Phoenix Iron and Phoenix Steel Company
History of the Phoenix Iron Co.
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The French Creek Nail Works
In 1790, Benjamin Longstreth established the French Creek Nail Works, which was the first nail factory in the United States. In 1809, iron nails the first time were made by machinery and hence were called cut nails. In 1813, Lewis Wernwag invested in the nail works and renamed it Phoenix Iron Works. In 1821, George & Jonah Thompson purchased the nail factory and installed the first coal-fueled steam engine. By 1824, it was the largest nail factory in the United States. The village soon came to be known as Phoenixville. Phoenix Iron Works grew from a small nail factory into Phoenix Iron Co. and eventually Phoenix Steel Corporation. At its peak, the business employed 2,000 workers. By 1830, Phoenix Iron Works was one of the largest nail factories in the U. S. It’s maximum production was about three tons of nails per day. After a fire in 1848, the nail factory was destroyed and never rebuilt. It was located where the future Foundry Building was constructed in 1882 by the Phoenix Iron Company.
The earliest way of making iron dates back many centuries. “Bloomery iron” is iron made by mixing iron ore with charcoal and heating in a small hearth with the heat being enhanced with a bellows. That yields very low-carbon iron that doesn’t melt, is ductile, and can be forged by blacksmiths. In the 1500s, the blast furnace was invented wherein iron ore is mixed with charcoal along with lime as a flux in a high furnace while hot air is pumped in at the bottom of the furnace with large water-powered bellows. The resulting iron was much higher in iron content and because it was much hotter and completely melted the slag floated on top giving a much superior iron product. The iron product from blast furnaces is called “pig iron” which is brittle but can be poured into shaped cavities in sand to make products. It has about 4% carbon. Pig iron had to be reheated to “burn out” the unwanted carbon so that it would be malleable and could be shaped by blacksmiths without cracking. This “bar iron” or “wrought iron” had about 0.05% carbon. Coal was used in this process to generate the needed heat. Very low carbon iron cannot be hardened, so it can be reheated with carbon to get about a 1% carbon content that creates a hard iron product. In 1784, Henry Cort in England developed the “puddling” process to make wrought iron from pig iron. The process uses a furnace where coal is burned in a separate part and the hot air is drawn over the pig iron in the main part of the furnace. Long rods are used to oxidize the unwanted carbon and stir the iron.
In the 1820s, Phoenix Iron Works needed new capital. In 1827, Brothers David and Benjamin Reeves along with James and Joseph Whitaker added investment capital and named the enterprise Reeves & Whitaker. In 1825, the Schuylkill Navigation Canal opened and coal could then be shipped to the iron mill from the Port Carbon area in Schuylkill County, PA. In 1841, Reeves and Whitaker became the first firm in the area capable of extensive puddling operations after adding six puddling furnaces.
In the late 1830’s, the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad came to Phoenixville. In September of 1837, the 1932 foot-long Black Rock Railroad Tunnel was completed although the railroad did not open for business in Phoenixville until January of 1842. The tunnel was originally 19 feet wide and 17 feet high. The tunnel was started in December of 1835. It was the second railroad tunnel built in the United States. In 1842, the railroad was completed to Pottsville, so then the railroad could deliver larger amounts of coal much quicker to the iron mill than could canal barges.
In 1842, a survey of the operation stated that the blast furnace had a capacity for making 1,500 tons of pig iron per year. The refining furnace had equal capacity and the rolling mill could convert 3,000 tons of pig iron into bars per year. The mill employed 147 workers.
The 1840s represented a decade of triumph and expansion for the Reeves family, with the only major reversal coming on June 25, 1848, when the nail factory burned. The facility was a total loss and the nail factory was never rebuilt.
As demand for railroad rails soared in the 1840s, Pennsylvania trackage alone almost quadrupled between 1846 and 1860. The first iron rails used in the United States were imported from Europe and then they started being made in the U.S. The Iron Works at Phoenixville started making iron rails in November of 1846. The company had three blast furnaces measuring l5′ x 59′ by mid-decade. In 1846, the firm changed its name to Reeves, Buck and Company, indicating a fresh source of capital had been obtained from Robert S. Buck of Bridgeton. Reeves, Buck and Company immediately put the new funds to work erecting a major rail mill. Other additions in 1846 included a puddling furnace, a reheating mill, blacksmith shops, a foundry, a pattern shop, and a machine shop. More office and warehouse space was also added. George Walters, a skilled mechanic who had been with the firm since 1838 and was now chief engineer, was credited with designing and carrying out the expansion.
