Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society
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Source: October 1994 Volume 32 Number 4, Pages 139–146

History of Hibernia Iron Works

John C. Nagy

Page 139

The Brandywine has served as a source of power for the many forges and mills which lined its banks as it wound its way southward to Wilmington. This was the stream which worked the DuPont mills and ground gunpowder to help defend a growing America. This stream served as a source of power for the many grist mills which fed the Continental armies in the Great Fight for Independence. And this was the stream whose power was used by Samuel Downing and other early iron masters to produce wrought iron which stimulated our early economy.

Samuel Downing was the son of John and Elizabeth Downing, of Downingtown. (The town was named after his grandfather Thomas, who settled there in 1735.) John Downing was the keeper of the "King Arms Tavern" in Downingtown, on the Lancaster road. Very little is known of the early life of Samuel Downing, who married one Elizabeth Temple. [Ref. 1]

Between April 3, 1793 and March 4, 1794 Samuel Downing purchased three tracts of land in West Cain Township -- "Fortunate", 80 acres; "Kellington", 123 1/2 acres; and "Popish Plains", 190 acres -- all for 805. In this year he erected his forge on the West Brandywine which was the pre-cursor of the Hibernia Iron Works.

By the time Downing constructed his forge many other iron forges and furnaces had been established on the eastern coast. This was 152 years after the first successful iron works was started in this country on the Saugus Creek ten miles north of Boston in Massachusetts. By the year 1797 it was estimated that sixteen furnaces and thirty-seven forges, producing 7500 tons of pig iron and 4280 tons of bar iron, respectively, existed in Pennsylvania alone.

Page 140

It becomes evident that by 1792 the American iron industry had gained a great deal of sophistication; however, the Catalan forge of early Spain was still the basic design.

On December 1, 1795 Samuel Downing purchased an additional piece of property in West Cain township, consisting of 97 acres and 91 square perches, for which he paid 312 pounds 4 shillings.

In the tax list of 1796 he was listed as having a "sawmill, 500 acres of land, forge, 10 horses, 2 cows".

Downing purchased more land in West Cain in 1797, amounting to 40 and 3/4 acres, for which he paid 225 pounds five shillings and two pence. By 1798 the iron works consisted of 450 acres, and one slave was listed as living on the property.

The extent of Downing's operation is established by the 1799 tax list, which gives exact dimensions of the existing buildings. The iron works were a self-sustaining community. The inhabitants could purchase almost all the items necessary for every-day living at the store on the property. In 1799 there were, at the maximum, six families living on the property, including Downing.

This tax list shows two forges in existence on the Downing property in 1799. The basic function of the forge was to refine pig iron, product of the blast furnace, into blooms or bar iron. The forge was similar to the common blacksmith fire, except it had a sunken hearth. The design of the 18th century forge was based on the Catalan forge which originated in Catalonia, Spain in the tenth century. The forge refined the pig iron by subjecting it to the fire and repeated strikes of the large tilthammer. This process removed the impurities from the pig iron, making it a very useful product which was formed into horse shoes, nails and other forms of wrought iron. Since Downing had no furnace, the pig iron was imported from another works and refined at Hibernia.

On November 15, 1806 Robert Coleman entered a judgment against Samuel Downing for money owed to him, which was not settled, for on February 12, 1808 the property of Samuel Downing was sold at Sheriff sale. Hunt Downing, Samuel's brother, purchased 250 acres of this tract for 4000.

Hunt Downing was an innkeeper in Downingtown and had little time to devote to his newly acquired iron works. On April 1, 1809 he sold 196 acres (of the 250) to Jacob Holderman for $10,000, "together with all and singular the houses, buildings, gardens, orchards, meadows, woods, ways, waters, water courses, forges, forge dams, forge races ...".

On September 16, 1811 Jacob Holderman and Hannah his wife sold Hibernia Iron Works to Bernard Vanleer and Company for $10,000. Nothing is known of the production at Hibernia during the tenure of Bernard Vanleer and Company, though an iron furnace was constructed during this period. The iron works was now able to produce its own pig iron. The property was supplied with "inexhaustible banks of iron ore". [Ref. 12]

Page 141

Portion of Tax List : 1799

Page 142

Charcoal was used in the early blast furnace for smelting iron ore. It was usually made on the premises from wood which was piled in the shape of a cone and covered with clay. The wood was then lighted and allowed to burn slowly. When the fires went out, charcoal remained. This charcoal, along with limestone and iron ore, was dumped into the furnace stack and exposed to the blast, which caused the charcoal to burn at white heat and melt the iron. The heat from the charcoal caused the limestone to fuse with the impurities in the ore and form slag. This form of iron was known as pig iron, and was used only for heavy articles, such as stoves and firebacks.

Bernard Vanleer became quite active in the Hibernia Turnpike Company and was elected its president on October 9, 1813. The Hibernia Turnpike Company was incorporated in the state of Pennsylvania for the purpose of laying out a road which was to pass near the Hibernia Iron Works. Stock of the company was sold and paid for by the recipients in regular installments of five dollars each. The group of officers -- one president, ten managers and one treasurer -- were elected to serve for a period of one year. The positions seemed to be filled equally between residents of Chester and Lancaster counties.

