By: Barbara Cohen
The Schuylkill River flows 180 miles from its source in the Appalachian Mountains in Northeastern Pennsylvania to where it meets the Delaware River in Philadelphia. Along the way there are many tributaries that spawned the development of numerous industries and communities.
Just as the Valley Creek provided sustenance and water power for George Washington while the British were occupying Philadelphia over two hundred years ago, the French Creek provided the water power for the place that later became the Borough of Phoenixville.
The French Creek begins in the northwest corner of Chester County. It was here that Hopewell Furnace was established in 1771, because of the abundant iron ore found in the area coupled with the use of water from the French Creek to provide the power. This refined iron was brought to the place where the French Creek joins the Schuylkill River, and America’s first Nail Works was established here in 1793.
This area was first settled by James Starr in 1732. He built a dam across French Creek and used the water power created to operate a grist mill. His home is still standing, and it is the oldest building in Phoenixville.
The Nail Works was first developed by Benjamin Longstreth, and after a succession of owners, Louis Wernweg purchased this business. His home was situated high on a hill on the north side of the creek overlooking his enterprise. At night, he would look down and see the fiery forges lighting up the sky. He fantasized about the old Egyptian legend of the Phoenix bird, which burned itself up at night only to be restored all fresh and new with the dawn of a new day. He called his business the Phoenix Nail works. When Phoenixville became an independent borough in 1849 it kept the name that Louis Wernweg had given to his Nail Works so many years before.
After a succession of various owners, David Reeves purchased the Nail Works in 1829. The Reeves family owned the business until 1944. After the Nail Works was destroyed by a fire, David Reeves changed the company’s direction and began making the beams, rails, and other structural iron shapes needed by the rapidly growing railroads that were spreading like a giant spider web across the country. The Phoenix Iron Company and, later, its subsidiary the Phoenix Bridge Company became famous for making the structural iron needed for the railroads.
The Phoenix Column, invented and patented by Samuel Reeves in 1862, was a structural wrought iron segmented post that was used extensively to fabricate bridges all over the USA and foreign countries as well. Later, in the 20th century, the company made structural steel I-beams that gave tall buildings and bridges the structural support that was needed.
The Reeves family’s hiring policy was very inclusive. Immigrants of many different ethnic and religious identities, escaping from wars and religious strife in Europe, could find a job at the iron company. Former slaves, who had come to Phoenixville via the Underground Railroad, were also employed at the iron company. A sign at the entrance to the mill read: “At Phoenix – It’s the People That Make the Difference.” This sign symbolized the family’s philosophy. At one time, over 2,000 men working 24 hour shifts, 7 days a week, were employed here. This also gave Phoenixville a multi-cultural, tolerant spirit that still exists today.
By 1861, the Phoenix Iron Company was so well known and respected that officials from the Federal government came to Phoenixville to discuss a new type of cannon. The result was the development of a wrought iron cannon with a stronger, more accurate opening that was patented by the iron company. Popularly known as the Griffen Cannon, named for its inventor John Griffen, over 1,400 were produced and used during the Civil War.
What had begun as a nail works on the banks of the French Creek grew to become one of the largest iron and steel companies in southeastern PA. The company also helped Phoenixville to become the largest marketing and trade center in northern Chester County. There were once eight hotels in Phoenixville and a number of textile factories as well. Phoenixville Hospital was founded in the 1890’s as a result of injuries at the mill.
Phoenixville’s greatest growth took place in the 19th century. Its buildings reflect an astonishing array of diverse styles of Victorian architecture. Its Nationally Registered Historic District contains over 1,200 properties – more than anywhere else in Chester County. This extraordinary, historical architectural context has created a community that respects its historic character, and has brought about a true renaissance. Coupled with its multicultural population and its proximity to major transportation hubs, Phoenixville is now experiencing a renewed sense of pride and growth.
Although the Phoenix Iron and Steel Company is gone, the land and the waterway that gave life to the company are still here. With the completion of the Schuylkill River Trail, adjacent to Phoenixville’s historic downtown, the relationship between the land and the waterway flowing through Phoenixville has created a new dynamic, fostered new activities, and renewed economic vitality.
The Schuylkill River Heritage Center Website (Story above provided by Barbara Cohen of the Heritage Center)