Iron was manufactured and used by man, though in a primitive manner, in the earliest ages of antiquity of which we have any knowledge. It was perhaps first used in Western Asia, the original home of the human race. Tubal-Cain, who was removed from Adam but seven generations, is described in the first book of the Bible as "An instructor of all artificers in brass and iron." In a revised edition of the Bible he is called "The forger of every cutting instrument of brass and iron." The Egyptian civilization is the oldest of which we have any knowledge, dating back even to the second generation after Noah, and its earliest literature is replete with references to the making and using of iron, although modern research has discovered but little iron ore in Egypt. Herodotus, the Father of History, makes mention of iron tools being used in the construction of the pyramids, speaking of their use not as a novelty, but rather as a matter of course. Thebes and Memphis are cities of such great antiquity that their origin is lost in the twilight of obscurity, yet antiquarians believe that sickles were used in those days, and that the butchers of Thebes and Memphis used tools of iron and steel. The Historical Society of New York has a helmet, a chain armor, breast-plate and other pieces of iron, that are known to be over three thousand years old, and yet they evince considerable skill in their manufacture. Pieces of iron were taken from under the obelisk which was brought to New York from Alexandria in Egypt in 1880, yet it was erected fifteen hundred years before the birth of Julius Caesar. Iron was known to be used among the Chaldeans. the Babylonians and the Assyrians, who flourished in the age of the early Egyptians.
The book of Job, one of the oldest of all written manuscripts, treating alone, as one does, of the period between Abraham and -loses, has many references to iron, and even to "bars of iron," "barbed irons," "the iron weapon" and to the "bow of steel," the latter reference clearly showing a knowledge of the flexibility of steel. In Ecclesiastics 38:28, we have, "The smith also sitting by the anvil, and considering the iron work, the vapor of the fire vastest his flesh, and he fighteth with the heat of the furnace; the noise of the hammer and anvil is ever in his ears, and his eyes look still upon the pattern of the thing he maketh ; he setteth his mind to finish the work, and watcheth to polish it perfectly."
When Caesar invaded England he comments that he found the early Britons using iron money, but nowhere does he intimate that they- fought his armies with iron weapons. Iron was not so generally used in Great Britain in the early centuries as it was in other countries. The Scots, who invaded England in the reign of Edward II, stole iron from the English in preference to any other plunder they could lay their hands on, showing that it was a scarce article among them at home. The English people did not know that iron could be made without charcoal, and for many centuries discountenanced its manufacture, because the burning of the necessary charcoal used up their timber too rapidly. Their supply of forests has always been limited, and they have wisely preserved them. Accordingly, until they learned to smelt iron with coal or its products, of which they have an abundance, they encouraged the purchase of iron from Spain, Sweden and Russia. About 1755 the efficacy of coke in smelting iron ore was discovered in England, and at once the manufacture of iron became more general. So they have had but few charcoal furnaces in England in the last one hundred and fifty years.
But a vastly different situation confronted the early Americans in manufacturing iron. Here they were fortunately surrounded by unlimited acres of timber which must necessarily be cleared away. It was, therefore, comparatively easy to make charcoal, easier, indeed, than to make coke, even though they had been near the coal fields suitable for its manufacture. Our first iron in America was, therefore, exclusively charcoal iron, that is, iron made from ore melted by heat produced by charcoal. To make iron in small quantities from carbonate iron ore is a very simple process, and this perhaps accounts for its early and general use in the ages past. Iron ore can be smelted in an ordinary blacksmith's forge, and a certain grade of iron, though perhaps of inferior quality, can thus be produced. Generally speaking, iron ore can be smelted only where the heat of the fire is intensified by the blast of air, such as a smith forces through his forge by means of his bellows. This principle was used in the smelting of iron ore when the only known bellows was the skin of the goat, by which simple means the necessary blast of air was produced for untold centuries. And this blast of air is as essential in the manufacturing of iron to-day as it was then, for the most modern iron furnaces have not gotten beyond the original principle, although the method of making the blast, we need scarcely suggest, is no longer the primitive one of the ancient manufacturer.
