The Cornwall Historical Alliance was founded some 20 years ago to fight plans to demolish an old red school house that had served as the region’s first high school.
The alliance lost the fight, and in the aftermath of that defeat the group lost its steam and faded into obscurity. However, one member had the foresight to maintain the alliance’s federal registration as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
Now, they’re back in business.
“Cornwall is increasingly attracting people from the outside, which is great, but a lot of those people don’t know the history of the borough,” Bruce Conrad, a Cornwall area native and alliance chairman, told LebTown.
“Fortunately, the Cornwall Alliance was still in existence, although in mothballs,” he said. “So we brought that group back together.”
According to the mission statement on the group’s new website, the Cornwall Historical Alliance “was formed exclusively for architectural, charitable, cultural, educational, and social purposes, including for such intentions, to discover, gather, and preserve historical materials and data relative to the heritage of the community known as Cornwall, Pennsylvania.” The borough, the statement further explains, “consists of the villages of Rexmont, Anthracite (Goosetown), Burd Coleman, Karinchville, Minersvillage, North Cornwall (Stone Row/Race Street), Paradise and Toytown; also the village of Quentin (Bismarck) and any or all relation to the Grubb, Coleman, and Freeman families.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Cornwall encompasses 9.9 square miles. Cornwall’s population was 4,604 at the 2020 census.
Conrad has enjoyed a lifelong interest in history.
“I’m a historian,” he explained, noting that he has retired as a history teacher in Lancaster County’s Penn Manor School District in 2003 and now works part-time as a church consultant. “I was always interested in the history of this area, because it’s a unique area.”
Much of that history is linked to Peter Grubb, who settled the area in 1734 and first discovered its rich veins of discovered magnetite iron ore; the Cornwall Furnace, which produced charcoal continuously from its founding in 1742 until it closed in 1883; Robert Coleman, one of Pennsylvania’s foremost iron makers; and Bethlehem Steel, which acquired the Cornwall ore deposits in 1926 and held sway over the region for a half-century.
“Bethlehem (Steel) is a tremendous example of industrial feudalism,” Conrad explained. “Not just in industry, but in government, they ran the local store, they took care of health care. Most of the villages around here were all built by the company and then rented to the employees. It was only in the 1950s that Bethlehem began to sell them to the people living there.”
Cornwall Center is often called “Toytown,” he noted, because of the modular units brought in on trains for Bethlehem Steel’s workers. “People said they looked like toys,” Conrad said.
Read More: LebTowns: Toytown & the “Cornwall Commons”
A lot of newcomers to the Cornwall area also don’t know the significance of the bronze statue of a miner in front of the elementary school in Cornwall Center. Conrad is happy to explain to any interested parties how it commemorates 231 years of mining history in Cornwall.
“A lot of the people moving in here are really interested in the history,” he said. Initially, he said, he fronted a plan to borough council, of which he was a member, to “take the lead in disseminating history,” but he soon realized an outside organization, rather than the borough itself, would have more flexibility for the job.
‘An overall plan’
Although the Cornwall Iron Furnace already exists as a testament to that portion of the borough’s industrial past, Conrad envisions something to encompass the full scope of local history.
“We have an overall plan,” he said. “We’d love to build a museum … sort of modeled after one in Harper’s Ferry, where each room is a different epoch in Cornwall’s history.”
That would include rooms devoted to the pre-Bethlehem and post-Bethlehem eras, he said, as well as the “Gilded Age” when Robert Coleman reigned supreme in the town. Conrad and other members of the alliance are looking for a suitable site, he said.
To that end, he said, the alliance’s half-dozen active members are trying to collect and save as many documents pertaining to Cornwall’s heritage as they can find. Some, he said, are in private hands, while others are in the Smithsonian’s archives; in those cases, replicas might be made available to them. They’re also trying to gain possession of a privately owned mineral collection that shows an important piece of Cornwall’s legacy.
They’re also exploring the option of installing plaques and signs along the network of trails connecting to the Lebanon Valley Rail Trail. The signs would interact with smart phones, Conrad said, to explain local points of interest to people walking on the trails. And they’re exploring other ideas, such as historical events and guided tours at some of Cornwall’s key locations.
“It certainly could grow,” he said. “We’re always looking for ideas and how we can enhance the history of this area. … Right now, it’s still in the embryonic stages, just getting off the ground. We’re trying to make as many connections as we can.”
For instance, he said, they’re coordinating with the museum at Cornwall Furnace, and they’re looking at ways to preserve oral histories of long-time residents.
“People are working very hard here, to try and preserve their history,” Conrad said. “But it gets harder as buildings get torn down and as people age. A lot of people who have direct memories of these things are no longer here.”
Knowing their history, he said, “brings people together.”
For more information on the Cornwall Historical Alliance and future events in the area, visit the group’s website at cornwallpahistory.org.
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Editor’s Note: This article was updated to remove a claim that Cornwall Borough is the third largest borough in the United States. Thanks to LebTown reader Ralph who alerted us to the misstatement.