In 1855, the Phoenixville enterprise was reorganized and incorporated as the Phoenix Iron Company with David Reeves, founder, as president and his son Samuel as vice president and treasurer. The sale of stock provided capital funds. In 1855, Phoenix Iron Co. became the first iron mill in America to roll iron beams and plates. By the 1850’s, Phoenix Iron Co. was the largest employer in Chester County with more employees than the next 75 businesses combined.
The 1850s were also characterized by success, with the Reeves operations stretching from Phoenixville to Safe Harbor in Lancaster County to Bridgeton, NJ to Johnstown, PA. Reeves, Buck and Company had the most substantial rolling mill in the state, and in certain products such as rails achieved total vertical integration. They had total control of the production process–from ownership of iron ore and anthracite coal to the production and sale of iron rails. Furthermore, they turned out more products with less fuel and labor than any of their competitors.
The new direction for Phoenix Iron Co. in the mid 1850’s involved an emphasis on the fabrication of structural iron beams, with nine-inch deep I-beams being produced at Safe Harbor. By mid-century the expanding Phoenix Iron Works threatened to overwhelm the modest village of Phoenixville, whose population had doubled from 809 in 1840 to l,680 in 1846. By 1848 the population doubled again to 3,337. The Reeves could see only one solution to the pressure placed on the existing supply of local housing, and that was to build company housing on land the firm already owned. At the end of the decade about 100 modest frame structures were erected, which became known as “Puddler’s Row” and “Nailer’s Row.” Some of the “Nailer’s Row” houses have endured and still can be seen as pictured between the north side of Bridge Street and the French Creek.
The creation of company housing at Phoenixville is significant because such accommodations gave the firm greater leverage and thus control over their workers. This arrangement gathers even more meaning when it is noted that wages paid at Phoenix Iron were consistently low in comparison to other iron works in the region. Furthermore, management’s attitude toward labor was consistently repressive. In brief, if the Reeves were determined to rule their workers with an iron hand, and company housing could serve as a means to that end.
The “Griffen Gun”
John Griffen who was named superintendent at Phoenix Iron Co. in 1856 made significant contributions to the firm. He had an extensive background that included work at the Norristown Iron Works and at Safe Harbor in Lancaster County and continued his role as an innovator earning patents for improvements in rolling massive wrought-iron beams that were used in commercial and industrial projects.
However, his place in history was secured by the invention of the 3-inch ordinance rifle which is sometimes called the Griffen Gun. It was patented in 1855 (patent # 13,984). An original 1855 model rifle without a serial number since it never saw military service is in Reeves Park in Phoenixville.
The spirally wrapped 3-inch rifle (76 mm) was made from rolled iron rods. Previously cast iron or brass was used in rifles. Those guns were adversely affected by heating during firings and barrel distortion became dangerous for continued use. The Griffen Gun was designed and first produced while John Griffen was still at Safe Harbor. The United States Army tested the gun at Fort Monroe, VA in 1856 and 1857 and was pleased with its performance. It could fire exploding shells that were at that time a problem for the Army and Navy and would continue to be so for several more years. The government purchased about 940 guns or 3-inch rifles from Phoenix Iron Company between 1861 and 1865. That was about half of the Union Army guns used during the Civil War. The last rifle was produced in January 1867. The original gun or rifle was called the 1855 Griffen Gun and it underwent some changes in 1857 and again in 1861. Its weight was reduced and the barrel’s inside diameter was decreased to 3 inches. The 1861 Model barrel was 69 inches long and rifled. The rifle weighed 816 pounds, which was more than 200 pounds lighter than brass guns. Its name was the 3-inch Ordnance Rifle Model 1861. The cost ranged from $330 to $350 per rifle during the Civil War. The maximum range for the muzzle-loading gun was 1830 yards using a typical 8 or 9-pound shell which had a velocity of about 1,215 feet per second using a one-pound powder charge. The guns gave good publicity to John Griffen and the Phoenix Iron Company.
