Catoctin Mountain Park
Historic Resource Study
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Chapter Three:
Civil War and Decline of Industry (continued)

The Furnace: "A Relict Industry"

As the builders of the western Maryland railroads were determining the proper route through the mountainous area, the Kunkles saw an opportunity. Jacob Kunkle, arguing that the train would move along a more level grade, petitioned the directors to route the railroad through Catoctin Furnace. Such a path would obviously create opportunities for the family business. In the end, however, the designers chose to lay tracks six miles to the north of the furnace. [46]

Bypassed by the railroad, using increasingly outdated technology as the era of steel approached, and operating in the thick of a competitive industry, somehow the Catoctin Furnace managed to survive into next century. To historian Malcolm Davies, the survival of the furnace offers a prime example of a "relict industry" able to endure the changing economic times of the late nineteenth century. [47] Key to the survival of the furnace was the dedicated, hands-on ownership of the Kunkles, the availability of local markets and abundant natural resources. The last years of the furnace, however, were anything but easy. The Kunkles struggled to keep the furnace technologically up-to-date and suffered perennial shutdowns. It was a difficult battle, doomed to ultimately failure, but for the families depending upon the furnace, including many farmers who periodically worked as choppers and colliers, the survival of the relict industry was a godsend.

At the end of the Civil War, the Kunkles had every reason to believe that their newly-purchased enterprise would continue to thrive. The Civil War had created great demand for iron, and, with the promise of greater industrialization following the war, the demand was expected to grow. Markets for pig iron to produce pipes, stoves, and machine parts promised profitable times. [48]

With the death of John Kunkle, Sr., in 1866, the enterprise at Catoctin passed to his two sons. That same year, John B. bought out his attorney brother to become sole owner of the furnace and properties. Anticipating a great market for pig iron and rail iron in Europe, Kunkle actively campaigned for trade regulations that would help American manufacturers of iron. He also planned to expand his operations at Catoctin. [49] Kunkle hired additional workers and in 1873 built a new furnace stack, the Deborah, named for his wife. The Deborah utilized exciting new technology. It was a steam-powered, coke-burning furnace, 50 feet high and 12 feet in diameter. [50] Alongside the Deborah, the Isabella, burning charcoal, remained in use. At peak operations, the furnace may have employed as many as 500 men: roughly 100 manning the furnace, 300 chopping wood and making charcoal, and 100 men working in the open pits of the ore and limestone banks. [51] During busy times, the furnace even imported carloads of Italian immigrants from Baltimore to help with the work load. [52]

In no way were the Kunkles absentee owners. John B. Kunkle served as iron master at the furnace and lived in the large house adjoining the enterprise. The German-descended Kunkle family fit in well in the Catoctin area and quickly became a fixture of local life. Lillian Kunkle, daughter of John, became superintendent of the small church school associated with Harriet's Chapel at Catoctin Furnace. [53] Not only were family investments tied up in the furnace, but so were family lives.

Clearly, the abundant natural resources in the area continued to facilitate iron production. Magnetite ore unique to the area could be found in great abundance. [54] Enormous quantities of limestone and timber were also nearby. Charcoaling, by the second half of the nineteenth century, had been practiced and perfected on the mountain for nearly a hundred years. Farmers during their off-seasons could provide additional labor for chopping wood and charcoaling. Even children contributed by gathering leaves for the charcoal pits. [55]

Another factor working in favor of the furnace was the presence of local markets, particularly in Baltimore. Pig iron produced at Catoctin was ideal for railroad car wheels. Into the twentieth century, railroad wheels made from charcoal iron had the reputation of being superior to steel. [56] The Catoctin Furnace appears to have had a long-standing relationship with Lobdell Railroad wheel manufacturing company of Wilmington, Delaware. Access to local markets such as Lobdell and others in Baltimore provided Catoctin Furnace with a much needed life-line during changing economic times. [57]

Alongside the coke furnace, Kunkle introduced other technology to expedite work at Catoctin, including steam-powered shovels on tracks to facilitate open-pit mining. [58] In 1886, the railroad that the Kunkles had wanted twenty years earlier finally came to Catoctin. L.R. Waesche of Mechanicstown and Steiner Schley, of Frederick, together, financed a rail connection between the Western Maryland Railroad Depot in Mechanicstown to Catoctin Furnace four miles south. This replaced the old system of hauling pig iron and coke in wagons driven by teams of six or eight mules. [59] Conveniently the railroad used slag from the furnace as ballast (slag also was used on roads and for filling purposes). [60] The founders named their railroad, built primarily to serve the furnace, the Monocacy Valley Railroad (MVRR).

