While Cornwall Iron Furnace is closed to the public because of COVID-19, its mid-19th century steam engine is getting some much-needed work done on it.

Brian Howard, of B.R. Howard Conservation, Carlisle, is supervising the project, which began Aug. 20 and should be completed by the end of September.

The last time the engine was touched was in the 1970s, when it was modified to run with an electric motor, Cornwall site administrator Mike Emery told LebTown via email.

He said Howard has also conserved Hay Creek Forge, part of the furnace’s permanent exhibit, and done numerous projects for other Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission sites.

The furnace was originally built in 1742 by Peter Grubb, who named the area Cornwall after the region in England from which his father emigrated, according to cornwallironfurnace.org.

Its next owners, the Coleman family, undertook extensive renovations in the mid-1850s before the furnace closed in February 1883.

The website calls Cornwall “a unique survivor of the early American iron industry.”

Robert Vogel, of the Smithsonian Institution, labeled it a site of “transcendent significance,” noting, “with the exception of a mere handful of similar preservations in Sweden and Germany – and possibly a few in Eastern Europe – I doubt that anywhere in the world is there a 19th century iron furnace complex with the degree of historical integrity to be found at Cornwall.”

The furnace is part of a National Historic Landmark District and is designated a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

Emery wrote in his email that the current engine was previously thought to date from 1841. But more recent scholarship examined the blast books “and there is a reference that on Feb. 16, 1859, the blast was ‘stopped 2 hours to attach new engine.’ ”

He said it’s not surprising that the engine – which supplied air to raise the furnace temperature to melt iron ore, with charcoal as fuel – would wear out after being operational 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for about 10 months of the year.

A furnace guidebook described how the steam engine, “on its original housing, received a head of steam from the boilers behind the charging hole and powered the blast apparatus. A condenser retrieved and condensed the exhaust, which was then pumped back to the boilers, thus completing the circuit.”

“From this location, a worker could monitor each part of the blast equipment, including the wheel, piston and engine. If the blast equipment shut down for any reason, the charcoal would not burn hot enough to melt the rocks, a recipe for disaster … .”

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