Johnson Iron Works

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Jpohnson Ironworks on the Spuyten Duyvil
Johnson Ironworks, 1918, photo by William Hassler, NYHS.
Johnson Ironworks, 1918, photo by William Hassler, NYHS.

Long before the familiar Henry Hudson Bridge guarded the entrance to the Spuyten Duyvil a giant, belching behemoth of the industrial era dominated the landscape. For Inwood and points immediately north the Johnson Ironworks represented, at its peak, a paycheck for some 1,600 employees and a polluting eyesore for others.

Johnson Ironworks, 1918, photo by William Hassler, NYHS.
Johnson Ironworks, 1918, photo by William Hassler, NYHS.

Built by Elias Johnson in 1853, the iron works was a family affair. Johnson had cut his teeth building cast iron stoves, and later munitions used in the far off Mexican American War, for the well established Johnson, Cox & Fuller operating out of Troy, New York. In 1848, Johnson cashed out and went into business with his son, Isaac Gail Johnson. The younger Johnson had prepared for this day his entire life, having graduated from the civil engineering program at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute that very year.

1868 Map of Spuyten Duyvil showing Iron Works
1868 Map of Spuyten Duyvil showing Iron Works

The younger Johnson soon set off for New York City to find a site for the new family venture. Of three locations, including Mott Haven and Central Park,  Johnson settled on 180-acres of land extending north from the Spuyten Duyvil. The factory itself was built on a thirteen and a half acre peninsula near the western end of the canal which they would share with another industrial facility called the Spuyten Duyvil Rolling Mill.

With nearby railroads and waterways, the Johnsons couldn’t have asked for a better location and life became very good indeed for the family. Many years later, when not attending to foundry business,  Johnson family members were often seen touring the neighborhood in expensive automobiles. The foundry also paid for lavish homes and golf outings to exotic destinations.

Johnson clan in Golf Illustrated, 1925. Owners of the Johnson Iron Works on the Spuyten Duyvil in Inwood, New York.
Johnson clan in Golf Illustrated, 1925

But initially, it was all work, and in the beginning that business was mainly the manufacture of stoves, tin milk cans and other mundane items for home and commercial use.

During the 1860’s, the Civil War provided an opportunity that would make the family rich beyond their wildest dreams.

Delafield rifled three inch cannon
Delafield rifled three inch cannon

In 1861 United States Army General Richard Delafield  designed a cannon that would one day bear his name. When prototypes of Delafield’s cannon, manufactured at other foundries, exploded upon testing Isaac Johnson sensed an opportunity. While completely unschooled in the manufacture of cannon, Johnson made an outrageous proposition. He offered to build four guns using Delafield’s design and guaranteed each gun to “stand firing one-thousand rounds each without bursting.”

Not one of the guns failed.

Soon the Johnson Iron Works had a contract to produce sixty-four additional guns as well as the shot and shell that made them a deadly addition to the U.S. arsenal.

By this period the younger Johnson seems to have assumed the helm of the foundry now employing more than three hundred workers. By most accounts Isaac Johnson was a good boss.

1901 United States War Department map of the Johnson Foundry.

A family man of deep religious and political convictions, Johnson seemed genuinely concerned about the welfare of his workers.

Johnson Iron works worker with casting in 1906.
Johnson Iron works worker with casting in 1906.

After a backbreaking day in the foundry  a worker might retire to the well furnished company reading room, or, more likely, a local tavern.

Small homes and a school for the children of workers were erected just north of the factory. Johnson leased land from the Presbyterian Church and erected a company chapel on Puddler’s Row (now Johnson Avenue and Kappock Street) in 1889. However, Johnson’s spiritual side was probably lost on his then mainly Irish-Catholic workforce.

The post-civil war era meant retrofitting the foundry for peacetime production. Soon the plant was producing gas and steam fittings of a quality that placed them in high demand on the global market. By 1892 the factory  had its own telephone number, “Harlem 731” equipped with a long distance line. This early telephone communication became essential when the Spanish American War broke out in 1898 and military orders once again poured in.

Johnson Ironworks, "Puddler's Row" (Worker Housing).
Johnson Ironworks, “Puddler’s Row,” (Worker Housing), circa 1900.

