On the banks of the Spuyten Duyvil Creek across from Inwood Hill Park, there was a foundry that was run by three generations of a family that had served the United States in peace time and at war. The Johnson Ironworks Foundry became a familiar site and the mainstay for employment for the residents of Kingsbridge and the Spuyten Duyvil communities of the Bronx.
The foundry was established in 1853 by Elias Johnson and got its start to become a driving force in the railroad industry. The foundry was also known for other industries that needed iron forging for the New York area. Elias Johnson was originally a member of a stove foundry company in Troy, New York, called Johnson, Cox and Fuller. With funds from the liquidation of his interests in the firm, Johnson started a new business with his son Isaac, a graduate of Rensselear Polytechnic Institute as a civil engineer, in 1848.
The Johnsons came to New York City to find a suitable location for the foundry. Three locations were under consideration: Central Park, Mott Haven and a peninsula near Spuyten Duyvil. Each was in the range of $1,000 per acre. The Spuyten Duyvil location was the site decided on for the foundry. Johnson would share the 13.5-acre peninsula with the Spuyten Duyvil Rolling Mill.
Isaac G. Johnson’s five sons — Isaac Mattison, Isaac Bradley, Gilbert Henry, Arthur Gale and James Wagner — entered the business in their youth after the plant was opened. These sons were to be known by their initials — I.B., I.M., and so on. In spite of the differences in age, all of the brothers got along harmoniously. They lived near each other on Spuyten Duyvil Hill. When the first automobiles came along, the entire clan went out for Sunday afternoon drives.
With the onset of the Civil War, the Johnson Foundry entered the field of munitions. Cannon and shot were made in conjunction with Parrott Foundry in Cold Spring, New York. Both foundries produced a cannon with the designs made by Major Joseph Delafield. As a result of this effort, 64 cannon and munitions were produced to go with him for the war effort. The war was creating new demands on the foundry. The stove factory had to be rebuilt as an iron mill.
In the 1870s, with the arrival of Alexander Graham Bell’s invention of the telephone, Westchester County and the Bronx saw the installation of lines to connect residents with other parts of the area. In 1874, the Johnson Foundry had pioneered the use of the telephone in the Bronx. Much of Isaac Johnson’s telephoning was done to New York City. In 1892, the Foundry had its own telephone number, which was “Harlem 731.” This line was equipped with a long-distance circuit. When the Spanish American War started in 1898, it was necessary to improve the communication link because of the war effort, and the employees had to handle the extra load.
The Johnson Foundry was able to prosper as a peacetime production corporation. In 1871 and 1880, malleable iron works companies that Isaac had a major interest in were established in Hoosac Falls, New York, and Indianapolis, Indiana. During the 1880s, the efficiency of the Spuyten Duyvil plant casting malleable steam and gas fittings was such that they could be marketed abroad at prices that defied competition. The plant gained rank among the nation’s largest manufacturers in the field. At the time, the plant maintained a coal reserve of 3,000 tons for the furnaces.
During this period, the Johnson Foundry branched out into the manufacturing and casting of steel. Steel is made from pig iron in a furnace where the carbon in the iron is reduced and most of the other impurities are removed and certain substances may be added in the process. Several new furnaces were built in 1881 to improve production and the quality of the steel.
Over a period of time, several steel rolling mills were established on the site and an iron bar mill was added in 1872. Between 1874 and 1883, the mill operated with an annual capacity of twenty thousand net tons. In 1893, Johnson bought out the Langdon-Spuyten Duyvil rolling mill that shared the peninsula and remodeled to suit his needs for the foundry. The property consisted of two steel factories, three malleable factories and factories and foundries for military uses.
During peak operations, the annual capacity of the foundry was 2,500 tons of open-hearth steel and 5,000 tons of converter castings. During the Civil War, most of the foundry’s output was for munitions and parts for locomotives. In the 1890s, there was a new innovation and breakthrough in the neck-in-neck contest between shot and armor piercing capped projectiles. This increased the workload at the factory.
Between 1903 and 1915, the Johnson Foundry constructed two additional furnaces and practically supplied 90 percent of all the rough steel castings used in the United States for the manufacture of automobile engines. These included cylinder blocks, pistons, piston rods, and crankshafts.
