- William Blake: Jerusalem
The green and pleasant Litchfield Hills are actually nothing like they were just a few generations ago. The regeneration of the eastern forest and the return of long absent wildlife is certainly an extraordinary change, but this has happened all over the Northeast where agriculture is in decline and second homes are in ascendancy. What is most remarkable is that this lush and verdant region with its seemingly timeless rural charm was in fact for more than 150 years an industrial landscape with open pit mines, blast furnaces and whole mountainsides denuded for charcoal.
The very heart of colonial and early 19th century iron industry in America lay in the Highlands of New York and Connecticut, and especially here along the marble valleys of the Housatonic River. There was an iron mine in Salisbury Connecticut at Ore Hill operating five years before the Town was incorporated, and the first blast furnace here had none other than Ethan Allen as one of its principle owners. During the latter half of the 19th century, the three main iron mines in Salisbury together produced nearly 45,000 tons of ore every year, or 21,176 tons of refined iron. The Lime Kiln Roads and Furnace Brooks of the Litchfield Hills speak of a past that was anything but pastoral, a time when smoke hung over these valleys and great rents were cleaved in the earth that made the mountains low. This is not mere hyperbole; Ore Hill, shown in the image above, is now a water-filled quarry.
In addition to high quality brown hematite iron ore, this region had all of the key ingredients needed for iron works. The forests provided fuel for charcoal, and today many of our revegetated hillsides have telltale circles of old charcoal pits scattered throughout the forest. There was abundant water in high gradient streams to power waterwheels, and limestone to use in the smelting process. Clumps of blueish slag can be found in all the old iron towns - sometimes deep in swamps or lining flower beds. Although it proved unfeasible to dig canals to service the mines and transport ore to Long Island Sound, a regional network of rails filled that need for much of the 19th century.
The demographics of this region also changed with the labor demands of the growing iron industry. Irish and Cornish immigrants worked the mines and furnaces in the 1800s, with Italian and Polish workers succeeding them in the early 20th century.
The shift of the iron industry to the upper Midwest, powered by the coalfields of Appalachia, brought an end to the industrial era in the Litchfield Hills, at the same time that dairy farming replaced sheep and saved the region's agricultural sector from virtual extinction. The trees started to regrow, the pits filled with water, and the landscape took on the rural character that is so treasured by residents today. Newcomers think it has always been this way, but in a twist on Blake's Jerusalem, "those feet in ancient time" walked hills that were far from green.