J.B. Kunkle, proud owner of the furnace, never saw the railroad in operation; he died of pneumonia in 1885. Kunkle's obituary noted his early success with the furnace and willingness to invest in the operations. But Kunkle's 1873 decision to expand the operation by constructing a new stack, the obituary noted, was "probably a mistake." As the business declined and periodic shutdowns grew more frequent, Kunkle attempted to reorganize the business as a joint-stock company, with himself as a member. But few could be found who were willing to invest in the relict industry. Nevertheless, Kunkle's devotion to the furnace and its workers remained his overriding concern: "withal whenever the price of iron poised to make it possible to produce without a loss Mr. Kunkle started the furnace and gave employment to all he could. He then undoubtedly kept want from the door of many of the hands." [61]

For several years, Kunkle's family, operating under the name Catoctin Iron Works, struggled to keep the furnace afloat. The family attempted to diversify by adding a paint manufacturing plant utilizing waste ochre from the iron mining. [62] But within two years, the newly-minted Catoctin Iron Works went into receivership. In 1888, at a public auction, Thomas Gorsuch of Westminster, Maryland purchased for $75,000 the enterprise and 9,000 acres associated with the furnace. By 1892, Gorsuch's efforts to revive the furnace collapsed, and it sat vacant for several years. In 1899, a group calling itself the Blue Mountain Iron and Steel Company purchased the property.

As the new century opened, prospects for making profits from the production of pig iron could not have been bleaker. The construction of an enormous integrated steel mill at Sparrows Point southeast of Baltimore signaled the final triumph of steel. [63] Nevertheless, the Blue Mountain Iron and Steel Company began a major rebuilding project at the relict furnace. The new ownership introduced steam engines to replace hand and horse power. Workers dug a second mine south of the furnace by steam shovel and built a new ore stock house. [64] By May of 1900, the furnace was back in blast, and, according to the local newspaper: "[t]he output of furnace is of a very high grade on which circumstances all concerned are to be congratulated." [65] Predictably, within months the furnace was again in trouble, and the new owners were looking for a buyer. [66]

When no investor could be found, the furnace, enduring more and more periodic shutdowns, struggled on. By 1903, the company was no longer paying its bills nor meeting its payroll, and the workers were growing fed up. According to Catoctin Furnace resident William Renner, reality finally hit the workers on a Sunday evening in 1903. Recognizing that time had passed by the century-and-quarter-old enterprise and that no revival was on the horizon, the furnace hands simply turned off the pumps that siphoned water out of the mine pits. The mine pits filled up, and iron was never again produced at Catoctin. [67]

Life and Labor at Catoctin

Working at the furnace was never easy, but in its final years with the frequent shutdowns the experience was, no doubt, particularly difficult. Under Kunkle, roughly 350 men worked in the furnace operations, including wood cutters and miners. Increasing numbers of Irish workers also worked in the furnace. Also, as previously mentioned, in busy times, supplementary workers in the form of immigrants, apparently Italians, would be brought in from Baltimore along the Western Maryland Railroad. [68]

The Catoctin work day was long. Former employees recalled that the furnace operated around the clock, with workers assigned to ten to twelve hour shifts. [69] But the actual work day could be even longer. Former furnace worker Henry Fraley remembered: "there were no hours; it was all day long, as long as you could stand." Pay scales ran between nine cents an hour for unskilled workers, and thirteen cents for skilled workers. Management paid wood cutters on a piecemeal basis--at roughly fifty cents a ton.