During the First World War, there were 1,600 employees that worked on the day and night shifts. This allowed for more employment and housing in the area, which was at a premium for the area surrounding the factory. At this time, most of the pig iron was coming in from New Jersey.
With the opening of the foundry, Johnson brought cultural diversity to the area. The Irish, Welsh and Germans were hired as middle management and as engineers. They lived on top of the hill above the foundry. This site was to become known as Puddler’s Row, the present site of 555 Kappock Street. The Hungarians, Poles and Russians were the workers and lived at the bottom of the hill, which was closer to the plant.
Both sides managed to have disagreements which wound up throwing rocks, auto tires and railroad track equipment at each other. Despite these disputes, the Johnsons ran the foundry and lived in the Spuyten Duyvil for about 75 years. Much of the foundry work was backbreaking, and many of the employees came to find work. The result of the influx of foreigners needed a place to go to after work and relax. Drinking establishments like Weigel’s and Kilcullen’s opened their doors, where the employees could speak in their native languages. These places did a roaring business among the mill workers.
Despite its prosperity, the days were numbered for the Johnson Foundry. The handwriting was on the wall when the ship canal was cut through the southern end of Marble Hill in the early 1890s. Ever since then, the possibility of condemnation of the property was a prelude to the straightening of the hazardous channel where the plant had been for so many years.
The New York State Legislature enacted laws in May of 1919. Chapter 586 was enacted to create a Board of Conference in regard to the straightening, widening and deepening of the Harlem River and the Spuyten Duyvil Creek. This board was created in the hope of determining how to go about rearranging the course of the Harlem River to its present state.
The board also made note of the fact of the possible reconstruction of the bridges along the river to conform to the needs and standards of navigation. The members of the Board were: Franklin M. Williams, state engineer and surveyor who was chairman of the board; Edward S. Walsh, superintendent of public works; and Murray Hulbert, commissioner of docks. Anna Skoog was the secretary of the board, who wrote down what was said at the proceedings.
During the course of the proceedings, the board met in the Bronx and Queens to discuss with municipal and local civic groups the various positions of the proposed river changes. For example, a Captain McAllister who represented the Maritime Association of the Port of New York, was quoted as saying that the bend at the peninsula where the Johnson Factory was located was “the greatest menace from the North (Hudson) River, you cannot see anyone going into or coming from the North River, would have to take a great chance at navigating and vice versa. It is almost impossible to properly manipulate there.”
It was also mentioned in the report that by 1898 the Harlem River Ship Canal was only 58-percent complete. And in the twenty years since, nothing else had been done. Various other business groups, especially in the Bronx, advocated the demolition of the Johnson Foundry and its peninsula because it had created a hardship in getting goods downriver. As a result of this, the Johnson Foundry started to suffer much indignation because of political wrangling so that other businesses could flourish.
On April 30, 1923, the New York State Supreme Court ordered the release of the property to the state by July 1 of that year. This left little time to relocate the foundry, which was the only steel casting plant to do business with the City of New York within a 50-mile radius. On June 9, the final heat of steel and the last castings were turned out by the foundry. Patterns were being returned to many of the companies that had been doing business with the plant for almost 50 years. The plant equipment was sold at public auction on December 5, 1923.
Within a short period of time, the high chimneys and other landmarks associated with the Johnson Foundry began to disappear. Three generations of Johnsons had presided over the destiny of the company, which had for 75 years been on the Spuyten Duyvil. All the buildings, homes, taverns and other local sites affiliated with the foundry gave way to new apartments now so familiar to the community.
The peninsula had not been touched until the early 1940s, when it was dredged to allow for larger ships to pass for the war effort. A now familiar site, the Columbia University “C” was painted on the rock outcropping after the war. The outcropping and an island, which is now part of Inwood Hill Park, where the Inwood Hill Nature Center is located, are the only remains of the Johnson Ironworks Factory and the peninsula that it was on, that had done work for the federal government. It was this same government that through political backstabbing for the sake of the War Department (now Department of Defense) improvements had caused lost jobs for the community.