February 14: A Towering Monument to Connecticut Industry

 

In the rural town of East Canaan there stands a curious rectangular tower along the banks of the Blackberry River, constructed of massive slabs of marble, forty feet high and thirty feet wide at its base.  The tower is the last surviving example of the 19th century blast furnaces that were once common across northwestern Connecticut, and is the namesake of East Canaan’s Beckley Furnace Industrial Monument state park, the only such monument in the state.

The northwest corner of Connecticut had established itself as a center for iron production as early as the mid-18th century, after rich veins of iron ore were discovered in hills near the town of Salisbury.  Iron forges and blast furnaces sprang up across the region, and during the American Revolution, Connecticut-forged iron helped fuel the manufacture of American weaponry, most notably cannon used by the Continental Army.  Connecticut’s iron industry, while soon overshadowed by the massive foundries built in Pennsylvania in the 19th century, remained active until just after World War I, when a combination of Midwestern competition, locally depleted mines, and reduced demand for iron made it untenable.

A photo of the Beckley blast furnace compound in the 1890s. (Friends of Beckley Furnace)

Built in 1847 and active until 1919, the Beckley blast furnace stands as an excellent example of the structures that were once a common site throughout the Taconic region.  Blast furnaces, which could stand up to 50 feet tall and featured large arched openings to serve as air intakes, were designed to produce a hot enough flame to refine chunks of iron ore, separating it into iron and waste products (slag).

The Beckley blast furnace as it appears today, following an extensive renovation in 1999. (Friends of Beckley Furnace)

After World War II, the state of Connecticut purchased the blast furnace and surrounding property and converted it into Connecticut’s only official industrial monument, open to the public as a part of the State Parks system.  On February 14, 1978, 59 years after it ceased operations, the Beckley Furnace was officially listed on the National Register of Historic Places in recognition of its historical significance as a monument to Connecticut’s once-thriving iron industry.  Today, the Beckley Furnace site welcomes hundreds of schoolchildren each year, who learn about interact with a rare relic of the state’s industrial past, as well as visitors who enjoy hiking, fishing, and picnicking on the park grounds.

Further Reading

History of Beckley Furnace,” beckleyfurnace.org

Peter Marteka, “Beckley Furnace In East Canaan, A Memorial To The State’s Iron Industry,Hartford Courant

Ed Kirby, “Salisbury Iron Forged Early Industry,” connecticuthistory.org