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