The Phoenix Column
The Civil War years brought contracts for the highly successful 3-inch Ordnance Rifle, yet the success of the rifle probably does not compare with the firm’s greater claim to historical significance: the invention, fabrication, and sale of the famous Phoenix Column. It was invented by Samuel Reeves in 1862. The Phoenix Column is hollow and circular and made up of four, six, or eight wrought-iron segments that are flanged and riveted together. A drawing of them is on the left. Reeves had created a device that would greatly facilitate the construction of tall buildings by eliminating the need for brutally heavy and thick load-bearing walls. The Phoenix Column also had structural applications in bridges, buildings, viaducts, and elevated lines. A famous architect, Alan Burham, argued that its real advantage over the cast-iron column was that wrought iron could be riveted which was a feature that became important in the 1880s when designs for taller and taller buildings on narrow urban lots had to address wind bracing. Connections between riveted steel columns and beams were sufficiently rigid that wind bracing became a relatively simple task. The idea behind their invention was the tall iron masts being used in some British ships. They were made from 4 to 8 sections of curved iron or later curved steel and riveted together to form a pipe that was very strong. They were from 3 5/8″ to 14 3/8″ in diameter and between 10′ and 36′ long. They were from 1/8″ to 1 3/16″ thick. They were made of iron until 1890 when they were made from steel. They ceased making them in 1919 because of competition from steel I-beams and steel wide flange beams.
In the 1860s, Phoenix Iron Co. had about 1,200 workers. In the late 1800s, Phoenix Iron Co. was the largest employer in Chester County. Phoenix Iron Co. started making steel in 1889. Before then their products were made of iron.
Phoenix Columns were used in the Second Avenue Elevated Line and in the New York City Metropolitan Elevated extension from 83rd Street to 159th Street. They were used in an engineering wonder known as the Kinzua Viaduct to transport trains over the Kinzua Valley in Northwestern Pennsylvania. They played a vital role in noteworthy buildings in New York City, including the R. G. Dun Building, the World Building which was also known as the Pulitzer Building, the Commercial Cable Building, and Madison Square Garden. In Philadelphia, Phoenix Columns were used for structural support in the Frankfort Arsenal Rolling Mill, the pump room at the Philadelphia Fairmount Waterworks, City Hall, and the Public Ledger Building at Sixth & Chestnut Streets. Phoenix Columns were used in bridge work for compression trusses and for structural supports. They were used for shoring up sections of mines. Phoenix Columns displayed an extraordinary ability to withstand heavy loads. An interesting use of Phoenix Columns was in Chicago in the Old Colony Building which was built in 1893 and 1894. It was a 17-story building that was the tallest building at that time in Chicago. Sometimes Phoenix Columns were used for vertical support and steel I-beams were used for floor trusts. Phoenix Columns would have been used to build the never financed or built 1,000-foot high observation tower that David Reeves envisioned for the Centennial Exposition, described in Scientific American on January 24, 1874.
The Calhoun Street bridge from Morrisville to Trenton was made with Phoenix Columns. There are now about 40 bridges still in use that were constructed with Phoenix Columns. From 1868 to 1893, about 800 bridges were built with Phoenix Columns.
The Phoenix Bridge Company
The Phoenix Bridge Co. was organized in 1864 as a division of the booming Phoenix Iron Company. It was created following the 1862 invention of the famous Phoenix Column. A diagram of a Phoenix Column is shown below. Before the Civil War bridges were either of timber or metal truss designs. The Phoenix Bridge Co. became a leading metal truss builder following the Civil War. The company often used the Phoenix Column which was superior to the previously used cast iron bridges that were susceptible to undetectable cracks that lead to sudden failures. These bridges were a pin-connected struss structure such as the Calhoun Street Bridge in Trenton, NJ that was built by the Phoenix Bridge Co. in 1885. From 1869 to 1884, the company fabricated more than 800 bridges, 500 of which used the Phoenix Column. The Phoenix Column was lighter in weight and had greater strength than cast iron columns of similar shape and size. Railroads were their biggest customers although they built over 280 Phoenix Column highway bridges from Maine to North Carolina from 1885 to 1895. Bridge designs changed by 1900 because pins suffered wear and stronger bridges were needed for increased weight loads. By 1900, bridges began to use a newer technology of riveted steel members.
