Anthropology Program - Clintonville Forge

Clintonville Forge Site Archaeology Project

Student Opportunities: What You Can Learn

In four (4) five-week sessions of summer excavations over a 7 year period, and countless months of documentary and laboratory research, students under the direction of Dr. Gordon Pollard have revealed a wealth of information about the Clintonville bloomery forge site.

Image of Plattsburgh State student working at Clintonville Forge site

In learning by doing, the students carried out controlled, test-pit excavations to confirm the location and extent of primary walls and smaller, auxiliary structures.

They also revealed the orientation, construction, and depth of waterwheel pits, the location of triphammers, and the placement, construction and modification of individual bloomery forges, a blacksmith's forge, and bellows houses. Using surveying instruments, photography, and extensive documentation and analysis, a detailed record of the Clintonville operations is now emerging.

Overview of the Clintonville Forge Site

Did you know that the Adirondacks of northern New York contain some of the highest quality iron ores in the world? Once iron deposits began to be discovered here in the early 1800's, mining and processing of this desirable resource became one of the primary industries that helped attract settlement and spur the region's economic development.

Many small ore-processing facilities sprang up along the region's riverways, the water serving as the power source for ore separation, operating heavy hammers to shape the smelted iron, driving mills to reheat and roll the iron, and running factories to produce a host of finished items. While most iron was made by reducing the ore in small bloomery forges, some blast furnaces were also employed. Charcoal was the fuel used for smelting, and vast quantities had to be produced and stockpiled. The region's timberlands were viewed as an inexhaustible supply for this purpose.

The industry flourished through most of the 19th century, but by the 1890's virtually all of the smaller operations were abandoned due to high costs, national economic recessions, and the development of competing resource centers in the upper Midwest.

Beginnings: The Peru Iron Ore Company (1824)

The Clintonville iron making operations began in earnest with establishment of the Peru Iron Co. in 1824. Ore was mined initially at localities called Arnold Hill and the Winter Ore Bed, and later at Palmer Hill, all within 5 miles of Clintonville.

A fire in 1828 destroyed much of the iron works, including two small blast furnaces, and a spring flood in 1830 wiped out the company's forges. Undaunted, the company constructed new facilities that included a large wooden building to house 16 bloomery forges. Six years later, that too burned down, and was quickly re-erected in 1836 as a totally stone structure with an iron roof, thus minimizing the possibility of future losses to fire.

By 1865 the works had been bought out and were now operated as the Peru Steel & Iron Company. The stone forge building continued to run with 16 forges, 8 waterwheels, and 7 triphammers.

The company owned over 15,000 acres of land, and consumed more than 100 cords of wood per day, as charcoal, in smelting and working iron. Iron making continued at Clintonville until the end of April, 1890.

The "Stone Forge"

The bloomery forge method of making iron was more heavily employed in the Adirondacks than in any other part of the country. Although there are some historical accounts and descriptions, very few archaeological sites associated with this means of iron production have ever been investigated. We are fortunate that one of the largest bloomery forge sites to have ever existed, the "stone forge" at Clintonville (also known as the "lower forge"), contains some relatively well preserved features that allow us to document many details of this long-vanished means of making iron.

Our investigations of the site have been possible only with the generous agreement of the property owners, who have allowed Plattsburgh State summer field courses to be conducted at the location.

Excavation and Findings

Our site has almost no above-ground structural remains. Scattered remnants of stone walls and foundations at the ground's surface only hint at the scale and layout of the original forge building, and large trees now obscure what was originally the interior of a massive structure that measured 236' x 52'.

Long ago, most of the stone from the building's original walls was salvaged and re-used elsewhere. An overgrown, half-mile long canal suggests how water from the dammed river was brought to the rear and interior of the forge building. Huge quantities of slag, a by-product of the ore reduction process, were discarded in mounds behind the structure as well as along the river bank, and also used to make a solid roadbed between the canal and the river.

Only archaeology could now reconstruct the details of past human design and action at this unique industrial complex.

Real-World Experience in the Field

Participation in an archaeological project is a great learning experience, even for those who may never become professional archaeologists. It helps develop a number of skills that include observation, data collection, analysis, and interpretation. Such skills can be applied well beyond the excitement and challenges of the field and lab work associated with archaeology itself.

At the same time, taking an archaeological field course is an important step in developing a career in this profession. Many Plattsburgh State students have obtained entry level employment with Cultural Resource Management companies, or have gone on to graduate study leading to advanced research or teaching positions.

Questions, Comments, Suggestions?

If you would like more information about the Anthropology program at SUNY Plattsburgh, please contact:

Dr. Deborah Altamirano, Chair
Office: Redcay Hall 121
Phone: (518) 564-4010
Email: altamidr@plattsburgh.edu

Laura Collier
Department Secretary
Office: Redcay Hall 103
Phone: (518) 564-3003
Toll-Free Phone: (800) 398-4801
Email: laura.collier@plattsburgh.edu