Much of the early iron was made by the simple process of digging a hole in the ground, not unlike a well, and generally in the side of a hill. This hole was then filled with alternate layers of charcoal and iron ore. Being on the hillside, they easily tapped the bottom of the hole, or well, from below, and through this small opening forced the blast of air with the bellows made of goat-skin. When the layers of ore were sufficiently heated by the burning charcoal, fanned as it was from the blast below, the molten iron by its own -weight dropped to the bottom of the well, or furnace, and thus they had produced iron, though necessarily in small quantities.
The credit of the discovery of iron ore in America is due to the renowned Sir Walter Raleigh. In an expedition which he fitted out in 1585, intending to plant a colony on Roanoke Island, in searching for gold, as all the early explorers did, they discovered iron ore instead, and the year following returned to England and reported their discovery. The historic colony of Jamestown. Virginia, in 1607 discovered iron ore, and in 1608 shipped seventeen tons of metal, having sold it to the East India Company at four pounds per ton. This was the first iron made by Europeans from American ore. Still later iron was found in all the Atlantic states, and attempts, some successful and some futile, were made to manufacture it into iron. At Lynn and Braintree, Massachusetts, the business was early carried on with considerable success, and as the colonies west of Massachusetts were founded, the iron industry was not neglected. It thus spread over New York, New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania, so that long before the Revolutionary war we had iron furnaces scattered over our colonial possessions as far west as eastern Pennsylvania. These stood us in good stead during the Revolution, for they made canister and many other materials for the patriot army.
In 1789 William Turnbull and Peter Marmie, of Philadelphia, built a furnace and forge on Jacob's Creek, in Fayette county. The furnace was put in blast November Z, 1790, and the metal was tried the same day in the forge. A forge was used exclusively in converting the metal into iron, this being done by the simple process of pounding the bars of pig iron, while highly heated, on an anvil, with an immense hammer. The metal was thus reduced to iron, and the same results were brought about which are now accomplished by rolling the heated bars between the rollers of a rolling mill. The furnace of Turnbull & Marmie was a mile or more above the mouth of Jacob's Creek oand on the Fayette side of the creek. It was known as the Alliance Iron Works, and was the first attempt at making iron west of the Allegheny mountains. In 1792 this company engaged to cast four hundred six-pound shot for the Fort Pitt arsenal. The furnace was operated regularly until 1802, when it went out of blast. The ruins of it may yet be seen. Marmie was a Frenchman. and was afterwards unfortunate in business. Disappointment and sorrow drove him to suicide, which he committed by plunging into the mouth of a oheated furnace. He had been connected with Craig & Bayard in the iron trade in Pittsburgh when the business was in its earliest infancy.
The Union Furnace, on Dunbar Creek, about four miles south of Connellsville, was the second furnace of western Pennsylvania. It was built by Isaac Meason in 1790, and put in blast the year following. In 1793 the works were enlarged, and by an advertisement in the Pittsburgh Gazette of April 10, 1i94, it is learned that they had A supply of well sorted castings which they will sell out for cash" at a sum which would equal $93.33 per ton.
There were three requisites necessary to be found before the iron business could be successfully engaged in in western Pennsylvania. First, the projector must discover a bed of iron ore near the proposed site of the furnace, for the ore was too heavy to transport long distances in wagons. Second, there must be a large tract of timber land from which to manufacture the charcoal used in smelting the ore. This, when the country was new, was the easiest found, for our land was nearly all originally clad with a dense forest of large trees. Third, there must be water power to furnish the necessary blast of air, for even in that day the industry had passed the goat-skin or hand-worked bellows age. Limestone for the purpose of fluxing the metal was used then as now, and, though requisite to its manufacture, the quantity used was so small that it could be hauled on wagons even for miles.
Very early in western Pennsylvania, carbonate iron had been discovered in what was then regarded as large quantities. When William Crawford, the first judge of Westmoreland county, was removed from the bench because of his-affiliations with Virginia in the boundary question, he became surveyor for Yohogania county, which, ,though in southwestern Pennsylvania, was claimed and laid out by Virginia. In his survey book, under date of July
1780, he made an entry of a tract of land warranted to Benjamin Johnston, and described it as "Being on the Yohogania river, and to include a bank of iron ore." This is the first notice we have of the discovery of iron ore in western Pennsylvania, but we are not able to say when its discovery was first made in Westmoreland county, but it doubtless followed or preceded that date very shortly, for iron was a necessity in the new and growing county, and men were prospecting for it and for other minerals in every direction. It will be remembered in this connection that at that date the only method of securing iron was by transporting it on pack-horses from east of the Allegheny mountains.