On April 9, 1814 Bernard Vanleer and Company sold 196 acres and 12 perches to Isaac Vanleer, of Lancaster county, for $10,530. Joseph Heslep, a partner in the firm, moved, with his wife Susan, to Estile county in Kentucky and appointed his attorney, Anthony W. Vanleer, to sell off all his existing real estate. This included settlement of his 1/2 share of Bernard Vanleer and Company, and his demand for settlement could have been a contributing factor in the sale of Hibernia Iron Works.

In September of 1814 the Brandywine Creek flooded its banks, sweeping away many dams and inflicting severe damage on Hibernia Iron Works, though the full extent of the damage is not known.

Isaac W. Vanleer, in his advertisement of sale in 1815, presents an excellent account of the topography of the Hibernia property. At this time, two forges are mentioned, "one of which is now in complete order for making bar iron, with two fires and one hammer, capable of making 150 tons per year. Within 200 yards of said forge is erected a new blast furnace drove by a separate stream, coming in on the west, and falling into said forge dam". He also mentions an upper forge, which apparently was not in use at that time, as "a grand seat for a slitting, rolling or merchant mill, or distillery, or the whole as there is a great sufficiency of water for any kind of work, with fifteen feet fall". Seven additional tenant houses were built since the time of Samuel Downing, "part of which are stone". There was also "a good frame coal house to the furnace, and [a] stone coal house to the forge". He also mentions that the neighborhood "abounds with wood and iron mine". [Ref. 13]

The property of Isaac Vanleer, including Hibernia Iron Works, was taken in execution at the suit of Bernard Vanleer, Anthony W. Vanleer and Joseph Heslep v. I. W. Vanleer, and sold by Deed Poll by Cromwell Pearce. High Sheriff of Chester County. On February 10, 1817 James and Samuel Russell bought the Hibernia Iron Works at public sale for $6,410.

Page 143

On May 31, 1821 James and Samuel Russell, in turn, conveyed Hibernia, consisting of 196 acres and 12 perches, to Charles Brooke. Mr. Brooke also purchased great quantities of land surrounding Hibernia, which altogether amounted to 1710 acres and 76 perches, the whole of which was composed of eighteen individual tracts situated in West Cain, West Brandywine, and Honeybrook townships.

During the tenure of Charles Brooke a rolling mill was constructed in 1837. In 1840 this same rolling mill took fire "from the chimney at mdnight". [Ref. 10] Fortunately the wind was still, and the fire had little or no progress.

On the Wagontown Road near the iron works the Methodists built Hibernia Church in 1841. "In the days when Hibernia Forge lighted up the countryside," Wilmer W. MacElree noted, "throngs of working men and also women tramped up this road to worship." [Ref. 5] The works were completely closed down on Sunday mornings in order that all workers might attend services.

In 1850 two heating furnaces and one train roll were in operation. There were 14,000 bushels of bituminous coal used, and 20 tons of anthracite. Three hundred tons of bloom were made in three forge fires. The iron works at this time employed 16 men and boys and used 18 oxen, horses and mules. The main product produced that year was boiler and flue iron, which was sold in the Philadelphia market. [Ref. 2] In 1865 the production of the two forge fires fell to 162 tons of blooms. [Ref. 4]

In the late 1850s Charles Brooke's health began to fail. This was indicated in a letter from his son Charles E. Brooke to W. Darlington, Esq., "He [Charles Brooke] expected to have seen you sometime since, but not being wery well and cold weather was not good for him to go out." And in another letter written by his son, March 3, 1862, "my father wishes me to write to you".

On July 1, 1862 Charles Brooke and Jane B., his wife, conveyed 1594 acres to Charles E. Brooke, Horace L. Brooke and Henry L. Brooke, including "the rolling mill, forge, grist mill and saw mill". In this conveyance Brooke reserved the right to live free of charge in the mansion house at Hibernia with his wife Jane for the rest of their natural lives.

On July 18, 1866 Charles Brooke departed this life, in his early 80s, at Hibernia Iron Works. "The deceased was one of the most active and energetic businessmen in the county," it was reported in the Village Record, "In his early life he drove his own teams from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia, long before railroads or canals existed; he entered into the iron business and carried it on successfully for many years. He took an active interest in public afffairs, and for two years represented this county in the State Legislature where he was respected for his integrity and sound judgment. For some years he had been laboring under the infirmities of age and has taken but little part in public or private affairs." [Ref. 11]

Page 144

The Brandywine at Hibernia

In 1866 Horace A. Beale leased Hibernia from the estate of Charles Brooke. Mr. Beale was to become one of the most famous iron manufacturers in the state of Pennsylvania.