However comfortable Phoenix Bridge Co. may have been in doing one thing very well, the firm’s leadership, embodied by president David Reeves, chief engineer Adolphus Bonzano, and superintendent John Griffen, ultimately pursued more fascinating and difficult engineering challenges. In 1874, the company completed the Girard Avenue Bridge over the Schuylkill River to connect the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in Fairmount Park to the Philadelphia Zoological Gardens. Concurrently, David Reeves proposed a one-thousand-foot-high centennial tower, an exciting idea featured in Scientific American on January 24, 1874 that died for lack of funding. In addition, contracts were executed for viaducts, a Brooklyn elevated line, and bridges to span the Ohio River and other rivers.
In 1884, the owners of Phoenix Iron Co. took advantage of a new trend, the catalogue bridge business. It was a logical new business because firms like Phoenix Iron Co. could now produce and store standard structural iron parts. Potential customers could look at a catalog of component bridge parts and purchase the items necessary for their specific bridge.
All of this was somewhat misleading. Every bridge to some degree was a custom order. Custom tailoring was most effectively carried out by consulting engineers mediating between the needs of the customer and the resources of the bridge company, a process that became a common practice. In brief, the fabricating bridge companies were not exactly producing the turnkey products they liked to think they were producing. Despite this caveat prefabricated bridge companies were entering a new era.
Phoenix Bridge Co. functioned as a wholly owned subsidiary of the Phoenix Iron Company and each year purchased roughly 20 to 40 percent of the parent firm’s output. Both companies maintained offices in center city Philadelphia and had production facilities 28 miles to the northwest along the French Creek in the quiet Borough of Phoenixville, a community served initially by the Pickering Valley Railroad and the Reading Railroad. The coziness of the relationship between parent and subsidiary generated grumbling among competitors; but that was commonplace and quite similar to the relationship between Carnegie Steel and the Keystone Bridge Company.
Phoenix Bridge Co. did a lot of business in an overcrowded industry in the last decades of the Nineteenth Century, fabricating and erecting hundreds of railway bridges and viaducts and an occasional highway span, primarily in the United States, Canada, and Latin America. Many of these spans were relatively modest in length and used Phoenix Columns and truss designs. The products appeared in the firm’s trade catalogues and had been reproduced many times. Phoenix Bridge had a very comfortable market niche fabricating unspectacular but readily available and reliable products.
Phoenix Iron Co. started making steel in 1889. Before then their products were made of iron.
In 1888, a Phoenix bridge under construction in Cincinnati lost all of its temporary supporting framework. In 1893, a Phoenix bridge under construction at Louisville collapsed resulting in extensive loss of life. In 1898, a Phoenix bridge almost completed in Rockbridge County, Virginia, gave way–again with loss of life. In 1907, a Phoenix bridge under construction in Quebec collapsed into the St. Lawrence River killing 75 workmen in one of the most infamous bridge construction accidents in history.
The insurance records of The Phoenix Bridge Company (known as Kellogg, Clarke and Company from 1868 to 1870 and Clarke, Reeves and Company from 1871 to 1884) reveal ongoing death and injury to workmen on erection sites which was not surprising given the dangerous nature of the work.
Phoenix Bridge Co. lost both money and prestige as a result of these accidents, but they also were hurt by competition especially from American Bridge Company that was formed in 1900 as a subsidiary of United States Steel Corporation. American Bridge Co. eventually had up to 90 percent of the bridge market.
Phoenix Bridge’s best years were behind them by 1907 given the competition primarily with American Bridge Co. and the accident in Quebec. In 1907, Phoenix Bridge Co. still had some fascinating projects on the drawing board including the Manhattan Bridge in New York City that was completed in 1909.
Little more than a decade later, company business records reveal a trend in the direction of smaller projects and often nondescript work. America needed only so many steel bridges, and a market saturation had been reached. A revolution in reinforced concrete started to redefine bridge construction, and Phoenix Bridge Co. hardly seemed to be a position to capitalize on that revolution. Phoenix Bridge Co. had always been viewed by its owners as an outlet for the finished product of Phoenix Iron Co. Both World Wars provided business for a firm experienced in working with structural steel, much of this related to shipbuilding, but beyond World War I business prospects were generally grim.