But work was anything but steady. It would have been a rare year when the furnace did not suffer at least one shutdown. In 1876, for instance, the furnace shut down in early January. "The stoppage of Catoctin Furnaces," reported the Catoctin Clarion, "makes a visible impression on the money market of Mechanicstown." [70] By mid-March, owner J.B. Kunkle restarted the operation to the relief of "all particularly those who have been out of employment for the past four months." [71] But within a few days, the furnaces again shut down, and the Catoctin Clarion reported "dear only knows when it will reopen." [72] 1876 was no doubt a particularly difficult year, but the periodic layoffs must have had a devastating impact on the furnace workers.

Throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth century, the village of Catoctin Furnace was essentially a company town. The furnace proprietor owned the town. The company rented out roughly sixty houses and operated a boarding house. Workers paid between $2 and $4 for their homes (average incomes in a good year would run roughly $20-$25 per month). Management required renters to whitewash homes each year by May 30. [73] The company also ran a general store, at its peak, employing four to five clerks. Management paid workers in script redeemable at the store. Workers also could buy on credit from the store and have bills deducted from paychecks. [74]

Following the Civil War, all workers at the furnace were wage earners, but the work force remained ethnically and racially diverse. As was the case in many factories and mills at the time, work assignments at Catoctin appear to have been segregated. The 1870 Census, for instance, listed eight Irish-born laborers as working in the iron mines. In addition, the census listed a mine worker of Bavarian origin and a furnace founder from Prussia. [75] Several African Americans held jobs at the furnace. One former worker recalled six African-American working in the open-face mines, filling cars, and taking them to a turntable for further transportation. [76] In February of 1874, the failure to supply a boiler with adequate water resulted in a major explosion that was heard for miles. The blast killed two African-American furnace workers, James Norris and Samuel Mitchell, and severely injured several other workers, and "cast a gloom over the whole neighborhood." [77]

Accidents were a major component of life at the furnace. One former employee remembered work in the casting house, where hot iron was channeled into pig iron molds then broken off by workers, as particularly dangerous. Casting house workers took precautions, including wearing heavy wood soles attached to their shoes by a strip of leather. Nevertheless, remembered a worker, "many burns" were suffered. [78] In another tragedy, in 1889, an ore mine car drawn by mules ran over and killed its thirteen-year-old driver who had attempted to stop and retrieve a cow bell under the car. Dr. William McPherson, owner of Auburn House, was summoned, but could do nothing for the teenager. [79] On another occasion, fireman Roger Weddle lost a leg in an accident. [80] Even on the mountain, danger accompanied furnace work. The job of charcoaling was particularly fraught with hazards. At one point a wagon filled with charcoal on its way to the furnace caught fire, searing the teamster and forcing him to climb aboard his team of horses to calm them. [81]

Life at the furnace, thus, offered few rewards and presented the constant challenge of low-pay, lay-offs, and accidents. With little to lose, the decision in 1903 to simply turn off the pumps is readily understandable.

The Rise of Tourism

From the time of the earliest settlers, the mountain had provided residents with recreation and leisure along with the valuable natural resources that drove local industry. Well before the Civil War, picnickers and hikers, believing in the benefits of fresh air and pure water, enjoyed the beauty of the mountain. [82] In the years following the Civil War, many Americans enjoyed greater prosperity and more leisure time. For the first time, recreational sports, especially baseball, gained popularity. By 1876, Mechanicstown had its own baseball club, actively playing teams from other towns. [83] Another example of the growth of leisure was the rise of ice cream. During the summer months, Catoctin residents began streaming to local establishments serving the frozen delight. "Call to see me often and I will make you cool," promised one local ice cream parlor. [84]

But it was with the arrival of the railroad that recreation increasingly became a business in the Catoctins (see Appendix 8). John Mifflen Hood, president of the Western Maryland Railroad, viewing such activities as integral to the success of his enterprise, was an aggressive promoter of tourism and recreation. In 1877, Hood constructed an amusement park/vacation resort at Pen Mar, near the Pennsylvania border. Easily accessible along the railroad route, the village quickly became "the most fashionable summer colony in the East." Soon over one hundred hotels and boarding houses sprang up at Pen Mar, as did observation towers and dance pavilions. [85] Real estate prices soared in the area. By 1889, land that a few years previous would have sold for $700 went for $7,000. [86] At every stage in development, the Western Maryland Railroad was intimately involved, even helping with the mortgage in 1883 for the Blue Mountain House, one of the large hotels at Pen Mar. [87]