On March 7, 1870 Horace A. Beale offered his animals and farm equipment at public sale at Hibernia Iron Works. Soon thereafter he left Hibernia and founded what was to become the Parkesburg Iron Works. He erected his forge and rolling mill in the old State Shops, where the State operated the railway. In 1882 he sold his works to the Parkesburg Iron Company, in which he retained controlling interest. On November 3, 1897 Horace A. Beale departed this life at the age of 71, at his home in Parkesburg. [Ref. 14]

On March 24, 1870 Charles E. Brooke, Horace L. Brooke and Henry L. Brooke then sold the Hibernia property to Louisa C. B. Wickersham and Helen T. Brooke. These premises were taken into execution and sold as the property of Wickersham and H. T. Brooke, terre tenants, upon a judgment. Apparently there was no title warranty, since the judgments entered in the case began as early as 1856 against Charles Brooke, and continued until 1876. It appears as if the suit continued against each owner of the property until finally, in 1876, the property was seized and sold at Sheriff's sale by William B. Morrison, High Sheriff of Chester County. Helen T. Brooke and Louisa C. B. Wickersham repurchased the property on April 17, 1876 from the High Sheriff, Morrison, together with 850 acres 2 perches.

On April 23, 1874 the Hibernia Iron Works suspended operation, but in three months was opened again by Messrs. Goodman & Philips. [Ref. 15] In July of 1876 they advertised themselves as "Manufacturers of Flue Iron from No. 1 Wrought Scrap; refined with charcoal". [Ref. 17] Later in 1876 Horace L. Brooke took over the operation of the iron works. Bar iron was taken to Hibernia from Birdsboro, rolled there, and then sold. In December 1876 the Hibernia Rolling Mill broke down, allowing three carloads of this bar iron to stand idle on the siding. E. & G. Brooke at Birdsboro decided to send the cars to Messrs. Baily at Thorndale, but on May 17, 1877 the whole was levied by the sheriff. Actually, this was a feigned issue over rights of ownership of the bar iron. [Ref. 16]

Page 145

Stone ruins at Hibernia Forge

On June 6, 1878 Helen T. Brooke and Louisa C. B. Wickersham sold Hibernia, consisting of 450 acres, to Patrick Flynn. He, in turn, sold the same for $14,500 to William Struthers Freeman, a merchant, of Philadelphia, subject to a mortgage of $8,500.

On October 13, 1880 William Struthers Freeman sold Hibernia, along with the "forges and mills and 450 acres" to Thomas Costigan and Margaret, his wife, for $8,000.

Margaret Costigan inherited the iron works from her husband, Thomas Costigan. She then married one James Ayres. On October 18, 1894 James Ayres and Margaret C. Ayers, his wife, sold Hibernia to Franklin Swayne, of Philadelphia. At this time the tract was composed of 522 acres.

Franklin Swayne died January 11, 1924, providing that "my real estate in the county of Chester and State of Pennsylvania which said real estate comprising about seven hundred acres with the several buildings thereon, I give, devise and bequeath to the said Mary Matteson [Swayne's cousin] for and during the term of her natural life". [Chester County Will Book No. 463, page 508]

On August 15, 1963 the County of Chester purchased Hibernia, consisting of 700 acres, from Mary Matteson. This tract is now known as Hibernia Park.

'"Farewell, Hibernia!' I exclaim, as I leave it . 'Farewell,' reply two children in a boat, and as they say the word, I look once more at the lake and the lilies, and particularly at the old toppling stone wall on the further shore -- the link that binds the present with the past --I shall never see it again." [Ref. 5]

Illustrations courtesy of Chester County Park and Recreation Board

Page 146




[1] Cope, Gilbert and Henry G. Ashmead, Historic Homes and Institutions and Genealogical and Perrenial Memoirs of Chester and Delaware Counties. New York, 1904

[2] Documents Relating to the Manufacture of Iron in Pennsylvania, published in behalf of the Convention of Iron Masters. Philadelphia, 1850

[3] Forges & Furnaces in the Province of Pennsylvania, publication of the Pennsylvania Society of Colonial Dames of America. Philadelphia, 1914

[4] Lesley, J. P., The Iron Manufacturing Guide to Furnaces, Forges and Rolling Mills. New York, 1859

[5] MacElree, Wilmer W., Along the Western Brandywine. West Chester, 1912

[6] Pearse, J. B., Concise History of Iron Manufacture of the American Colonies up to the Revolution and of Pennsylvania until the Present Time. Philadelphia, 1876

[7] Nolan, J. Bennet [ed.], Southeastern Pennsylvania, vol. 1. Philadelphia, 1943

[8] Swank, James M., History of the Manufacture of Iron in All Ages. Philadelphia, 1884

[9] Zebley, Frank R., Along the Brandywine. Wilmington, 1940


Village Record, West Chester, Pa.
[10] July 21, 1840
[11] July 24, 1866

American Republican, West Chester, Pa.
[12] October 5, 1813
[13] October 31, 1815

Chester Valley Union, Coatesville, Pa.
[14] November 6, 1897

Daily Local News, West Chester, Pa.
[15] April 23, 1874
[16] November 16, 1877

Philadelphia North American & U.S.Gazette, Philadelphia, Pa.
[17] July 1876


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