An artifact of early industry, Penfield Pond faces uncertain future
By Tim Rowland
In the late 1820s, a couple of citizen scientists in upstate New York were amusing their friends with the latest technological parlor trick when they hit upon something useful. An electrically charged magnet, which could magically lift scraps of metal off the floor, was also capable of pulling shards of iron from a conveyor of crushed ore.
Joseph Henry of Albany, who would go on to become the first secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, perfected his electromagnet using iron of impeccable quality that was mined in Ironville, a dozen steep miles west of Lake Champlain’s Crown Point.
That led Ironville mining entrepreneur Allen Penfield to wonder aloud if magnets might be used to simply and easily separate out the valuable iron from the rocky chaff. Henry thought so, and indeed they could. This shortcut replaced lengthy set of occult processes that had previously been used to separate iron ore. And it did something else, too. It made Ironville the first American community in which electricity had been put to an industrial task.
Today the scene of this accomplishment is remarkably well preserved by the Penfield Foundation, which maintains a collection of period buildings in Ironville on the shores of Penfield Pond. This 150-acre lake is also a popular venue for anglers, boaters, hikers and birdwatchers. It was created nearly two centuries ago when the industrialists dammed up Putts Creek at the head of a precipitous chasm whose falls from the mountains into the Champlain Valley produced an awesome amount of industrial muscle. Without Penfield Pond, the character of Ironville would be radically different, and a part of the living historical record would be lost.
But that appears likely to happen, because the pond’s dam is failing, and the state has told the Penfield Foundation it must be removed. For the Penfield Foundation, fixing the dam is not an option, because it would cost better than $1 million, a sum the board can’t afford. “Don’t call us a foundation—foundations have money,” quipped trustee Susan Ross at a December meeting with Crown Point and Essex County officials.
The board is made up of a small group of local residents with a profound love of history, but no access to the type of wealth required to fix ailing dams. To raise money for the maintenance on its buildings they sell barbecued chicken and apple pastries. That raises enough money to putty up the church windows and pay the fuel bill, but not much more.
Far worse, the trustees fear that, individually, the site that they have poured their heart and soul into over the years may wind up costing them everything. If the dam fails, they would be personally liable for the catastrophe visited on the downstream communities. Because of that they want the dam gone, even though to these historians it would be heart-wrenching to lose it.
“Of course we want to save it, but then we come back to reality,” said Penfield board member Kama Ingleston.
Breaching the dam would be highly unpopular in the community, and board members worry about how it would affect Penfield, which depends on the goodwill of its neighbors during its fundraising events. There are other considerations as well. Above the lake are registered wetlands and wildlife habitat; below the dam, on Putts Creek, is the fish hatchery that raises the trout that are stocked in a broad swath of Adirondack waters. But none of this has moved the needle on any state or private funding.
A faint glimmer, and it is faint, of hope is that a purveyor of government grants or a corporation with strong ties to electricity—or maybe even the Smithsonian—will hear of Penfield’s dilemma and come to the rescue. Not long ago, a descendant of Ironville mill patriarch Charles F. Hammond—and who happens to work for the electric vehicle company Tesla—dropped by for a quick tour, Penfield Foundation President Joan Hunsdon said. Today, Hunsdon says she wishes she had gotten his contact information. She would like a word with him.
On the far side of Putts Creek and Penfield Pond, Champlain Area Trails maintains one of the most historically remarkable trails in the Adirondacks. As it ascends the hemlock-studded gorge past an ongoing collection of waterfalls and pools, the trail passes the monolithic remnants of two other dams and the foundations of industrial warehouses.
At one point a short spur leads to Stoddard’s Rock, a vantage point from which the famed 19th century ADK groupie Seneca Ray Stoddard shot a photo of the thriving town going full blast in 1874. In the foreground is a rock the size of a coffee table, marking the exact place the landscape photographer was standing when he set up his camera. The rock is still there, and on a plaque is the photo that he took that day, depicting a narrow valley hard at work.
