Hudson Valley Iron-Ore Mining Industry: A History of Sterling Forest
Heavy metal: Sterling Forest was once the center of the Valley’s rich iron-ore industry
As a non-historian writing a history column, I am continually amazed and amused by the Hudson Valley’s varied and colorful past. Not long ago I learned that we were once the Violet Capital of the World, growing and shipping fashion’s most popular petal to all parts of the globe in the late 19th-early 20th centuries. And now I find that this forgotten, delicate industry was preceded by an equally forgotten but much more masculine one.
To me, Iron City meant only the Pittsburgh-brewed beer. The Iron Range was an area in northern Minnesota that produced hard-nosed hockey players. Turns out that both of these are relative latecomers, newbies, tyros. If you want to know about American ironworks, you need only look downstate.
Edward Lenik, an archeologist in Wayne, New Jersey, who literally wrote the book on the area’s iron history (Iron Mine Trails: A History and Hiker’s Guide to the Historic Iron Mines of the New Jersey and New York Highlands; sadly, it’s out of print), says that when the English settled northern New Jersey and southern New York in the 1730s, they began looking for gold and silver. There wasn’t any, but a man named Cornelius Board met some Native Americans who said they knew about some “black rock” in the area. “They showed him outcrops of this rock, which he recognized as iron ore,” Lenik says.
Specifically, it was a mineral called magnetite, an iron oxide which Board knew he could forge into pure iron. So, according to records at the New York State Library, in 1736 Board and a partner named Timothy Ward bought 150 acres of land and formed the Sterling Forge and Furnace Company. They built a bloomery, a furnace used for smelting iron ore. Workers would heat the mineral and beat out all excess material with a hammer, leaving only pure iron behind. They continued this process until 1751, when they constructed their first blast furnace, which heated the magnetite with limestone over a 2,000-degree charcoal fire. The chemical reaction liquefied the iron and separated it from the other materials.
A plaque at the site outlines the history of the furnace
The Sterling works soon began manufacturing ship anchors with their iron, and the business took off. In the 1760s, they also produced such goods as pig and bar iron; cart, wagon, and chair spindles; tea kettles, skillets, and pots. Around this time a man named Peter Townsend became a partner in the company, and under his family’s leadership Sterling prospered during the American Revolution, manufacturing arms and ammunition for Washington’s Continental Army and supplying anchors for Navy warships. In fact, the mine made one item in particular that may have saved the Colonial cause from near certain collapse.
In February 1778, the Army contracted with Townsend to make an iron chain that was to be placed clear across the Hudson River at West Point. Its purpose was to block British ships from attacking New York City from the north. Townsend’s chain, as it came to be known, was laid in place on April 30, 1778 — and the British never even tried to cross it.
Peter Townsend died in 1783, but the ironworks remained in his family’s possession until the mid-1800s. It was during this period that business boomed — and not just for Sterling. Others explored and dug dozens of mines in the region. “Some were successful, some were not,” Lenik says. But there were two other major mining operations nearby. One was in Ringwood, New Jersey, which operated until 1930; the other was the O’Neil mine in Orange County. All three were full-fledged mining complexes. “The companies built villages and the miners — first the English and later Germans, Irish, and Italians — lived there,” he says. “Workers were paid 81 cents a day at O’Neil in 1870, and you could feed a family on that.”
Remnants of Sterling’s community are still visible. Now known as the Lakeville “ghost town,” foundations from the furnaces, mines, and houses linger along hiking trails. Says Doc Bayne, former environmental educator and historian at Sterling Forest State Park, “They had a company store, buildings for the industry processing, a hotel, and homes. Both management and workers lived there with their families, and some single men who pretty much just lived out in the woods. We do still find old foundations around.”
Not much is known about the Sterling company from the post-Civil War period until 1890. By the turn of the century, however, the business was failing. The depression of 1892-1896 had something to do with that. But a bigger concern — one that eventually ended the iron industry here — was the 1866 discovery of a vast deposit of iron ore in the Mesabi Range, located in northern Minnesota (in an area still known today as the Iron Range). This deposit was not only more extensive than the eastern range, it was far more easily accessible: Most of the iron was close to the surface and could be extracted in shallow open pits rather than in deep mines. Shipping on the Great Lakes also made transportation easier, so the economics of the industry shifted seismically. Except for a brief flurry of activity during World War I, the Sterling Mine declined. The company closed for good in 1923, and the Lakeville ironworks town crumbled.
See gallery below to view more photos of abandoned mines in Sterling Forest.
Deteriorating buildings from the ironworks as they appear today
Though mine owners raked in the cash and lived comfortably, it was a different story for the workers. “At Sterling, miners got paid by how much ore was taken out,” explains Bayne. Once they ventured into the mines to excavate the magnetite, they would light black powder or dynamite and “run like hell,” says Bayne. “After the blast they went back in and picked up all the pieces.” But this often led to health hazards: Inhalation of nitroglycerin from the explosives gave workers massive headaches. Later on, the company used drills, which earned the nickname “widow makers.” Says Bayne, “Magnetite is a crystal-like substance, so when you drill it the smoke that comes out carries the crystals. When the miners breathed it in, it would eventually tear their lungs apart.”
And of course, the most obvious peril was the risk of cave-ins. Bayne says that though records from mining companies are sparse (“because who wants to talk about the people you killed?”), fatalities from collapses and falling debris were quite common. One such incident actually brought down an entire company. In Brewster, on the eastern side of the river, lies the submerged remains of the once-prosperous Tilly Foster Mine. The mine opened in 1853 and hired large numbers of immigrants, who were often known by numbers because the owners couldn’t pronounce their names. A mine collapse in 1895 effectively ended its operations. Walls caved in, killing 13 miners — many of them identified only by their number in the New York Times news report of the disaster — and the business never recovered. Eventually, a reservoir flooded the property.
See gallery below to view more photos of abandoned mines in Sterling Forest.
Take a hike
The forge fires have long since cooled, but remnants of the mining industry still dot the local landscape. Many are accessible on nature hikes in our parks, which the public is free to explore. “There are at least 20 known mines within Bear Mountain State Park,” Edward Lenik says. “Some were just exploratory pits, which you can find hiking.” Bigger mines, such as the Pine Swamp and Hogancamp in Harriman State Park, are favorites of hikers today, he says. (The Pine Swamp mine was owned and operated by the famous Parrott brothers, Robert and Peter; their ore was used to make the Parrott guns that helped the Union Army win the Civil War.)
Doc Bayne leads tours through Sterling Forest State Park, including one to the mines, a favorite of his that weaves through the Lakeville ghost town. “We follow the Lakeville Ironworks Trail, walk past the furnaces, stop by the Wildcat Mine and point out the old town buildings — well, their foundations, anyway,” he says. He possesses a wealth of knowledge on the subject, and is in fact writing a book about Townsend’s chain entitled The Chain that Saved America, because, as he says, “Sterling Forest has such a gift of iron history.”