Our first furnace was built in 1794, and was located one and one-half miles south from the present village of Laughlinstown, in the Ligonier Valley. It was called Westmoreland Furnace, and was near the banks of the run now known as the California Furnace run, which flows into the Loyalhanna about two and one-half miles south of Ligonier. It was built by Christopher Lobengier and brother, who also built a small forge in connection with it. It had, like most furnaces of that day, a casting house, or foundry, in connection with the furnace. This we learn from the newspapers, in one of which, on August I. 1i95, George Anshutz, the manager of Westmoreland Furnace, advertises stoves and castings for sale. Mr. James M. Swank, of Philadelphia, the leading authority on iron production in the United States, has in his possession a stove plate which he prizes very highly, for it was cast in that furnace in i800 by John Probst, the fact being so marked by raised letters on the casting. Grape and canister shot from three-fourths to one and one-half inches in diameter were made at Westmoreland Furnace for the War of 1812. It is highly probable that neither the furnace nor the forge were long in operation. Both were most likely abandoned by 18r . The accompanying illustration is a correct view of the mass of ruins now representing all that is left of this first venture of the iron industry in Westmoreland county_
The second furnace was built by Major General Arthur St. Clair, after he returned from the governorship of Ohio. It was built in 1803, and was called Hermitage Furnace. It was located one and one-half miles northeast of Ligonier, on the well known pike leading to Johnstown. He built it with the hope of recuperating his wasted fortune, but in this, as in many other ventures, he was sadly disappointed. It was managed for him by James Hamilton. From the Farmers' Register, printed in Greensburg by John M. Snowden, in the issue of November 21, 1806, we take an advertisement having for its caption, "Hermitage Furnace in Blast," signed by Henry Weaver & Son, merchants in Greensburg, and dated September 12, 1806. The advertisement read as follows:
"The subscribers, being appointed Agents by General Arthur St. Clair, for the sale of his castings generally, and for the Borough of Greensburg exclusively, give notice that they will contract with any person or persons for the delivery of castings and stoves for any number of tons, on good terms. Samples of the castings and stoves to be seen at their store, in Greensburg, at any time after the loth inst."
At Hermitage Furnace they were compelled to use a small amount of coal in the blacksmith shop, and this was packed in sacks from a mine then opened near Lockport, on the Conemaugh river, a distance of about twelve miles. This method was kept up until 1807 or 1808 when the great flood came which has been known since as the "Pumpkin Flood." This washed away the surface ground in several places near Ligonier, and exposed the outcrop of the previously unknown Pittsburgh seam of coal. After that they opened coal banks and used their own instead of the Lockport coal, so that in 1818, when lots were advertised for sale in Ligonier, it was stated as an inducement that several coal banks were opened within a mile or two of the proposed town.
Shortly after 1806 General St. Clair abandoned the management of the furnace himself, and leased it, with his mill and some other property, to some Pittsburgh capitalists for $3,000 per annum. The story of his creditors closing in on him in the hard times which followed the embargo has been told in the St. Clair sketch published elsewhere in this volume. In r8io it was sold from him by the sheriff, and purchased by James O'Hara. It stood idle until hard times ceased, and in 1816 was again put in blast by O'Hara and Skully, under the management of John Henry Hopkins, who was not by any means successful. Hopkins lived in the St. Clair mansion, for by this time St. Clair was nearing the end of his days in poverty and neglect, in a log cabin on Chestnut Ridge. Hopkins equipped the mansion with many evidences of refinement and wealth. In 1817 the furnace was closed down and never operated again. Hopkins left the place bankrupt, and his goods were sold at sheriff's sale. Robert Armour attended the sale and purchased several pieces of mahogany furniniture, which are vet preserved by his grandsons, the Armour brothers of Laughlinstown. John Henry Hopkins abandoned the iron business and entered the ministry of the Episcopal church, in which he was much more successful, and became greatly distinguished in his day for his learning and piety. He is known in church history as "Bishop Hopkins," of Vermont. He was a man of fine education and ability, and a voluminous writer in his old age. About 1860 he published a work sustaining slavery, and endeavored to prove that African slavery was countenanced by the Bible. He was a member of the Pan-Anglican Council at Lambeth Palace, and received the degree of Doctor of Civil Law from Oxford University, England. In a biography of him, written by his son, his experiences as manager of the Hermitage Furnace are given, and there is also a graphic account of a journey he once made from Ligonier to Youngstown in which their coach broke down in the night, and he and his party were compelled to walk a long distance down the ridge to a wayside inn at Youngstown.