During the 1880’s the foundry began experimenting with steel. By 1883 steel production in the foundry reached an annual output of some twenty-thousand tons.

Johnson Iron Works Foundry Interior, circa 1906. Spuyten Duyvil near Inwood and Marble Hill in New York.
Foundry Interior, circa 1906

As the wheels of change rolled onward so did production. By 1915 the company was the leading producer of rough steel castings used in the production of automobiles. In the years leading up to the First World War, ninety-percent of all the pistons, rods, cylinder blocks and crankshafts used in auto production were produced on the Spuyten Duyvil.

Johnson Ironworks foundry in 1923 on the Spuyten Duyvil between Inwood and Marble Hill in New York.
Johnson foundry in 1923

War had always been good for the Johnson Iron Works and World War I would prove no different. Wartime saw a nonstop flurry of activity with nearly 1,600 workers toiling in shifts 24 hours a day. The influx of workers produced a local housing boom.

Johnson Iron Works. canal widening begins, 1937.
Johnson Iron Works. canal widening begins, 1937.

Inside the foundry the ethnic makeup of the workforce was evolving. Gone were the days of a primarily Irish-Catholic workforce. Alongside the Irish, Welsh and Germans, who compromised middle management and lived primarily on Puddler’s Row, a visitor might also see Poles, Hungarians and Russians living together closer to the foundry itself. While the different groups had their disagreements, in fact there were some rather violent incidents, most disputes were resolved over drinks at Kilcullen’s, Weigel’s or any number of taverns that serviced the mill workers.

But the glory days were about to come to a screeching halt.

Johnson Iron Works token, likely for use in the company store.
Johnson Iron Works token, likely for use in the company store.

In May of 1919 when the New York State Legislature decreed that the Ship Canal would have to be straightened. The factory and much of the grounds were to be blasted away so ship captains could more easily navigate the twisting waterway.

On June 9th, 1923 the foundry produced its last batch of steel and castings and, after some tearful goodbye’s, sent 1,200 local workers and their families on their way.

The peninsula itself would survive until the 1940’s when deep dredging separated the little island where the Inwood Hill Nature Center now sits from the high cliff wall now marked by the Columbia “C.”

"BBQ Island"  in Inwood Hill Park.
“BBQ Island” in Inwood Hill Park.

In the summer months smoke still rises from the tip of the old peninsula. The spot is now the designated BBQ location for Inwood Hill Park.

24 COMMENTS

  1. Johnson also entered into Labor contract with Sing Sing Prison to use prison labor to under cut the union wages being paid to The Irish moulders. One reason my family left Johnson and Spuyten Duvil returning to Troy, NY in 1865 to seek new employment and to provide for his family.

    My uncle James P. Hooley as a NY state legislator from Rennselaer County in the early 1880s was pivotal in enacting laws abolishing the use of Prison labor contracts. No doubt my Uncle james was impacted and driven by the job loss his father, Irish immigrant Morgan Hooley experienced at Johnson Iron works due to the use of prison labor.

    • Timothy,
      What an incredible detail. That must have had the union foaming at the mouth. Thank you for describing for describing this unique dynamic on life in the foundry. Please share more if anything occurs to you. -Cole

  2. Workers again moved vigorously against contract labor in
    1864 when I. G. Johnson, a founder in Spuyten Duyvil just north
    of New York City, contracted to have his stoves molded at Sing
    Sing. Workers tried once more to change New York law so that
    convict labor would not compete with free labor. Not only did
    the legislature not act on their demands, but, in 1866, it
    empowered state prison inspectors to employ convicts at whatever
    labor would be most financially advantageous [11, pp. 449-57;
    and 17, p. 273].

    http://www.h-net.org/~business/bhcweb/publications/BEHprint/v009/p0167-p0180.pdf

  3. The Crisis of Imprisonment: Protest, Politics, and the Making of … – Google Books Resultby Rebecca M. McLennan – 2008 – Social Science – 520 pages
    That a Sing Sing laborer cost forty cents a day, against a free iron … “Free and Unfree Labor: The Struggle Against Prison Contract Labor in Albany, …
    books.google.com/books?isbn=0521830966…

  4. 50 years ago an elderly man asked me, “are you Isaac Johnson’ grandson?”
    I said, “No, I am his great grandson.” The man replied, “I’d give anything to have that blood in my veins!”

