The Pequest Furnace played a role in the Industrial Revolution along with dozens of other sites in Northwest New Jersey. However, the part played here has been relatively obscure, pieces of a puzzle hidden in the Warren County woods.
It looks like a giant petrified bullfrog sitting there in the middle of the field, big enough to eat a tree and rather otherworldly in the mid December chill. Beyond the brown wispy remnants of last summer's green field at the edge of the woods, there sits a small, gray, alien hill, a pile of what might be lunar matter or crushed-up meteor. What the heck kind of rock is that big brown toad anyway? All those layers... it looks kind of like it's growing out of the ground. How did it get here? Maybe it's a piece of the glacier that stopped not far from here in the Pequest River Valley.
So begins the mystery and rediscovery of the Pequest Furnace and its rise and fall in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. It was a time when this sleepy part of Warren County was an industrial powerhouse. It was the age of railroads and iron, fueled by anthracite coal from the fields of northeast Pennsylvania. A few miles south, the town of Oxford had already been an industrial center for well over a century, where a charcoal furnace was built before the American Revolution. Later, William Henry successfully applied a hot blast to the smelting of iron ore at the Oxford Furnace, distinguishing it as the first of its kind. In the 1840s, the Furnace passed into the hands of Charles, George, and Selden Scranton, for whom the Pennsylvania city is named. Increasing demand for products suggested that iron furnaces would do well to adapt to the use of coal as fuel, rather than charcoal. Coal burned much hotter but also bore much more weight on top, so the layered stack of fuel, limestone flux and ore could rise much higher in the furnace. Plus, there weren't many trees left to make charcoal; these hills were bare.
The brothers invested in railroads to deliver the coal, ensuring the longevity of their furnace at Oxford. To further secure their advantage in linking the coal fields, iron-making furnaces and foundries and the big-city markets in New York and Philadelphia, the Scrantons involved themselves with another prominent name in New Jersey history, John Blair. And by hooking himself up to the Scrantons, Blair gave his railroad lots to do.
The Pequest Furnace was constructed in 1873-74 to join the Oxford operations in smelting the abundant ores pulled from dozens of mines in the hills surrounding the river valley near what is now Buttzville. From the Van Nest tunnel at Oxford, Blair detoured his Warren Railroad slightly from a direct path to the Delaware River and the Pennsylvania coal mines, cutting through the hills towards the small rise near where today's Routes 31 and 46 converge. Here, the furnace, company offices, stock house, air pump houses and busy railroad interchanges churned out massive quantities of iron product, primarily nails and bar stock that was forged into parts. Blair's railroad delivered fuel to the furnace and took product from the furnace to market. The Lehigh and Hudson RR later served the furnace from a lower elevation along the Pequest River, linking it from Middletown, NY to Phillipsburg and Philadelphia.
During the 18th and19th centuries, Northwest New Jersey was home to numerous anthracite furnaces, most of which, like Oxford's, were located within pre-existing settlements. At Pequest, company houses rose solely to support the furnace and disappeared quickly as the industry declined in the early 1900s. Today, a quick look at the hill where the complex once stood reveals scarcely a hint of the bustling commerce once hosted there; no markers or monuments, just the abandoned railbeds cut through the hillside and rusty bridges over the river. But these remnants entice the educated eye of a railfan, and lure the curious into the woods, poking through the leaves to find history. There's no real definitive document about this place; still lots of detective work to do.
Off Route 46 at Furnace Road, sharp eyes can still find bits of pig iron, the raw iron product from the furnace, lying around the parking area. Across the road the bridge leading into the woods is an early 20th Century incarnation of the original bridge built by the Lehigh and Hudson River RR to compete with Blair. Walking over the bridge and left up the hill signs begin to appear in the fallen foliage; lumps of stuff that looks like lava from a volcano; chunks of brick half buried in the dirt. Then suddenly there are large cut stones jutting from the ground. These are the cornerstones for one of the main buildings at the furnace, all that remains of the hum and buzz that once dominated the crest of this little hill. Back down the hill through the woods there is a stone wall that supported one end of another railroad bridge over an ancient road. Then we find the remains of a cistern with pipes that once carried water to and from the river. And there is a depression in the ground from which workers could access giant steam locomotives for repair in the engine house.
Strewn throughout the area is that lava-like stuff. Any smelting process required purification, and the ore here was abundant, but not particularly pure. Limestone, also abundant in this ground, was the agent used for sucking out the impurities. This lava likeness is called slag; the remains of the limestone flux that floated to the top of the bath, light and porous from air passing through it.
As we leave the actual furnace location we come upon Blair's cut. It was no easy task bringing a railroad through rock, and we are humbled by the enterprise of our predecessors. Connected to the main line, tracks were built to load material from the casting and stock house and to escort the constant flow of waste away from the furnace. We follow the line until we see the slagheap from the edge of the woods. It was much larger once; much of it has been used by the road department over the years. But still, climbing up on it is kind of like walking on the moon, very rigid and foreign. Here and there on this gravely mass of slag lie large chunks of iron. Once in a while the furnace would cool to the point where iron would solidify before it could be poured off in its molten form. These events were bad news; the furnace had to be dismantled and the fused core broken into pieces that could be loaded and taken away. These iron chunks on the slagheap are pieces of tear-downs.
Proximity to major markets, the coming of the railroads, and easy access to rich veins of ore allowed the smelting operations to prosper at Pequest, Oxford and all over the New Jersey highlands, into the early 1990s. Mining gradually became more expensive as surface supplies of ore were depleted, requiring deep shafts and tunnel complexes hundreds of feet deep into the earth. When open pit mining in the vast Mesabi Range in Minnesota began, local mines became non-competitive. And the technology for making stock for cast products and wrought iron was quickly being overtaken by the requirements for making steel. The industry moved west.
That brings us back to the big brown toad. After the furnace at Pequest was blown out, everything of value was stripped and taken for scrap. The place was liquidated, except for those things that had no use. This humongous lump was probably the end for the Pequest Furnace. One day they loaded up the re-fused core of iron, sulfur, phosphorous and limestone and dumped it in the field where it sits today.
Consider Rutherfurd Hall as refuge and sanctuary in similar ways now, as it served a distinguished family a hundred years ago.
In 2019, the Historic Moravian Village of Hope celebrated 250 years since the Moravians first settled the hills along the Beaver Brook.
Warren County's Montana Mountain, Merrill Creek Reservoir, and the Pohatcong Valley is equally rewarding for students of history and devotees of the outdoors.