They’re not called the Iron Hills for nothing.
Underneath the modern subdivisions, warehouses, shopping centers, highways and buildings that hold the companies and schools, and offices of all types, are the iron mines. And snaking through the parks and steep hillsides of the region are the trails and rail paths that brought millions of tons of iron ore to factories that refined the ore and shaped it into products demanded by a growing population.
This is a summary of the talk I gave on March 3 to the Hackettstown, N.J. Historical Society as part of a discussion of my Frank Nagler Mysteries.
The books are set in a fictional city called Ironton, which is a down-on-its-luck iron center.
The protagonist, Detective Frank Nagler, is a native of the city and his grandfather and father worked in the iron industry. That history, and the economic ups and downs influences Nagler’s police work.
That’s what I’ll discuss on Tuesday.
This is a summary of the discussion.
There is a lot of iron in Morris County and Northwest Jersey.
A 1954 report from Rutgers and the Department of Interior estimated that in the 250-year regional mining history, 26 million tons of iron ore had been extracted. The value was placed at $100 million.
It could be said that the iron business was the most important industrial undertaking in the region’s history.
What is more impressive is the estimates of how much iron remains underground: Robert Hanson, in an interesting history of Port Oram, now Wharton, said there is about 600 million tons of iron ore left underground.
Hanson, and several geologist-authors of the numerous studies of the industry, said the ore was left in the ground because its depth at nearly a half-mile down, exceeded the technological ability of the companies to extract it economically. At the end of the local industry’s life, mining techniques had become more mechanized and the discovery of a rich, easily assessible ore field in Minnesota, fed the national industry’s need for steel-grade ore.
The New Jersey ore was deposited here millions of years ago in an extended period of continental smashing and grinding that left mixed bedrock of mostly softer limestones and harder igneous rocks like granite and gneiss that had been infused with water-bearing iron ore, and then bent and folded and later ground down to leave what is called a ridge and valley terrain. The hills are not tall, but they are notable for their steep slopes.
In many places the ore bodies followed these slopes angling diagonally sometimes at a 60 degree tilt. Hanson said in those instances it was as if the ore was like a wide broadsword that had been jammed diagonally into the hills.
In other places, the ore was in a linear form: wide ore bodies were stacked upon each other separated by bedrock.
The Mount Hope mine was mined for 8,500 linear feet and to a depth of 2,400 feet, the reports said. The Mount Pleasant Mine was mined for 11,000 linear feet.
The geological reports show one thing: There was iron ore everywhere in Northwest and North Central Jersey.
The richest deposit was called the Dover Tract, an area of 80 square miles from Ironia in Randolph Township to the New York State line, north to south, and from the eastern shore of Lake Hopatcong to Boonton, east to west.
This district contained 50 mines, the reports said.
Overall, a 1910 report indicated, there were 366 mines or openings in the state, the majority in Northwest Jersey. What these reports also indicated was that at the beginning, small forges were erected across the landscape to take advantage of the easily accessible iron ore.
Some of the most productive mines produced individually more than 1 million tons of ore: Dickerson, Richards, Mount Hope, Mount Pleasant, Scrub Oaks, Hurd, and others.
The 1954 report said that while the New Jersey industry had slowed, three mines – Richards, Scrub Oaks and Mount Hope – had combined for a total of 500,000 tons of ore that year.
Along the way – starting in the late 17th Century and extending to the middle of the 20th Century – the iron industry generated the creation of towns, governments, transportation systems, industrial innovations, consumer products, in other words life as we know it.
Here’s a short list of places and things that were created by the growth of the iron business: The Morris Canal, Wharton and Dover, Lake Hopatcong and Lake Musconetcong, the Rockaway Townsquare Mall, AT&T, pick a railroad, Route 46, Route 80, Mahlon Dickerson Reservation, the Holland Tunnel, Oshkosh B’Gosh, and Picatinny Arsenal.
Not bad for an industry that got its start because the raw material – iron ore — was easily picked up by early settlers right off the ground.
It is notable that the end of the New Jersey Iron Age was aided by the similar easy access to Lake Superior iron ore: It was picked up off the ground at a time when the cost of mining deep in the hills of New Jersey became cost ineffective.
How does this add to mystery fiction?
Frank Nagler’s grandfather and father worked in the industry and young Frank witnessed the effect of the decline of the industry on his father; his life and his police career were an attempt to honor the dignity of their lives.
A sample from THE SWAMPS OF JERSEY, expresses this:
“Ironton, like most of the canal and iron towns of the county at one time, was a boiling cauldron of ethnic pride, drunken rage and lawlessness. Neighborhoods, more like encampments of Cornish, Irish, Swedes, Germans, Italians, Slavs and others, made up the towns.
Nagler’s grandfather told him the stories, he recalled. The work underground in damp, sweating mines. The rhythm of iron pounding on iron as they carved out holes in the sweating walls for blasting caps and dynamite; nervous fingers. Then the coolness of fresh air as they again broke the surface, once more alive. “We grabbed civilization out of those rocks with our fists,” his grandfather said.
And so they had. Nagler thought. Old Hurd’s forge, and soon Oram’s and a dozen mines. Canal boats tied for the night at the basin, warehouses of goods flowing east to west, mules in rope pens, braying; campfires, and roasting meat; soft songs floating on the smoky air; then soon the towns grew along the river, brick streets and iron rails as trolleys rolled through to Lake Hopatcong where the swells built their summer homes. And shops and ice cream parlors and vaudeville at the Baker Theater, the iron money rolling in, transforming the village, while the rich men built their mansions and the poor men huddled in cold water flats. Then George Richman built his fabulous department store and sold the beautiful women fashions from Paris, and handmade silk suits for their men and marveled their children with mechanical toys and sparkly things that had just arrived by rail from New York City; the department store that filled the streets with a squadron of white horse-drawn delivery vans and draped starry red-white-and-blue banners from its three floors of windows, the place for that first suit for the young man, Maria’s white confirmation dress, a pair of hard-soled shoes and the wedding gown with the long train for the family’s first daughter.
Nagler, like anyone who grew up in Ironton, knew about George Richman. He was credited with transforming Ironton from a grimy, one mill town to one of the largest manufacturing centers in North Jersey. He owned iron mines and iron mills and the railroads that connected the two. But more, he attracted companies that could turn his iron into other products and soon the city was home to a dozen mills making kitchen pots and farm implements, stoves, then shoes and coats and ladies’ stockings; everything the growing world could want.
George Richman was also the politician to marshal Ironton’s city charter through the Legislature, creating the modern city from a section of a neighboring township.
There was nothing that George Richman couldn’t do, it seemed.
Except predict the future.
The mines played out and steel replaced iron as the building material of choice, and soon superhighways, shopping malls and subdivisions buried the old mines; weeds grew up through the rusted rails, the canal was filled in and paved over, its existence noted by a brass plaque screwed to the back side of an old warehouse. The fall, oh great Troy, is deep and far.”