Ironville: One Hour and a Century Away from the Shores of Lake George
Less than an hour by car from the shores of Lake George but a century and a half, at least, from the motels and second homes that line the highway, sits Ironville, a graceful relic of 19th century Federal and Greek Revival architecture.
Six buildings are maintained today by the Penfield Foundation, which was created in 1962 by the family of the late Gil Barker, a well-known local architect, to preserve not only 19th century architecture but the hamlet’s history of iron mining.
It is not hard to imagine Ironville in the 19th century when the mines were being worked. From the porch of the Penfield Homestead, now a museum, you can look south to the two-mile-long Penfield Pond which spills over the remains of a dam into Putnam Creek. To the west are the hills where iron ore was mined, brought here on a narrow-gauged railroad to the forge, neither of which, the forge nor the railroad, now exists.
Across the road from the homestead is the 1843 Congregational church and parsonage; weddings, memorial services, lectures and concerts, still draw people to the church’s original pews. Annual events include a Heritage Day Service, an Apple festival in the fall and a non-denominational 12th Night service every January.
The hamlet includes a cemetery, a monument to the Billy, the Morgan horse that carried Colonel James A. Penfield into battle at Gettysburg and a state historical marker that describes Ironville as “the birthplace of the electric age.”
A tour of the museum with one of its informative docents (Bob Spring and local historian Joan Hunsdon were volunteering last weekend, when we visited) will illuminate that cryptic phrase.
Allen Penfield and a business partner, Timothy Taft, settled Ironville in 1828, establishing a saw mill and a general store, dealing in lumber and other products. Two years earlier, a boy who was hunting partridges in the area happened to grab a bush for balance and, in the process, uncovered a bed of ore, which Penfield and Taft purchased. They dammed the creek and built the forge. (Decades later, the Navy would use Penfield’s iron to produce plates for the hull of the U.S.S. Monitor.)
By 1828, Penfield already knew something about experiments being made with electromagnetism, and arranged for Professor Joseph Henry (then at Albany Academy and later the first director of the Smithsonian Institution) to build him a machine – a magnet and a battery – that would separate iron from crushed ore. This is said to be the first industrial application of electricity. Thus Ironville’s claim to be “The birthplace of the electric age.”
Ironville was like hundreds of other small manufacturing towns in upstate New York and New England. Situated on cascading streams, the towns attracted manufacturers and manufacturers attracted people. Small town life was unique, neither urban nor strictly rural. It was sufficiently affluent to afford books, paintings and trips abroad. It also provided good jobs and good pay to others; there was no great chasm between the homes of the manufacturers and those of the workers, no extremes of wealth and poverty.
That, at any rate, is the picture of life in a small 19th century town you might leave Ironville with. It’s enough to make you wonder if progress is necessarily the same thing as improvement.
Ironville is located within the Town of Crown Point. To reach the hamlet, head north on Route 9N to Route 74 in Ticonderoga. Drive west on 74 until you reach the turn off to County Route 2, which will take you past Penfield Pond into Ironville. Ironville will host its annual AppleFolk Fest on October 10 from 10 am to 3pm. The Penfield Homestead museum closes for the season on October 10, but on October 29 and 30, the museum will open for a Haunted Homestead tour, starting at dusk. The museum re-opens for the season in June. For more information, call 518-597-3804.