book of North Canaan, you'll appreciate this index.  If you don't have a copy of "Scrap Book" -- you can order a scanned copy on CD-ROM.  This CD-ROM also includes topographic maps drawn in the same decade when "Scrap Book" was published, scanned copies of two of the "Manuals" of the Pilgrim Church of North Canaan (this was the church of many of the Iron families),  and some photographs of North Canaan and the surrounding area as it appeared in 2002-2003, including a "then and now" slide show.

Ordering Canaan material for ordering informationBy the way, your purchases of this CD help us finance the web presence we provide for the Friends of Beckley Furnace.   

Scrap Book of North Canaan


Land speculation in colonial Salisbury, CT

How much land speculation really occurred in colonial times in Salisbury, CT?  

The popular tradition had been that land speculation was positively rampant -- almost a "favorite indoor sport" of the time.  In those days, of course, the Ore Hill mine was still a hill (today, it's a lake), and the stage was being set for Salisbury's later importance in the history of Iron in America.  

At some time in the future we anticipate publishing a previously unpublished Masters essay written in 1991 that examines Salisbury's early land records in detail and subjects them to rigorous analysis.  Unlike most popular history, this one is filled not with theories, generalizations, and puffery about local ancestors, but instead with databases and spreadsheets.  In the process, it raises significant questions about land speculation in Salisbury around the time of the birth of the historic iron industry.  How much land speculation really DID happen?  This article answers that question with finality.  

We expect to make it available shortly, but publication is currently delayed due to the author's health and her desire to amplify some of the conclusions drawn.  Check back here for details.  We anticipate offering it as a download.


Traces of the iron industry today

You may find some of the photos on our Canaan page of interest.  Please To our Canaan page to take a look.  Likewise, our Lime Rock page has several views of that "company town."

Railroads have historically followed the iron industry wherever it has developed.  The Housatonic Valley was no exception. By December 1842, the Housatonic had been completed from Bridgeport in the south to the Massachusetts state line, and was completed all the way to Pittsfield by 1849.  Not surprisingly, there was not arms-length independence between the iron industry and the Housatonic Railroad, as William H. Barnum, of the Barnum Richardson Company, and a founder of Trinity Church, "The Church that Iron Built," was also a trustee of the Housatonic Railroad and later its president.  

Housatonic Railroad pictures to visit a website with some great photos of the Housatonic Railroad as it appears today -- as well as some traces of its history that remain.  Recommended!!

The Tri-Corner History Council, which can be contacted c/o the Salisbury Association, 24 Main Street, Salisbury CT 06068, has prepared a new folder entitled "The Iron Industry in Connecticut's Northwest Corner".  It includes a short summary of the industry and a map of a Heritage Trail covering the artifacts of the iron industry as they appear today.  The folder is available through the Tri-Corner History Council, or through any of the area historical associations, as well as at local inns.  
"Ghost Towns" is the name of a website we're happy to recommend.  They have made a specialty of just those throughout the US.  In our case, of course, we're not just talking about ghost towns, but about a whole ghost INDUSTRY!  The Ghost Towns website is definitely worth a look.  Ghost Towns of the USA to visit it!
Blackberry River Walk 2003 if you would like to see pictures from the Blackberry River Walk for 2003.  On that walk we learned about the historic Iron industry from today's experts, including descendants of families who actually made the industry happen, in the actual locations where history (and iron) were made.  SPECTACULAR!  See the PICTURES!   

In case you think that learning about the historic iron industry is just for academics, retirees and tourists, you might be interested in knowing that Beckley Furnace often hosts groups from area high schools and junior high schools. 

Pittsfield (MA) High School and

Mt. Everett Junior High were two schools that visited Beckley recently and learned about the iron industry first hand.  We've got pictures of the learning process.

