Both the beginning and the end came quickly for Popeville, called Bellmont, called Lower Chateaugay Lake, called Chateaugay Lake Post Office, called the Forge or the Old Forge.
It sprang into being full grown on the day it started its iron making operations, with twenty or more residences, a saw mill, a store, a blacksmith shop, and an eight-fire forge, already larger than the majority of north country Catalan forges which averaged from three to six fires. It was planned by Pope, Williams & Co., and outfitted with steamboats, barges, and several clusters of charcoal kilns to supply it.
It died by an act of simple abandonment, almost without warning. In May of its final year, the company (by this time the Chateaugay Ore & Iron Co.) opened the spring season by drawing ore to the docks at the forge site, and appeared to be doing business as usual. In October, 1893, the company announced that the forge would be abandoned within two weeks, after 19 years of nearly continuous operation around the clock. Within that 19 years, a busy industrious village had grown up around the iron works.
It was founded around a single industry and a romantic anachronism called the Catalan forge. It was located on a nearly inaccessible site with rough terrain for miles in any direction, on the banks of the Chateaugay River at the outlet of Chateaugay Lake. It was tied to its source of raw materials by twelve miles of lake and strait, and four and one-half miles of primitive roads. It was tied to its markets by five hundred miles of railroad track, and six and one-half miles of plank and dirt road.
The wonder is not that it died so early, but that it survived as long as it did, or that it was ever founded.
That incident in history can be credited to the efforts of three Plattsburgh businessmen. Smith Mead Weed, lawyer, politician, industrialist, was born in the Town of Bellmont. He knew the particular site as well as any many man alive. Meads and Weeds had owned the land on which the village was located for years.
Weed was involved, with Andrew Williams, in a company, which had purchased and was developing mineral claims in the Lyon Mountain area. By 1874, this firm was producing more ore than Williams’ forges on the Saranac River could successfully handle.
Weed, Williams, and L. Gardner Pope joined together to acquire the Belmont property, locating a massive forge not far from an abandoned iron works erected in 1802 by William Bailey, closer yet to the lumber mill of Erastus S. Mead who conveyed the property to Pope, Williams & Co.
Williams had a long history of association with various phases of the iron industry in the North Country, and a rather depressing fable grew up around him. He was associated during one time or another in his life with at least five separate ghost towns in Clinton and Franklin Counties, Popeville being one of them. The others were Elsinore, Williamsburgh, and Petersburgh (called Irondale) on the Saranac River, and Bradley Pond near Lyon Mountain.
Williams was born in Canada and immigrated to northern New York. He was soon associated with the business interests of Amasa Moore at Elsinore and later partnered with Weed, concentrating heavily on iron ore mining and iron manufacture.
He also ran for and won the position of representative in the New York State Assembly, at least once engaging in a bitterly contested campaign against his business partner, Smith Weed.
Not much can be traced of the life of L. Gardner Pope. Conflicting reports place his birth alternately in Ogdensburg and in Plattsburgh. His association with Popeville was brief, and the use of his name in reference to the village was uncommon after 1881.
His path can be traced westward at this point, for the Chateaugay Record of July 1, 1887, ran an exchange item from the Chicago News which located him in that area.
The story of the building of the iron works at Belmont (even then the name Popeville was not used exclusively, even locally) which ran in the Plattsburgh Sentinal, Sept. 4, 1874, described Pope as “the driving wheel in the concern” and called him the company’s agent at the iron works.
Incidental mentions of his name in news accounts place Pope in Popeville up to the establishment of the Chateaugay Ore & Iron Co.. in 1881. His name is conspicuously missing from the list of officers of this company at its incorporation meeting.
The period covering the latter half of the nineteenth century was an era of boom for the iron industry in northern New York. Linney notes that by 1883 there were 277 forges in the Lake Champlain district. In 1890, there were only 14. The greatest period of activity in construction took place after 1848.
