The Iron Industry in Centre County

Prepared by the Centre County Historical Society

Centre County’s iron industry began with the building of Centre Furnace in 1791 – only the second charcoal iron furnace in the area known as the Juniata Iron Region. The region had been scouted for its raw materials potential, and entrepreneurs found everything they needed in central Pennsylvania. They came looking for the success and wealth that had characterized the charcoal iron business in southeastern Pennsylvania. Those entrepreneurs were on target. Although the charcoal iron industry required a sizable amount of start-up capital, that investment was soon recouped.

The raw materials existed here in great quantity – and quality:

  • Iron ore. The ore in this area is usually hematite or magnetite, and it was very plentiful in Centre County. It was dug in small surface mines; there was no need to use shaft mines. The ore in this area was exceptionally good because it had a low percentage of impurities.
  • Limestone. This area is limestone, so it was abundant and cheap here. Limestone was used in the furnace for “flux” – helping remove impurities from the iron ore.
  • Trees. The fuel for furnaces was charcoal, which was made by charring wood. Charcoal is nearly pure carbon and burns very hot. Charcoal making required great quantities of wood, which was readily available in the great forest tracts in Centre County.
  • Water. Fast-flowing water powered the furnace. The water turned a water wheel, which pumped bellows and blew air into the furnace, keeping the fire extremely hot.

These ingredients were required in enormous quantities for a successful iron operation:

1 furnace tapping = 2 tons of pig iron
2 tons of pig iron = 800 bushels of charcoal
800 bushels of charcoal = 22-25 cords of wood
25 cords of wood = 1 acre of land
2 tons of pig iron = 4 tons of iron ore (depending on the ore quality)
One furnace tapping, or 2 tons of iron, used 1 acre of land and 4 tons of iron ore. The average furnace made about 25 tons of iron per week, or 12-14 furnace tappings (two per day)

Although it might not be considered a “raw material,” land was probably the most important factor in running a successful charcoal iron furnace. Iron furnaces required huge amounts of charcoal, which in turn required huge numbers of trees. Owners of iron furnaces located on iron plantations also needed land for farming; farming – grain and other crops, orchards, and livestock – was a sizable part of any iron plantation.

The first iron furnace operations in this area were modeled after the iron plantations in eastern Pennsylvania, where many ironmasters and workers had learned the industry. Some of Centre County’s ironworks were established in or near existing towns, particularly Bellefonte, but many were in previously unsettled areas. With so many people living around the furnace, and in an area so far away from other settlements, the iron plantation was as self-reliant as possible. Each was, in many ways, its own village, with many of the same elements found in a village. In Centre County’s iron villages, one might have found:

  • Furnace and its related buildings, including casting house, wagon shed, charcoal barn, waterwheel, blacksmith shop.
  • Ironmaster’s mansion and related outbuildings, including an outhouse, a cistern, a springhouse, and probably a smokehouse. The mansion was often built on a low rise overlooking the furnace operations. It was, in many ways, an oasis for the ironmaster’s family in the midst of the heat, smell, and smoke of the furnace. It was a large house, well furnished and decorated – the center of social activity for the well-to-do.
  • Tenant houses. Married workers and families lived in workers’ housing on the furnace grounds. These houses were usually small log cabins of few rooms, with relatively few furnishings and few luxuries. The contrast between the ironmaster’s mansion (the “Big House”) and the workers’ housing was marked.
  • Boarding house. Most unmarried workers lived in the boardinghouse, although some boarded with other families.
  • Company store.
  • Grist mill. It was in this mill that all the grains grown on furnace farms was ground into flour and meal for human consumption and feed for animal consumption.
  • Saw mill. Almost all iron plantations had a sawmill. Wood was needed for buildings, and since furnace operations already owned the trees, it made sense to process the wood on site.
  • Church.
  • Post office (depending on distance from existing post offices)
  • School for the children in the community, usually through 6th or 8th grade.
  • Farms with barns. Farms raised wheat, oats, rye, corn, potatoes for food; hay and clover for animal feed.
  • LOTS of land: forested land for the charcoal-producing trees, and arable land for farms and orchards that fed the workforce.

The ironmasters of the county would not have been successful without the legions of workers who made the iron. The first Centre Furnace workers, nearly 100 of them, came from founder Samuel Miles’ failed Chester County iron works. Philip Benner also brought 100 workers – and their families – with him for the Rock Iron Works. They had training already, which made them a very attractive labor force. Most came from the British Isles, which had a thriving iron industry. At southeastern Pennsylvania furnaces Germans were another common ethnic group; there were some in Centre County, although the majority were of Anglo-Saxon origin. Blacks – both freemen and slaves – comprised a part of the labor force at many county furnaces.

Workers usually worked 12-hour shifts, seven days a week. The furnace had to stay in continuous operation, 24 hours a day, as many days per year as possible (until there was an accident to the works or a worker, or the water froze). There had to be at least two people for every furnace job – one for each shift.

Employment at a charcoal iron furnace was hard, dirty, and often dangerous work. Any tools laborers used, particularly woodcutters, were sharpened and often repaired by hand. The work was very dirty, whether that work was coaling, mining, stoking the furnace, or casting. The constant belch of smoke by the furnace created a continuous haze, and probably often difficult breathing. Some jobs held more potential for danger than others. Fillers, for example, worked in extreme heat at the top of the furnace stack; they were regularly sick, burned, or injured. One wrong move could send a filler headfirst with his load into the charcoal stack. Teamsters could lose their wagons, or be caught in fires. Iron laborers were not the only ones affected by industrial accidents: Bellefonte ironmaster John Dunlop was crushed to death by falling earth in a mine-bank near Bellefonte in 1814.