The Mount Hope Furnace was built in Donegal township in i8ro, by Trevor & McClurg, and was operated by Martin Slater, who was at least a part owner. Its ruins are yet visible about two miles southeast of Donegal.
Mt. Pleasant Furnace, in Mt. Pleasant township, was also built in 1810, by Alexander McClurg. This was operated by a man named Freeman until. about 1820. Little is known of it, but from old advertisements it is learned that Mr. McClurg owned it in 1813.
Jonathan Mavbury & Sdn owned and perhaps built Fountain Furnace, on Camp Run. in Donegal township, at the base of Laurel Hill. prior to 1812. The firm was dissolved August 19. 1812, as is noticed from the usual advertisement, and the furnace came into the possession of Alexander McClurg who operated it in 1813.
California Furnace was one of the last of the iron furnaces built in Westmoreland county. It was located about two miles south of Laughlintown and was built by Colonel J. D. Mathiot and Dr. S. P. Cummings. It was situated on the banks of what is now known as California Furnace Run, at the base of Laurel Hill Mountain, and used the same veins of ore that had been used sixty years before in the operation of Westmoreland Furnace. They operated this furnace a short time, and then sold it to Alexander Cavan. who invested a fortune in it and realized but little from the investment, for about that time the manufacture of iron was necessarily abandoned from causes which will be considered later on.
Kingston Forge was erected in 18it on the Loyalhanna, near Kingston House, by Alexander Johnston & Co.. but there was no furnace in connection with it, it being supplied with pig metal hauled on wagons from other parts of the county, but mostly from Ligonier Valley. Alexander Johnston has been considered elsewhere in these pages.
Ross Furnace, on Tub -till Creek, in Fairfield township, was built by Isaac Meason, in 1814. In 1842 a new stack was erected by Paul Meason, his son, and Colonel J. D. Mathiot. The new furnace was in blast until 1854 or 1855. Colonel Mathiot was connected the greater part of his life with the iron industry, and was one of the most energetic and successful business men of Westmoreland county. This furnace made pig iron, stoves, kettles, pots, ovens, skillets, etc.
Washington Furnace was located one and one-half miles, southeast of Laughlinstown, at the foot of the mountain, on the banks of what is now known as Washington Furnace Run. It was built in 1809 by Johnston, McClurg & Co., and was operated until 1826, when it was sold to other operators.
Hannah Furnace was also located on Tub Mill Creek, in Fairfield township, but a short distance below Ross Furnace, and was built in 1810, by John Benninger. Nearby was built also a small forge on the same stream, not far from where Bolivar now stands. Neither the furnace nor the forge were long ii operation.
Baldwin Furnace, not far from Ross Furnace, is said to have been built by James Stewart, about 1818, but was operated but a short time.
Oak Grove Furnace, about three miles northeast of Ligonier, where the little village of Oak Grove now stands, was built in 1854, by Colonel John Clifford. It was owned in 1857 by James Tanner, of Pittsburgh, and was never operated to any great extent. A few miles north of it was built Valley Furnace, commonly called Hill's View. It was built by L. C. Hall & Co., in 1855
Another furnace, called Baldwin Furnace, was built in Ligonier Valley, in 1846, by Hezekiah Reed, and was finished in 1849, by Judge J. T. Hale, of Center county, and subsequently owned by various parties. It was never operated to any great extent.