History pages at The Inn at White Hollow Farm to visit the history pages from The Inn at White Hollow Farm.
In October 2004 we conducted a Heritage Walk of Lime Rock, the headquarters town for Barnum Richardson Company (among its other distinctions).  In response to several suggestions during and after that walk, we have expanded the slideshow we prepared at that time that illustrated the sights on the heritage walk -- along with what was once there -- for people who weren't up to making the whole walk .  We have included much more material as well.  This has become:

Lime Rock

Lime Rock

another local history CD-ROM from Between the Lakes Group.

Lime Rock to read more about the CD.  We think it's a great addition to our CDs about Litchfield County, CT(Note:  we make a contribution to Trinity Church, Lime Rock, for every copy of the CD sold in appreciation for their sponsorship of the history walk and to help preserve their historic building.)


Sources of information about the iron industry in NW Connecticut

Here are a few selected Internet links to articles providing more information about the Iron Heritage of the Upper Housatonic valley.

Iron Furnace in Canaan, CT to read an article in "American Profile" by Ruth Epstein about Canaan, CT, and the Beckley Furnace.

North Canaan, CT, 1935 to see an abstract of the North Canaan section from "The Connecticut Guide" of 1935.

Building a blast furnace today... to read a narrative about an experiment at South Kent School in which they built a working (?) blast furnace in 1999 - 2000.

Sharon Historical Society's article on the Iron Industry to read an article about the iron industry from the Sharon Historical Society.

Mindat.org's page on the Scoville deposit to learn more about the mineralogy of the Limonite ore of the Scoville Ore Deposit in Salisbury.

NOTE:  The five links immediately above connect to websites that are not under the control of Between the Lakes Group.  The contents of those sites may change without notice, and the addresses may change, which can make  the sites inaccessible.  If you encounter any difficulties with any of the sites in the "Other Sources of Information" section, please E-mail Between the Lakes Group about a link problem with an outside site to e-mail Between the Lakes Group and let us know what's wrong.  Also, if you find other links to material about this subject, please let us know as well, and we'll consider adding them to this page.  Thanks in advance!!


Photos of the historic iron industry in the Housatonic Valley

Below are a few historic images reflecting aspects of the Iron Industry in the Upper Housatonic Valley.  Click on any of the images to view  larger versions.  

Barnum and Richardson facility, East Canaan, CT  Barnes lime kilns  Canaan lime kilns  Union Station, North Canaan, CT  Trinity Episcopal Church, Lime Rock, CT

Sources:  #1 - #4:  Scrap Book of North Canaan.  #5:  archives of Trinity Church, Lime Rock, "The Church that Iron Built"  For more information about Beckley Furnace, including chronology and maps and many more pictures, see below.  For more information and photos from the archives of Trinity Church, Lime Rock, see the link above.
Falls Village - Canaan Historical Societythe historical society for the Towns of Canaan and North Canaan, does not yet have a web site of their own, so we hare pleased to provide some of their material here as a public service.  Please Falls Village - Canaan Historical Society to see it.

Included is information about the Society, their current program, and how to join or support their worthwhile programs.   Falls Village - Canaan Historical Society

Friends of Beckley Furnace

If you want to learn about the iron industry in our area, the Friends of Beckley Furnace will not only help you learn, they will actively involve you in recovering the history of an industry and an entire area!  

For FOBF, history is very much alive.  A view of Beckley Furnace just before it closed is above, as photo #1.  Try these links for some information about FOBF,

a chronology of the furnaces of East Canaan,

historic topographic maps of the area,

photographs of the Barnum family (Barnum Richardson Company owned Beckley),

and some current photographs of the restoration project,

as well as the 2003 Blackberry River Walk photos.

Friends of the Beckley Furnace


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Between the Lakes Group is located at 372 Between the Lakes Road, in Salisbury, Litchfield County, Connecticut.  More specifically, we're in Taconic -- a hamlet  in the Twin Lakes area of the Town of Salisbury.  Questions about us or about our products?  Go to our Frequently Asked Questions page.  

Postal address:
Post Office Box 13
          Taconic, CT  06079-0013
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