The nearly unlimited water power of the numerous streams and rivers which cross and recross the Adirondack chain, and the amount and quality of the iron ore found and mined here, made the locale ideal for the production of iron. Great motive power was needed for the operation of the heavy hammers associated with the Catalan blooming process.
Banks of the Saranac, the Great Chazy, the Ausable Rivers were already settled with forges and mills when the Chateaugay Ore Co. was formed in the 1870’s. Pope, Williams & Co. seems to have chosen the Chateaugay River site as much for its scanty development as for its continuous and safe water route over half the distance from the ore supply to the nearest railroad.
Ore was freighted four and one-half miles from the Chateaugay Ore bed in Lyon Mountain to the southern shore of Upper Chateaugay Lake.
A steamboat then hauled it in barges up the twelve-mile water route provided by the Chateaugay Lake and strait system. This water complex comprised the millpond associated with the dam at Popeville, for the damming of the river at its outlet from Lower Chateaugay Lake raised the two lakes by four and one-half feet.
Below the dam on the north bank of the Chateaugay River the company built its forge. It started in 1874 with eight fires and two hammers and increased periodically until in 1880 twenty fires and three hammers were operating.
The operation of the iron works was complex and somewhat ponderous. “The company ore barges are brought up to the dock at Belmont,” reads a Plattsburgh Republican story. “A wooden tramway on the deck forms a continuation of another on shore which runs up a step grade on trestle works, a care comes creeping down the track on board; it is loaded and moved away drawn by a cable which hauls it by water power operated from the forge below. The car dumps and returns without visible direction.” (Sept. 14, 1878)
From the Chateaugay Record: “Separated ore is first put into the fires and run into blooms. These blooms are then taken in grapples (called grampuses) at the fires, and run on a track to the three hammers, weighing seven tons each. The hammers are driven by twenty foot undershot wheels. Each semi-turn of the wheels raises the hammers and their full weight falls upon the blooms. Particles of ore are thus welded through the entire bloom for the ore is not melted in these fires.” (Aug. 10, 1888)
J. R. Linney in his history of the Chateaugay Ore and Iron Co. describes the furnace as “an open hearth, about two and one-half by three and one-half feet, with a stack 20 to 25 feet high for carrying off the gases.
“The operation consisted of a charcoal fire stimulated by a blast of air, iron ore and charcoal in small quantities being added alternately by bloomsmen, who also adjusted and regulated the fire, until a batch of iron called a loupe, weighing about 300 pounds, was made. This usually took about three hours.”
It was a cumbersome and, toward the end, a prohibitively expensive process.
The failure of the Catalan forge bloomery to compete with the pigging and puddling processes which produced an acceptable product at half the price marked the end for blooming, and with it the end of Popeville which existed only as a center for iron bloomery.
Contributing to its abandonment were several other minor and major problems: its inaccessibility, its primitive roads and failure to establish rail connections with either its ore source or its market outlet, its failure to diversify its industrial base, the increasing scarcity of forest for the manufacture of charcoal, its obsolete iron making machinery, and the depression of 1893.
All along its way to abandonment Popeville scored records. The purity of its product was unexcelled, its forge was the largest in the world, its dam used two lakes and a strait for a mill pond, its existence as a settlement must have set some sort of record for brevity, and it was in its lifetime the largest village in the Town of Belmont.
Recent road maps locate a place called the Forge at the northern end of Lower Chateaugay Lake. If a traveler expects to see a village at that site he is sorely disappointed.
Two houses remain, one the residence of the Weed family in a seriously advanced stage of decay, the other the Mead residence, purchased from Erastus S. Mead and used to house the village doctor, Albert Johnson, now the residence building of a dairy farm.
A series of crumbling foundations on the east riverbank identify the site of the forge and perhaps the sawmill or Smithy. At the Forge site are rocklined tunnels in the riverbank associated with the flume. All other traces of human industry have disappeared.
At the corner where the bridge road intersects with Route 374 stands a New York State Education Department marker. It reads, “On this site was built in 1874 the world’s largest Catalan Forge abandoned in 1893.”