A major effort was made in the late 1940s to sell the firm without success. Phoenix Bridge Co. continued until it went out of business in 1962.
Phoenix Columns were used to build almost 1,400 bridges around the world. The last heat of steel at Phoenix Steel Co. was on November 18, 1976.
**The source for much of this article is from from “Without Fitting, Filing, or Chipping”, by Thomas R. Winpenny, published by Canal History and Technology Press in 1996.
Phoenix Bridge Company Documents:
The Society has close ties with the Chester County Historical Society in West Chester and The Hagley Museum & Library near Wilmington, Delaware, which houses papers of the Phoenix Iron Co., the Phoenix Steel Corporation, and the Phoenix Bridge Company. You may also visit The Schylkill River Heritage Center’s website to learn more about the Phoenix Bridge Company. Their web site has photos of over 70 pictures of Phoenix Bridge Company bridges that were built around the U.S. in their Bridges and Structures.
The Phoenix Iron and Steel Company
In 1910, Phoenix Iron Co. had the largest Open Hearth steel furnace in the world with a 150-ton capacity. In 1913, Phoenix Iron Co. had the first electrically operated continuous steel furnace. In an open hearth furnace, pig iron as well as scrap iron and steel are melted by a hot gas flame drawn over it by a chimney draft. During the process, high-quality iron ore is added. Alloy minerals can be added such as nickel to make alloy steels. The resulting steel is then poured into ingot molds. The ingots are subsequently heated in “soaking pits” with hot air for tempering before the steel ignots are rolled into slabs.
In 1949, the company was renamed the Phoenix Iron and Steel Company and in 1955 the name was changed to the Phoenix Steel Corporation. Phoenix Iron Company employed up to 2,500 workers during the two World Wars. After World War II, Phoenix Iron and Steel Company and its new name Phoenix Steel Corporation began to decline from increased domestic and foreign steel competition as well as from increased competition from aluminum and reinforced concrete products. Phoenix Steel Corporation eventually closed and the last steel heat was done on November 18, 1976.
The Foundry Building is pictured below as it looked in 2010 after its restoration. The rebuilt Gay Street Bridge is visualized in the background. The 14,000 sq. ft. Foundry Building was completed in March of 1882 at the Phoenix Iron Company plant that covered over 130 acres in Phoenixville along both sides of the French Creek. The Foundry Building houses a very large wooden crane that may be the only large wooden crane still in place in the United States. The Foundry Building is now the home of the Schuylkill River Heritage Center.
** A source for part of this article is Without Fitting, Filing, or Chipping, by Thomas R. Winpenny, Canal History and Technology Press, 1996. Another source is the Annals of Phoenixville And Its Vicinity by Samuel Whitaker Pennypacker, reprinted in 1976 from the original edition that was published by Bavis & Pennypacker in Philadelphia in 1872.
On October 29, 2005, a Phoenixville Community Health Foundation project came to fruition as Ryan Conroy unveiled a historical marker commemorating the Phoenix Iron Company that started in 1783 and closed in 1987.
Robert Weibel, the Director of Public History for the State Museum of Pennsylvania, said in order to obtain a historical marker the applicant must show the subject has state-wide significance. Mr. Weibel noted the historical significance of the Phoenix Iron Company with the unveiling of the Phoenix Iron Co. historical marker near the Foundry Building, which is now the home of the Schuylkill River Heritage Center.
Mr. Weibel congratulated Ryan Conroy on acquiring the marker for Phoenixville. Other speakers at the ceremony included Jack Ertell, the President of the Historical Society of the Phoenixville Area, PA State Senator Robert Thompson, and Leo Scoda, the Mayor of Phoenixville.
Ryan Conroy, who is a member of the Board of Directors for the Historical Society of the Phoenixville Area, began his quest to recognize the history of the former Phoenix Iron Company as part of a project in 2004 for the Leadership Academy hosted by the Phoenixville Community Health Foundation.