Ironville today is a national historic district, with a dozen buildings still standing that have connections to the glory days of iron mining. The crown jewel is the Penfield Homestead, the nearly 200-year-old home of mining pioneer Allen Penfield, which is now a museum bursting with artifacts and stories. The most significant is told through a replica of the electromagnet that changed the face of industry.
The computer age prides itself for rapid advancements in technology, but in this respect the opening of the 19th century wasn’t bad either. It was at this point that 2,000 years’ worth of electrical-related observations began to be put together in a way that changed civilization.
The Italian physicist Luigi Galvani had created an electric current by wiring together two disparate metals and a frog. His rival, Alessandro Volta, discovered the frog was optional. This allowed him, in 1800, to invent a crude battery using copper, zinc and brine, an invention that went by the unromantic name of a Voltaic Pile.
In 1820, Danish scientist Hans Christian Ørsted figured out that these electrical currents created magnetic fields, and four years later British scientist William Sturgeon wrapped a 7-ounce piece of horseshoe-shaped iron with wire, fed it with an electrical current and amazed his friends by using his electromagnet to briefly lift a nine pound chunk of iron from the ground.
On this side of the pond, Joseph Henry was doing much the same thing. But it was Henry who came up with one of those trifling yet enormously consequential advancements that today are scarcely given a second thought: He insulated the wire.
That prevented the current from leaking into the iron and weakening the magnet. Henry’s other advantage was in the excellent quality of his iron, which was derived from the mines at Penfield. This ore, magnetite, was naturally magnetic. When Henry wound it with insulated wire charged by a Volta-inspired battery, it created a substantial and sustainable electromagnet capable of lifting 750 pounds of metal. This fascinated a Vermont blacksmith named Thomas Davenport, who, after visiting Penfield in 1833, sold his brother’s horse to buy one of Henry’s magnets. A year later he used it to create the first electric motor. Thus, every electrically powered device today traces its pedigree to a small mining community in the Adirondack Mountains.
That history, Penfield partisans believe, is worthy of recognition, and makes their community perhaps the most significant venue in the story of electricity that no one has ever heard of.
It is ironic, of course, that the carbon belched from industrial stacks had a hand in the changing climate that now threatens Penfield Pond. The dam was compromised by the aftereffects of Hurricane Irene in 2011, and with each powerful new storm, fingers are crossed—in more ways than one. After the Halloween story in 2019, Essex County inspectors knew that the region would be eligible for millions of dollars in federal disaster assistance. They scurried to the Penfield dam to see if there was some new, claimable damage. There wasn’t.
In 2016, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation declared the Penfield Pond dam “unsound” based on the damage from Irene. The DEC is requiring action, and, according to an email correspondence, “as the dam owner, the Penfield Foundation is responsible for determining whether the dam will be removed or fixed to meet safety standards. The dam owner recently notified DEC that it is planning to remove the dam.”
That decision, said foundation member Dave Hall, was made after multiple attempts to find grant money for repairs. “We just haven’t had any luck,” he said. “To take it out would be a lot cheaper.” But not cheap.
The consulting costs alone could be prohibitive. And environmentally speaking, the dam has nearly 200 years’ worth of sediment behind it, material that can’t legally be cut loose downstream. “It’s going to be quite of bit of money to fix it or remove it,” said Jim Dougan, director of Essex County Public Works.
On the Penfield board, where a “youngster” is defined as a person in his 40s, it’s become impossible to recruit new blood, in part, because no one wants the liability. One board member has already resigned because of it, and Hunsdon said those who remain watch nervously every time a large storm is forecast.
“We will raise the ire of the surrounding area” if the dam is breached, Hunsdon said. “But it’s scary. We’re historians, we aren’t in our positions to worry about dams. We try to go forward, but this gets heavier on our shoulders each day.”