From a letter written by Philip Biers in 1814 to an iron producer in Philadelphia, relative to the manufacture of iron, we learn that the iron business "was all the rage in Westmoreland county" in that day, and that in his judgment it would be but a few years until there would be scarcely a stream furnishing a favorable site for a furnace or forge which would not be thus occupied. The factories from Pittsburgh were represented as offering a ready market for all the pig metal that could be produced at $35 and $36 per ton. The usual exchange with forge masters was three and one-half tons of pig metal for one ton of bar iron, and the iron, he said, could be readily sold at $zoo per ton. He represented Westmoreland county also as one of the best places for the sale of castings in western Pennsylvania, and said they would readily sell for from $75 to $8o per ton. He also represented an abundance of timber, and plenty of iron ore, which could be delivered at the furnace at a cost of two dollars per ton. An average furnace, in his judgment, would produce from fourteen to eighteen tons of pig metal per week, and could be blown for at least nine months in the year. In explanation of this, it may be said that about three months of the year were lost repairing the hearth and inner walls of the furnace.
Two or three other furnaces than the ones mentioned above were constructed in Westmoreland county in the flush times which followed the panic of 1837, that is, between 1840 and 1850. It would be impossible for us to describe all these furnaces particularly, but we shall describe Washington Furnace and its workings as a fairly representative furnace of the early days in Westmoreland county.
In 1848 John Bell & Company rebuilt it, and it was in blast as late as 1855. It had been in the meantime operated by Wertz & Rogers, and McClurg & McKnight, as is indicated by several ten-plate stoves cast in the casting house connected with this furnace, and now in the possession of the Armour brothers, of Laughlinstown. Late in its history it was sold for $10,000 to L. C. Hall, who meant to introduce coke instead of charcoal for smelting ore, but was overtaken by financial difficulties.
In selecting a furnace site, a level place close to a stream of water and near a high bluff was preferred, so that a bridge could be made from the bluff to the top of the furnace stack, upon which they could readily haul the ore, limestone and charcoal, ready for dumping it into the furnace. The base of the stack must not be too high above the stream, for water power was essential in making the blast. This in the early furnaces was made by a double bellows, worked by a beam pinioned in its center, each end of which worked up and down, and thus alternately forced a continuous blast of air into the furnace. In the more modern furnaces the bellows were supplanted by fans propelled by a water-wheel. When the bluff was not accessible the difficulty was overcome by the building of extensive trestle work, as was the case in the California Furnace. From the base of the furnace there must be necessarily some level ground upon which to construct the casting house, and upon which to lay out the sand beds. These extended to the outlet of the furnace. The molten metal, which by its weight readily dropped to the bottom, was drawn out and through a small ditch of molder's sand, which had small outlets or pockets at each side. When these outlets and the main ditch were filled with metal it was allowed to' cool off, and the vent of the furnace was closed up again. The parts in the outlets were easily knocked off with a sledge hammer, and were largely of a uniform size, weighing about one hundred and fifty pounds each. These were called "pigs," and from this we have the well known name of "pig metal." In addition to the outlet for the heated metal there was a larger one from which they took the ashes, cinder, etc., from the furnace.
