Q: I was raised in the Hokendauqua area in the '50s and mid '60s and remember playing by the river in the old buildings and tunnels there. What is the history of that old plant and what is happening there now?
Byron (Dan) Smith
A: The plant you are remembering, Byron, is the long-gone Thomas Iron Co. that was built more than 150 years ago.
Founder David Thomas was a Welsh immigrant who came to Catasauqua in the late 1830s. In 1840 he built the Lehigh Crane Iron Furnace, the first commercially successful anthracite-powered iron furnace in North America. Thomas and his family were brought to America by Josiah White and Erskine Hazard the builders of the Lehigh Canal to build the furnace.
In 1854, Thomas expanded operations to the other side of the Lehigh River. On Feb. 14, 1854, at White's Hotel in Easton, a meeting was held to request a charter from the state for the establishment of the Thomas Iron Co. It was granted on Feb. 28.
Thomas purchased 294 acres and 65 perches of land for $120,503 from farmer Thomas Butz and opened his first two blast furnaces in 1855. Samuel Thomas, David's son, oversaw the construction.
It was a booming era for iron when it was said a newspaper could be read at 3 a.m. by the light of the glowing furnaces turning out the pig iron that local rolling mills transformed into railroad rails.
Furnaces 3 and 4 were erected in 1861 and '62. In 1867, the company opened a furnace at Lock Ridge in Alburtis. Those ruins survive today as a Lehigh County Historical Society park.
In 1872, two more furnaces were built in Hokendauqua, and in 1882 Thomas Iron bought the Keystone Furnace at Chain Dam near Easton.
The Catasauqua and Fogelsville Railroad and the Ironton Railroad were also acquired to move ore and coal. At its height in the 1890s the company owned 6,400 acres of mining properties in New Jersey and about 1,600 in Pennsylvania, one-fourth of them in Lehigh County.
The collapse of the railroad building boom following the Panic of 1872 caused many marginal iron companies to close. Thomas Iron weathered the storm.
''During the 1880-1890 decade'' noted The Morning Call on July 25, 1936, ''an (iron) furnace was in blast for every mile between Mauch Chunk and Easton.''
The Panic of 1893 brought down other iron furnaces. But Thomas was still going strong in 1904 when the company celebrated its 50th anniversary with a special party at Hokendauqua with 500 invited guests.
Facing increasing pressure to modernize, Thomas Iron in 1924 spent a million dollars a huge sum at the time to build new hot air ovens. But in 1927, barely three years into the operation of its new facility, Thomas Iron closed. Despite everything it tried, the technology revolution had finally outpaced it.
Reading Iron, a former division of the Reading Railroad, took over the Hokendauqua property. In 1936 Bethlehem Steel was ripping apart what remained of the facility for scrap metal.
Pennsylvania Power & Light Co. lineman Howard Zellers set off the explosive cap as ''the tall oven quivered, buckling in the center and fell, emitting a cloud of dust,'' The Morning Call reported.
Thomas Iron Co.'s history came to a close in June 1942 when J. Norman Scherer, the company's vice president, surrendered the company's charter back to the state. That ended 88 years of operations, descendant Samuel Thomas told the Evening Chronicle on July 28, 1942.
What remained of it were those tunnels that you, Byron, and a lot other children had such fun with in the 1950s and '60s.
The tunnels probably were used to house gas and water mains, according to local iron industry historian Craig Bartholomew. The old engine house also remains on the site.
The land is owned by William Dombokowitz Sr., according to Lee Rackus, a Whitehall Township planning official. Although some concrete recently was replaced by fill, she said she does not believe Dombokowitz intends to develop the site at this time.
Ask Frank appears on Wednesdays. Have a question on local history? E-mail questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Letters should be sent to Frank Whelan, The Morning Call, 101 N. Sixth St., Allentown, 18105.