Hood's railroad ran special excursion trains to Pen Mar throughout the warmer months. An express train from Baltimore ran to Pen Mar each day except Sunday. The trip took roughly two and a half hours. [88] Such special trains would sometimes include an oyster dinner. [89] Residents of the Mechanicstown area eagerly joined the swarms going to the resort. With the mountain areas now easily accessible by rail to city dwellers, other resort areas also opened their doors. One of the most successful was Braddock Heights, to the west of Frederick.

The Mechanicstown-Foxville area could not hope to compete with such well-funded initiatives. But with the arrival of the railroad, a nascent tourist industry emerged in the area. Boarding houses sprang up in Mechanicstown. Residents of Rocky Ridge and Graceham organized yearly festivals to attract vacationers. Graceham's mid-June festival attracted a "constant stream of buggies, jaggers and hacks . . . along East Main Street." [90] In 1885, The Catoctin Clarion declared: "in no summer since we have known Mechanicstown has there been so large a number of visitors as during this season." [91] Soon community leaders were lamenting the lack of "a first-class summer hotel" in town to further attract vacationers. [92] Meanwhile there was also talk of establishing small cottage colonies for vacationers. In 1890, a group of Georgia businessmen arrived in the area with the intention of establishing such a development near Blue Ridge Summit. [93]

The small village of Foxville, on the west end of the mountain, also put its best foot forward to lure visitors. Foxville boarding houses like the Glynden House and the Spring Grove House, by the summer of 1885, were attracting visitors from Washington, Annapolis, and Baltimore. Sojourners in Foxville could enjoy evening promenades and entertainment by a "submarine band." [94]

That same summer, Foxville exploded in excitement with the news that President Grover Cleveland would visit the popular Gap Falls Mineral Springs Park near Foxville. The small town went into manic preparations. Hundreds lined the railroad station waiting for the president. But at the last minute, Cleveland apparently decided to vacation elsewhere. "The disappointment was great," reported the local newspaper. [95]

It would be nearly fifty years before the area finally would become a retreat for the nation's highest officer. Nevertheless, the face of mountain in the second half of the nineteenth century was again changing. New attitudes about the benefits of the picturesque region emerged. The mountains remained an important source of raw materials for many years, but gradually they began to supply other needs as well.

Farming on the Mountain

For some farmers the arrival of the railroad also brought changes and new opportunities. In 1885, The Catoctin Clarion would declare that since the arrival of the Western Maryland Railroad fifteen years before, "farmers awoke from the lethargy, land improved, crops increased and produce found a ready market in our great commercial center." [96] For those with larger farms in Harbaugh Valley and the Mechanicstown District, the railroad did appear to open new markets. Wheat production in Maryland soared, hitting a record high in 1900, when the state produced 16.6 million bushels of wheat. [97] Throughout upper Frederick County, farmers grew much wheat, but Indian corn, not wheat, remained the largest crop. In the Mechanicstown area, many farmers enjoyed yields of several hundred bushels of wheat--some producing yields of nearly a thousand bushels. Larger farms, such as Leonard Harbaugh's 175-acre farm, in Harbaugh Valley, yearly producing 175 bushels of wheat easily thrived despite nationally falling prices throughout the late nineteenth century. [98]

Farms in Hauver District, encompassing most of the mountain area west of Mechanicstown, tended to be smaller and less focused on cash crops such as wheat. While many of the farmers who owned land that later became park property held tracts of well over 100 acres, rarely did they possess more than forty acres of improved land . Yost Wiant--the mountain land owner who shows up most frequently in the census records--owned forty acres of improved land in 1850 on a plot of roughly 100 acres. Within thirty years he added more unimproved land, but kept his farm at roughly 40 acres. Wiant grew Indian corn and kept chickens, swine, and cows, from whose milk he produced butter. In 1880, he produced 160 bushels of apples and 200 cords of wood. [99]