Burning charcoal was a leading feature of the old furnace days. The wood was cut into pieces about four feet long, and placed on the charcoal bed, which was merely a level spot cleared off in the midst of the woods. These billets of wood were piled on their, ends in a compact mass ranging from twenty-five to forty feet in diameter, and circular in form. At the edges the pile was only about four feet high, but in the center it was much higher, being conical in shape. Leaves and grass were then used to cover the mass of wood, and upon this covering was thrown a tight coating of ground after the old style of burning limestone, the leaves being used to keep the earth from falling down among the billets of wood. The wood was then lighted, and the skill of the charcoal burner enabled him to stop its combustion at the proper time so as to produce charcoal and not ashes. Generally about three hundred and fifty bushels of charcoal were used in smelting one ton of ore, and consequently the consumption of timber was very great. All over the furnace country can yet be seen the level places which were originally used as charcoal beds. Sometimes the bed was sunken a foot or two, in which case it was called a charcoal pit. The furnaces of Westmoreland in an early day were all made of stone, and varied in size from twenty feet square at the base, and about twenty feet high, tapering towards the top, to forty feet square at the base and perhaps thirty feet high. Washington Furnace, of which we are speaking more particularly, was thirty-six feet square at its base. This was called the stack, and was hollow from top to bottom, the cavity being largest below. In Washington Furnace it was about eight feet in diameter. Into this cavity the ore, the charcoal and a small amount of limestone to flux the ore, was dumped from the top of the stack. Wood for kindling was placed in the bottom at first. Charcoal, when properly blown by the fans, produced an intense heat, so great, indeed, that the stone and all other materials in the ore were readily converted into a molten mass. For this reason the inside of the furnace was lined with firebrick, and needed frequent renewal. When a furnace was in blast it made a roaring noise which could be heard a long distance, while from its mouth was emitted a continuous stream of sparks. They were in blast clay and night, for otherwise the hot metal would have become chilled, which necessitated great loss and extra labor. Nearby every well regulated furnace were houses, stables, etc., for they were almost invariably located in the mountains, near the most prolific ore beds. The ore was dug from ore banks, and was in western Pennsylvania known as carbonate iron ore. It was of various thicknesses, from six inches to two feet, and ranging in richness froth twenty to forty per cent. iron. Kidney ore was the richest and averaged perhaps about thirty to thirty-three per cent. It required at least three tons of ore to make one ton of pig metal. The metal from Washington Furnace in its later years was transported in wagons, the greater part to Lockport, where it was shipped on the Pennsylvania canal to Pittsburgh, and still later, when the Pennsylvania railroad was built, it was hauled to Latrobe for shipment. In its earlier days it had supplied Kingston Forge in part. The building of the Pennsylvania railroad sounded the death knell to the iron industry in the eastern part of the county so far as its manufacturing from native ores was concerned. A mistaken impression is abroad, however, that the industry has never been revived because of the want of transportation. The real reason arises from other causes. The difficulty is that our native ores will not make steel by the Bessemer process because of its high percentage of phosphorus, and. furthermore, Lake Superior ore of a higher per cent of iron can be shipped to Pennsylvania cheaper than our native ores can be mined and smelted. In this connection it must be remembered that railroad building is a feature of the last fifty years, and that railroads are now the greatest purchasers of iron in the United States. The durability of steel over iron for railroad rails has long been known. Before the invention of Sir Henry- Bessemer, open hearth steel, crucible steel and blister steel were manufactured by processes too slow and too expensive to be used as railroad rails. In 1857 one steel rail was sent to Derby, England, and laid down on the Midland railroad at a place where the travel was so great that iron rails, then in use, had to be renewed sometimes as often as once in three months. In June, 1873. after sixteen years of use, the rail, being well worn, was taken out. During this time it was estimated that 1,250,000 trains, not to speak of detached engines, etc., had passed over it. It was the first steel rail, now called Bessemer rail, ever used.
The invention of Sir Henry Bessemer, which revolutionized the iron and railroad business, consists in blowing cold air into the converter-a pear-shaped vessel, which has been partly filled with molten cast iron. By this process the oxygen of the air, forced through the hot iron, produces the most intense heat known, and eliminates from the molten mass the carbon and silicon it contains, and produces decarbonized and deciliconized iron, known generally as malleable iron. Some carbon, however, is required to produce steel, and a small quantity in the form of spiegeleisen is added to the material in the converter. This furnishes the necessary amount of carbon to produce steel, while it also expels the oxygen that has remained after the blast of cold air has ceased. By this means, and by no other now known, steel rails can be made at a cost so low that they can be used as railroad rails. If it were possible to make them from our native ores in Westmoreland by the Bessemer process, and if our ores were as rich as the ores of the -Menominee regions in Michigan, or the Lake Superior ores, the matter of transportation could easily be overcome, and the iron industry from native ores would be readily revived. As it is, the iron used in our factories is entirely from Lake Superior and other western ore, which is almost universally smelted before it reaches the Westmoreland manufacturer.
Source: Page(s) 445-457, History of Westmoreland County, Volume I, Pennsylvania by John N Boucher. New York, The Lewis Publishing Company, 1906.
Transcribed August 2008 for the Westmoreland County History Project
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