Hopewell Furnace– stroll through history

Located between York and Philadelphia, the Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site is often passed up for Valley Forge, the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall or any one of the dozen dazzling historic sites through southeast Pennsylvania. In tourist parlance, it’s ‘small potatoes’.

It’s the “We’ll stop there next time,” syndrome. And next time becomes a month or years away.  And we wander off–again– to see the sites we’ve probably already seen. Out-of-town friends and Uncle Bob and Aunt Suzi are escorted to the Liberty Bell, which entertained one million visitors last year; or Independence Hall with its five million people or Valley Forge, visited by two million people.

That’s a lot of people. And traffic and time.

Granted, they are the big site sites in colonial history. And who can argue that Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson aren’t bigger names than furnace owners Mark Bird or Clemente Brooke?

For a quiet afternoon without heavy traffic or crowds, stop by Hopewell Furnace, a very laid-back, quiet 800-acres of one of the most complete iron-making furnace sites in the eastern U.S.  Just 55,000 people visit annually, so crowds are certainly not a problem. And it’s free– what’s not to like?

Hopewell Furnace was in production before the Revolutionary War, but during the war, Bird began supplying the Colonists with cannon and shot. Later, Brooke bought the property and continued production until 1883, when the fires went out for the last time.

Hellam Township’s Codorus Furnace also operated during the war. From the Hellam Township website– Many of the cannons and cannon balls used by the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War were cast at this location as well as for the War of 1812. The furnace played an important part in re-arming Washington’s armies at Valley Forge.

Also, the Cornwall Furnace, just south of Lebanon, is part of a National Historic Landmark District and has been described by one website as ‘preserved with a historical integrity perhaps unmatched in the United States’.

Today, Hopewell Furnace visitors should first stop at the visitor center for a video presentation and check the museum pieces. From there, head downhill to the iron master’s mansion, which is furnished with typically exquisite furniture of the time, overlooking the furnace and the path to the tenant houses. Signs inside suggest the reproductions are to be touched, played with.

You’ll probably not see much activity here; don’t expect horse-drawn wagons, a fire in the furnace or blacksmiths hard at work. But you can imagine it.   As you wander up and down the path to the houses, think of the smells and sounds of a busy furnace and the 200 people who lived and worked here. Have a picnic at the park’s tables, or as the web site suggests, spread out a blanket under the apple orchard’s trees. Or wait until apple harvest season, and pick your own for a fee.bed 1

To see the Hopewell Furnace, PA Turnpike (I-76) East to exit 298 (Morgantown). Turn onto PA Route 10 South and travel 1 mile to PA Route 23. Turn left onto Route 23 East and travel 5.3 miles to PA Route 345. Turn left onto Route 345 North and travel 4 miles to the park entrance.

Since the park is adjacent to French Creek State Park, it’s foot trails to the furnace are always open. Buildings might be closed, but signs explain the sights. Also, French Creek is the closest state campground to Philadelphia, something else to consider when making vacation or long weekend plans. Gates are open to the furnace visitor center Wednesday through Sunday until 5 p.m.

In the overall scheme of area historic sites, the furnace doesn’t compare in the ‘busy-ness’ of tourist value to others nearby. But for a quiet day or even a weekend, it might be just what you need.