By Sue Gardner, Town of Warwick Deputy Historian
The Hidden Forge was a complete secret. So of course most people in Warwick would have known about it. The community kept that secret and a key turning point in the Revolutionary War was achieved.
These few first months of 2018 mark the 240th anniversary of the making of the Great Chain at Sterling in our Town. There had been several previous failed attempts to block the British from sailing up the Hudson, with disastrous results. Kingston, the temporary home of the rebel government, had been nearly burned to the ground.
This is how one of the greatest engineering feats in American history went down. In January, Warwick’s Col. John Hathorn and three others were commissioned to brave the bitter cold to survey areas of the Hudson and find a place where an obstruction would work and where forts could guard it. They submitted their report to the New York Provincial Congress on Jan. 14, 1778, recommending that it should go across the Hudson at West Point.
Everyone got busy. The contract for the chain was given to Townsend, Noble and Company and specified that it would be made of Sterling iron, which was a better quality ore. Local men and Continental Army specialists under the direction of forge owner Peter Townsend and engineer Thomas Machin worked furiously to mine, smelt and forge massive amounts of iron to create a gigantic chain that would stretch across the river. Hathorn’s militia kept vigilant watch the whole time, keeping Loyalists and spies away.
The following local men are among those who helped create the Great Chain or guarded it, as stated in pension applications for Revolutionary Service or other documentation: Elisah Bennett (Ensign, Sterling Company, Hathorn’s Reg’t); Joseph Conkling (Ensign, Sterling Company, Hathorn’s Reg’t); Solomon Finch (Lieut., Sterling Company, Hathorn’s Reg’t); John Finton (blacksmith); John Fitzgerald (Lieut., Sterling Company, Hathorn’s Reg’t); Alexander Miller; John Norman (Capt., Sterling Company, Hathorn’s Reg’t); Conrad Sly (Hathorn’s Reg’t; blacksmith), whose home is now the Landmark Inn; and Henry Townsend (Capt., Sterling Company, Hathorn’s Reg’t). All men of the Sterling Company of Hathorn’s militia were “forgemen,” according to a letter written by him in July of 1779.
By March and April, huge iron links, each about 24 inches long and weighing about 114 pounds, were transported 10 at a time on ox sleds from Sterling to the Brewster forge near the river for assembly. The completed chain was around 500 yards long and weighed about 80 tons. Log sections fashioned into rafts were used as floats.
The chain was stretched across the Hudson on Apr. 30. That’s right, Apr. 30! It was one of the most stunning examples in American history of what our people could achieve working together towards a goal. The Sterling chain, made of superior iron and sited correctly, held. As a matter of fact, the British didn’t even try it.
Lost (& Found) Forge
Astoundingly, hundreds of years later, the site of the actual forge, a nationally significant site, was unknown. Typical. We knew where the furnace used to smelt the iron was and we knew that the forge had been tucked away to avoid British eyes. But no one knew its exact location.
This bothered Doc Bayne, who was working at Sterling Forest State Park as the acting environmental educator and park ranger. He looked at the clues. He walked and walked and looked and thought. He researched every document that could be found and put more clues together before deciding on a new tactic. He started at park headquarters and walked in a straight line out to the park perimeter. He adjusted his course a few degrees and did that again and again and again and again. One day he came upon a small stream that had a few odd things in it, things that had miraculously persisted over 200 years. The famous forge was found. It was indeed tucked away in a little valley between hills, away from hostile eyes.
Once again, however, its location was kept a big secret and it had to stay that way for a while. This sensitive, nationally significant archaeological site must be protected from looters until the artifacts could be carefully discovered, cataloged, and rescued.
Doc kept that secret, as did the patriots of the Revolution. The slow process of discovery went forward under the authority of the New York State Historic Preservation Office.
Now, finally, years later, he can talk about it. Doc publicly lectures about the site and its importance and discovery and leads hikes into the mountains so we can all better understand and appreciate “The Chain That Saved the Revolution.”
Well done, patriots of Warwick. Well done, Doc Bayne.
For more information about the chain and those who made it, visit the Great Chain resource guide, hosted by Albert Wisner Public Library at http://guides.rcls.org/chain.
Birthday Party for the Great Chain on Apr. 9
The Friends of Hathorn House invite the public to drop by the Senior Center, located at 132 Kings Hwy. in Warwick NY on Mon., Apr. 9 between 6:30 and 8 p.m. to have some birthday cake to celebrate the 240th anniversary of the Great Chain across the Hudson. Doc Bayne, of the Friends of Sterling Forest, will be on hand to help everyone learn more about the creation of “Washington’s Watch Chain” and living history group members will be on hand in period dress.
For more information, send an email to Sue Gardner at email@example.com.