Group seeks to restore 19th century industrial site inside boundaries of Taconic State Park
COPAKE FALLS–It looks like a giant beehive rising from the ground–a pile of stones and rubble with an arched entryway formed in rows of brick. A few weeds sprout hair-like off its rugged surface.
Once the center of a swarm of activity, now it is the silent, crumbling ruin of the Copake Iron Works blast furnace at the Taconic State Park off Route 344.
The furnace was built in 1872 and was last fired up over 100 years ago. The structure has been exposed to the elements for the past 70 years. Long ignored, the old furnace and what remains of the iron works structures around it have finally found a champion in a group called Friends of Taconic State Park.
The group was awarded a $75,000 matching fund grant from the state Environmental Protection Fund and has raised upwards of $60,000 in cash and in-kind contributions toward its Furnace Cover Project–a wooden structure now in the process of being built to protect the furnace.
The Copake Iron Works got its start when a wealthy businessman from Pittsfield, MA, Lemuel Pomeroy, II, moved his iron manufacturing operations from Ancram to a new site in Copake Falls in 1845, according to a document titled, The Copake Iron Works at Taconic State Park, A Report on its Historical Significance and Development Potential, prepared in 2000 by Larry Gobrecht of the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation’s Peebles Island Resource Center and Tom Scofield, the late Taconic State Park manager. The complete 58-page report, which includes photographs, can be found on the Friends website: www.friendsoftsp.org.
At the base of the Taconic ridge along the Bash Bish Brook, the new site “offered waterpower, significant ore deposits, nearby limestone sources and a dependable coal supply,” says the report.
What is currently the State Park’s Ore Pit swimming hole “was once an open pit mine with noise and dust filling the air and machinery, ore carts and rail operations dominating the landscape.” The largest of several iron ore mines worked near the blast furnace, the pit yielded most of the ore processed at the facility. Ore was mined in the 50-to-60-foot deep pit until “August 1888, when the pumps were removed and the pit began to fill with water” and soon after “began a new life as a recreational resource,” says the report.
Several railroads passed through the area, including the Harlem Division and the lines within the ironworks site, connecting the operation to raw materials and markets “throughout the Northeast.” The furnace produced varying amounts of pig iron “with the highest annual capacity of 7,500 tons reported in 1896,” according to the report.
Remains of charcoal blast furnace and the structures currently surviving at the site were improvements made by Frederick Miles, who bought the Copake Ironworks in 1862. Mr. Miles also owned an ironworks in Salisbury, CT, where he lived. The 32-foot-high furnace, built in 1872, was one of the improvements made by Mr. Miles, which also included a brick blowing engine house and a narrow-gauge works railroad.
Friends group founding member Edgar Masters recounted some of the mining process in a phone interview with The Columbia Paper, noting that after the ore was mined by packing dynamite into holes steam-drilled into the layers of rock, chunks resulting from the explosions were broken down with a sledge hammer, loaded into carts and taken by narrow-gauge railroad to the top of the blast furnace.
The chunks of rock were dropped down into the furnace, which contained charcoal to get it burning. Air was forced into the mix using a bellows powered by a Bash Bish Brook-run water wheel. The idea was to get the temperature hot enough to melt the iron ore out of the rock. The molten ore was channeled out to a bed of sand to cool. Once it could be handled, the iron was picked out of the sand in bars and made into trolley wheels, stoves, plows and other implements. A small factory near the railroad bridge where it crosses south of the Depot Deli was the site of the Columbia Plow Works, where iron was made into single-bottom, horse drawn plows
In 2005, a group of interested Copake Falls residents decided based upon the findings of the Gobrecht/Scofield report that it was time to save the deteriorating charcoal blast furnace, “the icon of the Copake Iron Works… to realize the full potential of the site to tell the story of a 19th century rural ironworks.
In 2007, the Iron Works site and 18 acres surrounding the area were listed on the State and National Register of Historic Sites. The Copake Iron Works Historic District comprises all of the buildings in the Iron Works area (the Link House, the Company Store, The Powder House and The Machine Shop), the furnace, three workers’ houses and the now-flooded ore pit, as well as the Church of St. John in the Wilderness.
Established in 2008, the Friends of Taconic State Park was formed “to do things for the park starting with the furnace project,” according to Deborah Cohen, Friends treasurer.
The Friends’ long term goal is “to restore the Copake Iron Works to the condition of its operating heyday in the 1880s, including the re-creation of the narrow-gauge railroad that circumnavigated the ironworks. It is our intent to create a pre-eminent site of historic iron-making and a national destination for tourists. We estimate that this project will take 20 years and $50 million to complete–a daunting goal, but well worth it and in our opinion, achievable,” according to the group’s Vision Statement.
A report about the state of the furnace set forth how the structure could be stabilized and protected. Clark Engineering and Surveying contributed time and expertise to transform a conceptual drawing in the conditions report into an engineering drawing for the “roof with legs” structure that is currently being built by Mr. Masters’ staff in his barn to cover the furnace.
Last month two recently completed roof trusses, about 40 feet long, weighing more than a ton and a half each were moved from the Masters home to the ironworks site about a mile away with the help of manpower and equipment donated by Ed Herrington, Inc. Mr. Masters said he hopes to have the legs and frames completed by June 1, with the assembly to take place through the summer.
To find out more about the Friends of Taconic State Park, the Furnace Cover Project or to donate to the effort visit: www.friendsoftsp.org.