The Understory

In scattered locations in the Taconic and Litchfield hills of Connecticut and the adjacent areas of New York and Massachusetts the landscape holds hints of an enterprise that has largely been forgotten. Revealed by piles of firebrick and glassy slag, soil darkened by the remnants of charcoal, and the occasional rusty scrap of iron, these sites speak of the first great era of resource extraction following European colonization. The Understory, a project by artist Richard Klein, is a contemporary response to this history, realized through the materials that comprised the early American iron industry.

Iron was first discovered in Litchfield County in 1731 by surveyors Ezekiel Ashley and John Pell in Salisbury, and the first iron furnace was put into blast in Lime Rock in 1735. The middle of the nineteenth century was the peak of iron production and the apogee of deforestation in northwestern Connecticut. On average, 600  acres of trees needed to be cut annually to create charcoal to fuel a single furnace. Seventy percent of the forest in northwestern Connecticut was harvested for charcoal by the 1870s, resulting in much of the fertile topsoil washing into the region’s rivers and streams. The Cornwall Bridge furnace, which was active from 1833 to 1897, owed its location to abundant waterpower, readily available firewood for charcoal production, and its position on main transportation routes.

Klein, who recently retired from his role as Exhibitions Director of the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, will offer an artist talk and site visit to the still intact ruins of the stone furnace on Furnace Brook in Cornwall Bridge. The program will include a broad overview of the eighteenth and nineteenth century iron industry as well as specifics about iron production in Cornwall. See our Events page for more information.

PHOTOS: (Top) The Understory (Falls Village), 2021. Rusted, cast iron Cracked Cap Polypore fungi, burnt nineteenth century wood architectural column. 15 x 25 x 72 ½ inches; (Bottom) Furnace Brook, Cornwall, Connecticut. The towering walls of the Cornwall Bridge Iron Company are hidden in plain sight, tucked just off the road on the forested brook (Photo by Paper Buck).