    Allen A. Johnson
    February 5, 2009

  5. This was very interesting to read about. Do you have any information about the Johnson family? Where did they come from? I am wondering if Elias was a brother to James Johnson, our ancestor. They were living according to the Troy directory at the same time. There was also a William Johnson who was boarding with Elias on 92 North Second in Troy in 1835. Thanks

  6. This is fascinating history and picture display of the Johnson Iron Works. I am a great great grandson of Isaac Gale Johnson. My great grandfather was Arthur Gale Johnson, one of Isaac’s and Jane Eliza Bradley Johnson’s five sons. Arthur Gale died in 1923 when we was General Manager of the Iron Works. Early on he had traveled West to Utah and settled two ranches near Jensen, built the first general store in Vernal, and married my great grandmother May Middleton Stewart. Some years ago I compiled a history of the Johnsons, partly from self-published family histories of the Johnsons, Gales, and Bradleys, and partly from the Bronx Historian Reverend William Tieck’s beautiful history of the south Bronx. Isaac built Edgehill Church at 2550 Independence Avenue in Spuyten Duyvil, in 1888-89. Years ago descendants of the Johnson brothers attended an annual memorial service for their ancestors at the church, which is small but still thriving and is now on the National Register of historic buildings.

  7. Comparing maps from the days of the Johnson Ironworks Foundry against current maps and aerial photos, if my calculations are correct, the site on which the foundry once sat is now underwater just off that spit of land on which appears to sit a baseball or softball field on the Columbia campus. That spit of land apparently used to be attached to the Bronx side of the creek. After the foundry was closed, and the subsequent reconfiguring of the creek, it’s amazing how different things are. One aerial photo, however, shows a channel almost trying to follow its historic and natural course south of the spit of land.

  8. Love the info. Always wondered about the Jonhson foundry & it’s location. I take metro north to work . And I board @ spuyten duyvil I’ll now be looking at a different way. I ve always wonder about the wood and concrete that looked like it supported a structure of some kind, I see this at low tide coming into spuyten duyvil station after passing through the cut. That’s what we use to call the big rock with c on it. And the very top was called the hump where the kids use to jump off. Getting late. Thanks again. Hugh p Murray. P S. lived in the area fifty plus years.

  9. This is an absolute long shot, but does anyone know if a list of workers at the foundry exists? And another question: what were the working conditions? Trying to find info on my Scottish great grandfather Colin Clark – in the 1900 Census he is listed as a foundry worker in Manhattan. He died between 1900 and 1904.

  10. I’m excited to find this discussion. All my life, my dad told me his father, William Johnson, came from a wealthy family that owned the Johnson Iron Works. I was told that whatever remained of the business dissapeared in the depression. Sometimes people just speculate, though. It appears that maybe the state’s decistion to re-route the Harlem river had the most to do with their demise. Anyhow, I wish I could make a clear connection between Isaac Gale Johnson and myself. My paternal grandfather was William Johnson of Brooklyn, where his 7 children grew up in what is now called “Midwood”.

  11. The statement, “The State of New York had decided to use the then narrow passage to connect the Harlem and Hudson Rivers.” is a little misleading, although clearly explained in your “The Harlem Ship Canal” article.

    The 1919 decision was to expand and straighten the original Ship Canal, opened in 1895, connecting the Harlem and Hudson Rivers. The first routing followed Spuyten Duyvil Creek around the Johnson peninsula, specifically to preserve the strategic industry, but eliminated the meander immediately to the east, thus separating Marble Hill from Manhattan.

    The original Ship Canal alignment is shown on the 1897 Harlem, NY-NJ USGS topo map. At that point, Marble Hill was its own island because the cut off creek meander had not yet been landfilled to attach the neighborhood to the mainland, which made it what it is today: a Manhattan borough enclave in the geographic Bronx.

  12. Can anyone tell me what connection Isaac G Johnson had to Cyrus H. McCormick?
    I have a bank check from Cyrus McCormick to Isaac G Johnson, which he endorsed, dated May 31, 1964, in the amount of $2249.04.

    Thanks for any help.

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