From charcoal to "stone coal"During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the Lehigh Valley, with its wealth of trees for charcoal fuel and substantial sources of ore, attracted many enterprising iron facilities to settle in the region. Even in the Lehigh Valley, however, wood supplies soon began to dwindle, and the search for new fuel sources began in earnest. In 1822, Josiah White and Erskine Hazard formed the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company to build a canal that could carry boatloads of anthracite coal—a fuel that burned hotter and more efficiently than charcoal. They hired Welshman David Thomas to design a new type of furnace that could burn the exceedingly hard "stone coal." The use of anthracite coal as fuel led to a new age in iron making and the rise of new iron works across the Lehigh Valley.
In 1868, just after the Civil War, the well-established Thomas Iron Company expanded to the town of Alburtis, where railroad connections, plentiful water, and access to ore created favorable conditions for iron production. The new Lock Ridge Furnace had two large furnaces that were capable of annually producing 15,000 tons of iron for tools, steam engines, guns, and other finished goods.
From iron to steelFor 40 years, the company thrived, despite coal strikes and increasingly fierce competition. The founding of US Steel (1901) and nearby Bethlehem Steel (1904), however signaled the end of profitable small-scale iron production. Increased demand during World War I allowed the company to remain profitable for a short time, but the last cast of iron came out of Lock Ridge in 1921, and much of the machinery was sold for scrap
"Changes must be made or we are doomed." Benjamin F. Fackenthal, President of Lock Ridge Furnace (1912).
When it closed in 1921, Lock Ridge was reportedly the last operating anthracite iron furnace in the United States.
(Inscription under the image in the lower center) A weigh lock on the Lehigh Canal.
(Inscription under the image in the upper right) Lock Ridge Furnace as it appeared in the 1870s. (Collection of the Lehigh County Historical Society)