A One-Act Play About Hopewell Furnace is a Different Sort of Outreach

Some Hopewell Furnace products dating from the 1770s through the 1880s. NPS photo by George Fistrovitch.

out•reach (out-rēch') n. A systematic attempt to provide services beyond conventional limits.

The one-act play “From Out the Fiery Furnace” depicts 19th century life in Hopewell Village, putting flesh on the bones of history preserved at Pennsylvania’s Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site. Taking a show like this on the road is a type of outreach that other national parks might want to consider.

Hopewell Furnace in southeastern Pennsylvania played a more important role in America’s early manufacturing history than is generally appreciated. Operating from just before the American Revolution until long after the Civil War (1771-1883), Hopewell was one of the “iron plantations” that laid the foundation for America’s transition from dependent colony to industrial giant.

Hopewell Furnace was a large and sophisticated operation for its time. The Hopewell community, which numbered 200-300 people, was a nearly self-sufficient company town. Three nearby mines supplied high-quality iron ore for the iron-making process, and about an acre of hardwood trees had to be felled each day to supply the charcoal that fueled the furnace. A giant water wheel drove large pistons supplying air to a cold-blast furnace that achieved molten iron temperatures as high as 3,000 degrees.

Hopewell Furnace played an important role during the American Revolution, casting more than 100 cannons and supplying shot and shell in large amounts. (Its strategic significance was so great that George Washington went to great lengths to protect it.) After attaining its heyday during the 1820s to the 1840s, the furnace continued to operate until it was made hopelessly obsolete by the iron and steel industry’s transition to larger, more efficient anthracite-fired furnaces. Hopewell Furnace finally ceased production in 1883.

For other details about Hopewell Furnace, visit this site.

Today, at an 848-acre site northwest of Philadelphia, Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site (established 1938) preserves more than a dozen historic structures associated with Hopewell Furnace’s past and interprets this historic industrial village's technological, business, and lifestyle characteristics.

The cold-blast iron furnace and accompanying community have been restored to their appearance during Hopewell’s heyday in the 1830s and 1840s. The park’s facilities and attractions include historic buildings and related relics, a visitor center/museum, self-guided walking tour, hiking trails, living history programs and demonstrations, special events throughout the year, and even a u-pick apple orchard with historic and modern varieties.

Last year, only 49,328 people visited the park. While that level of visitation is by no means inconsequential, it is a lot lower than the site can accommodate. Hopewell Furnace would like to have more visitors -- more visitors to entertain, more visitors to educate, more visitors to go away with a greater appreciation for the vital role that Hopewell Furnace and the other iron-producing communities played in America’s early industrial development.

A big part of the problem is the park’s low visibility on the national, regional, and perhaps even local scene. A person is unlikely to visit a particular national park unless he or she is aware of the park and considers it a visit-worthy place. Hopewell is no Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, or Gettysburg, and so it stays below the media radar most of the time. An unknown but undoubtedly substantial percentage of the people who live within day-tripping and weekending range don’t even know it exists, and many who do can’t tell you where it is or what pleasures it may offer.

It’s no small thing that Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site is located in Philadelphia’s day-tripping zone, sits just a 45-minute drive from Valley Forge, and is not very far from major transportation routes serving the densely populated Boston-to-Washington megalopolis. Given the size of this market, anything that increases the park’s visibility and heightens public awareness of its attractions and significance holds promise to boost visitation by an appreciable amount. Every little bit counts.

Against this background, it’s nice to see that a play about historic Hopewell Furnace is being staged in the park’s prime market area and has garnered media attention. “From Out the Fiery Furnace,” a one-act play written and directed by nationally recognized playwright Christine Emmert, features stories about the people of 19th century Hopewell Furnace. It is performed by veteran actress Barbara Hannevig, who portrays runaway slaves, “fallen women,” indentured servants, orphaned children, and other characters.

The play weaves an intricate tale showing how one woman’s life experiences could be traced through her relationship with a Hopewell Stove. The 10-plate cooking stove, a labor-saving innovation that Hopewell Furnace produced in substantial numbers, was prized for the fact that it gave women precious time to pursue interests outside the kitchen.

After the play premiered in September at Hopewell Furnace’s Harvest Time event, Emmert and Hannevig volunteered to take the show on the road to area communities. The next performances are scheduled for November 13 in Douglassville, Pennsylvania.

The 2010 performance schedule, which is still being worked out, will include a February 9 performance at the Phoenixville Foundry, a newly-renovated National Register structure in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, that is now used for special events of various kinds.

Postscript: One of the November 13 performance venues, St. Gabreiel’s Episcopal Church in Douglassville, is the church that Hopewell Furnace founder and ironmaster Mark Bird attended back in the 1770s.