New book by local author covers more than 150 years of Coleman family history

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A local writer has published a book about one of the most influential families in Lebanon County history.

“Souls of Iron” is the first book by James Polczynski. The book covers over 150 years of history centering on the Coleman family, the wealthy business dynasty best known for their control over much of the region’s iron industry, centered around the massive mining Cornwall Ore Banks.

The project began when Polczynski, originally a Pittsburgh-area resident, purchased the former Cornwall store in 1999 and converted it into a bed and breakfast. Out of curiosity, he began to look into the previous owners of the building and, possibly, the larger history of the Colemans.

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“I realized that there was no single book that contained the entire history of all branches of the family and all branches of the company,” Polczynski explained in a telephone interview with Leb Town. Work progressed slowly on the resulting book until the COVID-19 pandemic gave him more time to complete his writing.

Now Polczynski hopes the book will prove to be a compelling account of the family’s history. Beginning with Robert Coleman, the Irish immigrant and family patriarch who took control of Cornwall’s iron furnace and other furnaces in the region in the late 18th century, the Colemans built a vast industrial empire that lasted for generations. The Colemans’ story is deeply intertwined with the history of Cornwall, Lebanon and the surrounding county.

Polczynski is president of the Friends of the Cornwall Iron Furnace, where he is also a volunteer guide. He previously worked as a contractor for steel and aluminum companies, including Bethlehem Steel, which bought Coleman’s assets as the family’s power waned.

For Polczynski, the longevity of the Colemans’ reign was particularly interesting.

“A lot of [family dynasties] begin to lose family ownership after the second or third generation, and the Colemans passed the fourth and fifth generation before selling everything to Bethlehem Steel,” he said.

“Along the way there have been many divisions in family wealth. They’ve all started their own businesses, if you will. The story of that in itself fascinates me – how the individual branches separated and those individual branches stayed together,” he added. “To chronicle from the start of the original Robert Coleman to the end, there’s all this splintering and drama and storytelling.”

Polczynski noted that he “tried to do justice” to the Colemans’ personal life when possible, in addition to covering the family’s business history.

The book is published in three formats. The e-book edition can be found through these vendors, while print-on-demand and hardcover copies can be ordered by contacting Polczynski on his website. The book includes approximately 20 images, which are printed in color in the hardcover edition. Polczynski plans to store bound copies at the Cornwall Iron Furnace and the Lebanon County Historical Society.

“Souls of Iron” is set to be the first of several unrelated book projects. Polczynski is also working on a book about mystery and detective games from 1889 to 1969 as well as a shorter publication about the work of Gilded Age author David Graham Phillips.


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