Durham Furnace

Oral History

The history of Durham Furnace goes back to the late 1600s when William Penn, the Proprietor of Pennsylvania, granted tracts of land in Bucks County to businessmen in London, England. A society of English businessmen, called the Free Society of Traders, was formed to organize trade and business opportunities in Penn’s young colony. One of the Bucks County tracts was Durham, an area approximately one mile west of the Delaware River known to hold iron ore. Lenape Indians mined the area for lead that was traded with other tribes and used to make utensils.

While it is not clear whether the Free Society of Traders took advantage of Penn’s actions, Durham did become a center of iron production after the land changed hands in 1727 and an iron furnace was put into operation on a site prescisely where the Durham Gristmill (built in 1820) stands today. The water power of Durham Creek, which flowed past the furnace, was used to operate a number of forges and a huge bellows that produced the blast of air that stoked the fire and melted the ore.

The name of the company that operated the furnace was the Furnace Company. Owners took advantage of the area’s dense forests to produce charcoal fuel for the furnace, and also quarried local limestone that was burned into lime and used in the iron-making process to remove impurities from the final product – pig iron. Lime kilns where the lime was burned are still in existence in Durham today.

Durham Furnace produced three tons of pig iron that were exported to England in 1728, but labor was costly and the cost of shipping iron down the Delaware River to Philadelphia, and then to England, was great. Furnace Company owners Joseph Galloway, James Logan and William Allen, who founded Allentown, focused on producing iron products for local sale, and for the next 30 years Durham Furnace produced tools, pots, pans, ornaments, fireplace equipment, stoves and other iron products.

George Taylor, who later became Pennsylvania representative in the Continental Congress and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, leased Durham Furnace in 1753 and began producing an even greater variety of products. By the time the American Revolution began, Taylor transformed Durham Furnace into a munitions factory for the Continental Army that produced cannons, cannonballs, shot, and other military equipment. A lack of high-quality iron ore around Durham and competition from other furnaces led to the closing of Durham Furnace in 1791. Immense piles of bomb shells were removed from the premises in 1808 and the deserted buildings were allowed to decay. A gristmill was built on the furnace site in 1820.

A revival of the business took place when two new furnaces were built in 1848-50, both of which were designed to operate with anthracite coal. The coal was brought into Durham on canal boats from Mauch Chunk. Company records indicate that men and boys were employed at Durham Furnace from 1849 onward. Only 34 percent of the ore was mined in Durham because of its low quality; the balance was brought in from New Jersey by way of the Morris and Delaware canals. The two blast furnaces operated until 1874 when they were demolished and replaced by another furnace in 1876. Durham Furnace operated until it was put out of business by the Bethlehem Iron Company, which later became Bethlehem Steel Corporation.