Women were not actively involved in iron production, but were a vital part of the economic community of an iron plantation. Women sewed, cleaned, cooked, and worked as farmhands. They were credited for their work in the furnace ledgers just as their husbands were. The only professional job open to women at the time was teaching. However, many of the furnace workers’ wives could not read or write, according to the 1850 census. This was probably a generational thing, since almost all children between the ages of six and 14 (and some older) were listed as being in school.

Some children did work around the furnace. They were expected to start helping with chores around their house as early as age 4 or 5. These chores included: first, feeding chickens, tending gardens, picking berries and nuts; later, laundry, sewing, and cooking (for girls), or hauling water and chopping wood (for boys). By age 14 most boys were helping the men and doing a full day’s work. Boys did seasonal farm work: wood cutting, reaping, harvesting, picking potatoes, making hay, whitewashing.

The fortunes of the local iron industry, in many ways, mirrored greater trends in American life on a national level, and was greatly affected by the those trends. The industry’s early period took advantage of America’s quest for financial independence – the new First Bank of the United States, a national currency, embargos on some foreign goods – and a dramatic growth in national population. There was a growing demand for iron products: dutch ovens, skillets, kettles, tools, and machinery, among many others. The quality of Juniata iron was recognized on a national level.

However, transportation difficulties abounded. Roads from county furnaces to nearby forges and to faraway markets were in poor condition and difficult to use and maintain. There was a brief slowdown in the local iron industry just before 1820, which picked up again by 1830, with the establishment of a half-dozen new ironworks. Westward expansion and the beginning of the Industrial Revolution created ever-increasing demands for iron products. And state and national governments began to underwrite improvements in transportation: turnpikes, canals, and railroads.

A national financial panic in 1857, coupled with national economic policies, depletion of local forests, reluctance of local ironmasters to adopt new technologies (which eventually led to the rise of steel), and the discovery of high-quality iron ore in the midwest along good transportation routes all led to a major downturn in the fortunes of the local iron industry. Several ironmasters went bankrupt, and a number of furnaces and forges closed for good by the end of the 1850s.

Several Centre County ironmasters did take advantage both of larger landholdings for hardwood and of newer technology, enabling them to remain in business into the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Valentine & Thomas ironworks at Bellefonte, for example, added a hot blast coke-fired furnace in 1887.

For decades, however, the charcoal iron industry was the center of wealth and politics in Pennsylvania. This had been true in the 1700s in southeastern Pennsylvania: four ironmasters signed the Declaration of Independence; many were members of local and provincial assemblies; and several participated in the Continental Congresses and the 1787 Constitutional Convention. In CentreCounty, Gen. James Irvin was a Congressman, and ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1847. Samuel Miles was mayor of Philadelphia, among many other political accomplishments. Andrew Gregg Curtin, celebrated governor of Pennsylvania during the Civil War, was the son of Roland Curtin and brother to several other Curtin ironmasters. Certainly the rise of Bellefonte and the money and land donated to the Pennsylvania Agricultural Society for its Farmers’ High School can be directly traced to the success of charcoal iron in the first half of the 19th century.

“Early iron furnaces, fired by charcoal, had set the foundation for a new country’s road to self-sufficiency. That iron industry grew as the country grew, into the steel and railroad era where interconnectedness after the Civil War shaped the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world. Iron has truly been the road to self-sufficiency.”

Charlotte de Lissovoy

Other Iron Works In Centre County

  • Centre Furnace (1792-1809, 1826-1858), on Thompson Run near what is now State College
  • Rock Iron Works (1793-1852), at Rock, on Spring Creek north of Houserville
  • Harmony Forge (1795-1882), on Spring Creek between Bellefonte and Milesburg
  • Turner Iron Works (1795-1818), on Logan Branch at Roopsburg, just upstream from Bellefonte
  • Milesburg Iron Works (1797-1890), on Bald Eagle Creek at Milesburg
  • Logan Furnace (1797-1842), on Logan Branch southeast of Bellefonte
  • Cold Stream Furnace (1797-1854), on Cold Stream in Philipsburg
  • Valentine & Thomas Iron Works (1798-at least 1887), on Logan Branch southeast of Bellefonte
  • Tussey Furnace (1810-1818), on Slab Cabin Run in Pine Grove Mills
  • Curtin Iron Works (1810-1921), on Bald Eagle Creek northeast of Milesburg
  • Pennsylvania Furnace (1815-1911?), just across the Centre/Huntingdon County line
  • Hecla Furnace (1825-1857), on Little Fishing Creek in Mingoville, just past Zion
  • Plumbe Forge (1828-1842), on a branch of Moshannon Creek, between Antes and Philipsburg
  • Howard Iron Works (1830-1889), on Bald Eagle Creek in Howard
  • Hannah Furnace (1830-1850), on Bald Eagle Creek just before the Centre/Blair County line
  • Julian Furnace (1832-1858), on Bald Eagle Creek in Julian
  • Martha Furnace (1832-1857), on Bald Eagle Creek on the Worth/Huston Township line (just north of what is now the 322/220 intersection)
  • Scotia (1881-1912), in the Barrens, in what is now state game lands
  • Bellefonte Furnace (1888-1891), on Logan Branch southeast of Bellefonte