February 14: Survivor of A Great Industrial Meltdown


In the rural town of East Canaan, along the banks of the Blackberry River, there stands a curious rectangular tower. It is constructed of massive slabs of marble and reaches 40 feet high, with walls 30 feet wide at its base. The isolated tower is the last surviving example of the 19th century blast furnaces that were once commonplace Connecticut sights – there were 21 of them in northwestern Connecticut alone – and it is the namesake of East Canaan’s Beckley Furnace Industrial Monument state park, the only such state heritage site in Connecticut.

The northwest corner of Connecticut had become 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 – which proved to be of unusually high quality – helped fuel the manufacture of American weaponry, most notably cannon used by the Continental Army. Connecticut’s iron industry, though ultimately overshadowed by the massive foundries built in Pennsylvania in the 19th century, remained active until the early 20th century, when a combination of Midwestern competition, charcoal shortages, locally depleted mines, and reduced demand made it economically untenable.

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

Built in 1847 and active for 72 years, the Beckley blast furnace remains as both the symbol and rare example of the structures that once ran day and night throughout the Taconic region. Blast furnaces, which could stand up to 50 feet tall and featured large arched openings that served as air intakes, were engineered to produce the over 2800 degree temperatures needed to melt down “charges” of iron ore, charcoal and lime into the molten iron and waste slag from which the finished iron was drawn. Once in “blast,” the furnaces ran continuously – 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The average furnace used 7,000-14,000 cords of wood, transformed into charcoal, every year. This huge and incessant consumption of timber led to the deforestation that helped bring Connecticut’s iron era, and the operations of the Beckley blast furnace, to a close just after World War I.

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

Recognizing the historic significance of the Beckley site, the state of Connecticut purchased the blast furnace and surrounding property after World War II and converted it into Connecticut’s only official industrial monument, now open to the public as a part of the State Parks system. And, on February 14, 1978, 59 years after it ceased operations, the Beckley Furnace was formally listed on the National Register of Historic Places in recognition of its national significance as a monument to early American iron production. Today, the Beckley Furnace site welcomes hundreds of schoolchildren each year, who come to learn about Connecticut’s industrial past, and visitors from throughout the state and region, who enjoy hiking, fishing, and picnicking on the site of one of the last survivors of a once great iron industry.

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