History of the Steel Industry in Lebanon County and Cornwall
Erecting the Cornwall Iron Furnace in 1742 to smelt iron from the ore in what is now Lebanon County, Peter Grubb started the process of turning Cornwall into the heart of a 10,000-acre iron plantation. The plantation became a self-sufficient community that existed solely for the production of iron in the form of cast iron products and bars of pig iron. At its peak, pig iron and ore from the open-pit mine, formally Middle Hill, and two underground mines at Burd Coleman and Rexmont was transported to four area forges: Cornwall Furnace, Anthracite Furnace, Burd Coleman Furnace and North Cornwall Furnace.
In the 1860s until 1894, ownership of the iron industry transferred to the Cornwall Ore Bank Company formed by Grubb and Coleman heirs. The last of the four furnaces ceased operations in 1883. Lackawanna Iron and Steel Company continued the mining operation until the Bethlehem Steel Company took over in 1920. But mining ended abruptly for Bethlehem Steel in 1972 when rains from Hurricane Agnes filled the open-pit mine. Rolloff Containers under the direction of todays ironmaster, President Dale Martin, purchased the Bethlehem Steel plant and surrounding land in 1986 and began a steel fabricating operation that continues today.
In the early mining days, men used picks to loosen ore on hillside outcroppings and wheelbarrows to haul it to waiting mule-drawn carts. By the 1860s, railroad cars pulled by small locomotives known as "dinkies" had replaced mules. Hand tools gave way to two-man drills, explosives and steam shovels. Advancing technology and an elaborate system of terraced mining would transform Middle Hill into an ever deepening open-pit mine.
The mines and furnaces employed many people and the workers needed places to live. All tied to the original purchases of Peter Grubb, the Borough of Cornwall now includes Minersvillage, Burd Coleman, Anthracite Village, Toytown, North Cornwall and Rexmont.
Minersvillage, Burd Coleman and Anthracite Village are collections of homes originally built by the mining company and rented to miners and furnace workers. Minersvillage, built in the 1850s near the open-pit mine, comprises a few dozen double-family homes. The homes are built of native sandstone and limestone taken from the open pit mine. The village of Burd Coleman, named for a member of the prominent area family and built during the 1870s to house miners and workers from the Burd Coleman Furnace, is a similar grouping of limestone and sandstone-trimmed structures. Homes in Anthracite, built during the 1850s for workers of the Anthracite Furnace, are made of brick fired in the furnace kilns.
North Cornwall emerged during the 1870s to house workers of the North Cornwall Furnace. Sometimes called "Stone Row," its buildings are constructed entirely of limestone. Toytown, also known as Cornwall Center, developed its name in the 1920s because of its homes size relative to the older, larger stone homes nearby. Rexmont was not built by and for the mining company. In the 1870s, merchant Cyrus Rex purchased land east of the Cornwall mines that had been timbered for the charcoal. Rex helped provide mortgages for buyers of acre-sized lots. The lure of private ownership versus company housing appealed to many of the mine and furnace workers. Rexmont eventually included a hotel, bakery, shirt factory, cigar factory, confectionery store and several dry-goods stores.
Company records show the Cornwall Iron Works utilized a wide variety of nationalities and included freemen, indentured servants from Germany and England, and slaves. Slaves were used up to 1780, when the Commonwealth abolished slavery. It was not uncommon for the Grubbs and Colemans to employ workers in the building of roads during periods of inactivity. In many cases, the owners reduced or eliminated housing and board costs during these periods to retain their workers. Consequently, workers stayed at the furnace and families were generally employed for generations.
Today, there is no singular, dominant industry, but the Cornwall community still retains a connection to its iron production past. The small villages of Cornwall still remain and so do the generations of pedigree steel-working families. Even though mining operations ceased in the 1970s, Rolloff Containers operates a steel fabricating plant in the old 40,000 sq. ft Bethlehem Steel Plant in Cornwall on 8 acres of land and employs the next generations of iron workers.