Each participant in the Leadership Academy was given $500 to pursue a venture that would benefit the community. Because of his intense love of history, especially the history of the Phoenix Iron Company where his family worked since the days of his great-great-grandfather, Ryan Conroy chose to dedicate his time to obtaining the PA state marker from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
Ryan Conroy, who is a fifth-generation Phoenixville resident, gave a presentation in the Phoenixville Borough parking lot off Mill Street. His speech encompassed the history of the Phoenix Iron Company from its humble beginnings in 1783 to 1987 when the mill closed. Ryan Conroy, who has been exposed to history throughout his life, began by thanking the Phoenixville Community Health Foundation for giving him the grant. He also thanked members of the Historical Society of the Phoenixville Area who assisted him with his research before describing to the crowd the historical significance of the former Phoenix Steel Company.
The Phoenix Steel Company, which changed its names and owners several times, was established in 1783 by David Reeves and was responsible for the creation of many significant products, including the Griffen Gun. The mill produced about 1200 cannons (3″ rifles) during the Civil War. Forty-five percent of Union artillery was made by the Phoenix Iron Company. The company invented the famous Phoenix Column in 1862.
The location for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission marker, along Main Street in Phoenixville near the entrance to the Mill Street parking lot, was chosen because the lot was the approximate site of the first nail-making factory in the U. S. that was started in 1790 by Benjamin Longstreth.
After giving his presentation, Ryan Conroy stood before the marker, which was covered with a blue canvas sleeve, and prepared to unveil the fruit of his yearlong labor.
The historical marker, Ryan Conroy said, is dedicated in honor of the employees of the Phoenix Steel Company, including former President and CEO Harold Freeman and 40-year-employee Anthony “Shorty” Cionti, who were present at the ceremony.
Ryan Conroy also took the opportunity to honor the late Alexander Kovach, who was employed by the mill for several decades.
The Phoenix newspaper article on October 31, 2005 reporting on the event quoted Ryan Conroy as telling the audience “Alex Kovach really took the heart of this place” and “This marker is dedicated to the town of Phoenixville in memory of Alex Kovach.”
As he lifted the cover off the new historical marker, Ryan Conroy received applause and congratulations. Ryan Conroy’s father, Joe Conroy, said he was immensely proud of his son.
The Phoenix newspaper account quoted Joe Conroy “I am so grateful for his efforts to preserve the history of Phoenixville” and “this project is something he was passionate about.”
Joe Conroy said his son learned about the history of Phoenixville mostly from his grandparents – his grandfather worked for the steel mill and his grandmother used to make lunches for the workers.
According to The Phoenix newspaper account, Ryan Conroy told the audience “I chose this because of the significance to the town” and “my family worked here, and I’m very proud of this. I’m happy to have it up.”
Ryan Conroy always felt the town should create a memorial to the Phoenix Iron Company because it was such an important part of the town’s history, so he set out to learn the history of the mill.
According to The Phoenix newspaper account, Joe Conroy said of Ryan “He’s got a great knack for seeking out stories”.
Ryan Conroy said in the 1840s, the Phoenix Iron Company was in full production, manufacturing nails and rails for the expansion of railroads.
After a fire in 1848, the nail factory was never rebuilt. It was located where the future Foundry Building was constructed in 1882 by the Phoenix Iron Company. Phoenix Iron Company began bringing in immigrant labor and between 1830 and 1860, the town’s population grew by more than 4,000 people. In 1850, 51 percent of the population of Phoenixville was Irish.
The Iron Works owned 800 houses in the mid -1800s, including the 100 homes on Mill Street, known then as Nailer’s Row or Puddler’s Row, so named for the residents of the homes who worked in the mill “puddling” or melting steel furnaces.
In 1862, the Phoenix Iron Company patented the famous Phoenix Column, which was used to construct the elevated subway system in New York City as well as many bridges and tall buildings. The Phoenix Column is hollow and circular and it is made up of four, six, or eight wrought-iron segments that are flanged and riveted together.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the mill saw an influx of workers from Eastern Europe and by World War II the majority of men in the Phoenixville area were employed by the Phoenix Steel Company.
During World War II, 350 employees of the mill were in the armed forces and 70 of those men were killed in combat.
Phoenix Iron Company grew from a small nail factory into Phoenix Steel Company and eventually at its peak employed 2,000 workers. The Phoenix Steel Company encompassed over 130 acres. Phoenix Steel Company continued steel production until 1987 when the company closed.
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