Wiant's land appears to have been among the least productive in the area. Other farms did somewhat better. In 1870, Levi Brown (park tract 103) owned a 160-acre plot of which 95 acres were improved. Brown produced 150 bushels of Indian corn, 100 bushels of oats, and 160 bushels of wheat. He appears to have been one of the few in the area to have grown wheat. [100] Brown's farm was listed as worth $7,000 compared to Wiant's $4,000 holdings. Wealthier yet was Peter Hauver (tract 153), whose farm was valued at $2,150. Encompassing only 20 acres of improved land, one must assume that Hauver's livestock holdings, including 3 horses, 3 cows, 10 sheep, and 7 swine, significantly added to the value of his holdings. In addition to his twenty-acre farm, Hauver also owned almost 200 acres of forest land from which he produced $350 a year in "forest products." Like Brown, Hauver also grew wheat--roughly 20 bushels per year. [101]

Most of the other farmers on what is now park land owned between 40 to 70 acres of improved land. The most frequently grown grain crop was Indian corn. Many farmers also grew potatoes, several producing over 100 bushels. Orchard crops such as apples and peaches added to the produce yielded by the mountain. Farmers kept a variety of livestock, but most owned 2 or 3 cows, and between 3 and 6 swine. Without question, the farms of Catoctin Mountain were small subsistence-based agricultural holdings. It was a rare farm in Hauvers District in the second half of the nineteenth century that was worth over $5,000. Given the nature of most of the farms, slavery was rare outside the immediate furnace area. Only two slaves appear as living in Hauver's District in the 1850 census. Farms in the Mechanicstown District tended to be significantly larger--some up to 12,000 acres. Many also exceeded $10,000 in value.

Few people living in the valley afforded much attention to the mountain areas (although many owned small, wooded tracts). The one exception was the occasional excitement related to a snake killing. In June of 1876, for instance, a party of boys near Chimney Rock killed "a monster black snake," measuring six feet in length. [102] The mountain was home to many snakes--most of which were harmless. But rattlesnakes upset the public. Later in the summer of 1876, a man killed a 44-inch rattlesnake near Wolf Rock, earning him heroic mention in the local newspaper. [103]

The presence of rattlesnakes threatened one of the popular activities enjoyed in the mountains--huckleberry and blackberry gathering. In 1889, the local newspaper noted that the blackberry "demand is exhausting supply." But the paper also acknowledged the threat to harvesting posed by rattlesnakes. [104]

That same summer brought an event that no doubt long remained in the memories of both valley and mountain dwellers. In June, several days of rain drove water over the banks of Owens and Hunting Creeks. Headlines proclaimed: "Owens Creek Becomes a Mad River." The eldest inhabitants could not remember a flood with such ferocity. Engineers for the Monocacy Valley Railroad placed several cars on a railroad bridge, hoping to use the weight to prevent a washout. Elsewhere, flood waters washed out several miles of the Western Maryland Railroad and destroyed crops and fields along Hunting Creek. Despite the destruction of the flood, western Marylanders could feel lucky that they were spared the worst. The same flood waters that sent the local creeks over their banks burst a dam in Pennsylvania and destroyed the entire town of Johnstown, killing over 2,000 people. [105]

Despite the 1889 flood, census data and the few other records we have for mountain life in the nineteenth century suggest a slow existence in which farming and supplemental work such as charcoaling and timbering provided locals with a steady subsistence but little beyond. [106] While the railroad transformed industrial and agricultural life in the valleys below, for mountaineers, the nineteenth century brought few drastic changes.


The second half of the nineteenth century, then, was a period in which the signs of change could be seen--if one looked carefully. The furnace persisted, and even expanded at times. But an informed observer would see the enterprise more as a relict industry than a harbinger of new industrial potential. Meanwhile, signs of an emerging recreational economy were popping up in the form of boarding houses and tourists transported to the region by trains. The arrival of the Western Maryland Railroad offered a new and convenient source of transportation tying the Catoctin area closer to larger cities and towns. As the century came to an end, mountain residents continued to work simple subsistence farms, bartering for needed goods, and charcoaling or logging to earn extra money--much as they had toward the beginning of the century. But such lifestyles would not survive long into the next century.

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Last Updated: 21-Nov-2003