The Mount Etna iron furnace, near Williamsburg in Blair County, is representative of a rural 19th century community whose fortune rose and fell with the Pennsylvania Canal. Its story was echoed by many similar towns along the route of the canal and the Allegheny Portage Railroad.
Mt. Etna was already making pig iron before the canal system was built. But in those days, the only way to transport the iron to Pittsburgh was on the backs of pack horses and in wagons. The horses, which could only carry about 200 pounds each, had to carry the iron on a dirt turnpike over the mountains to reach the city. Their journey was long and hard, making iron very expensive at the time. One of the major routes at the time was the Huntingdon, Cambria, and Indiana Turnpike. This road meandered its way over the mountains, passing to the south of the site of the future Lemon House.
When the Pennsylvania Canal was built in the 1830s, the ironmasters were able to load their iron products on canal boats and cross the mountains on the Portage Railroad. Their products would reach Pittsburgh in two days or less, compared to ten days to two weeks in the pre-canal days.
At Mt. Etna, the ironmaster's large, limestone mansion was built with its front door oriented to the canal. Henry S. Spang, the owner of Mt. Etna furnace at the time, also had a large warehouse built across the road from the canal construction site.
Upon completion, the canal not only provided transportation of pig iron and iron products, but also the shipping of charcoal (the fuel of choice for early iron furnaces) from remote locations to the bustling little iron plantations.
The Pennsylvania Canal was a prototype of our modern superhighways. During the years of its operations in the Mt. Etna area, 1832 to 1875, the waterway was a major transportation corridor to the West. Hundreds of thousands of recent immigrants floated past Mt. Etna on the waters of the canal. Most of them continued westward, ascending the Allegheny Portage Railroad some 30 or 40 miles away in the mountains. However, many of them decided to make their homes in the small towns along the canal.
Travelers weren't the only people who decided to make their home in the canal's neighborhood. Hundreds of Irish workers dug the canal bed by hand, or cut stone for the numerous aqueducts and bridges along the canal's route. Later, many of these laborers settled down and became tradesmen, business owners, or farmers.
In 1857, the state canal system was bought by the Pennsylvania Railroad for $7.5 million. Shortly thereafter, the Allegheny Portage Railroad was closed and dismantled, its rails torn up and shipped westward.
With this break in the east-west link, the Juniata and Western divisions of the canal were on their way to becoming obsolete. The Western Division, which ran from Johnstown to Pittsburgh, was abandoned in 1863.
The Juniata Division lasted a little longer, with the portion near Mt. Etna remaining in use until 1875. After one of the severe floods prevalent along the Frankstown branch of the Juniata River, the old Pennsylvania Canal was badly damaged. Many of the locks, waste weirs, and bridges were swept away by flood waters. The Pennsylvania Railroad decided that necessary repairs were too costly and shut the canal. Four years later, a rail spur was built on and near the canal's right of way. In another hundred years, the railroad itself would cease operating near Mt. Etna and the once-bustling transportation corridor returned to nature.
Through the efforts of area residents, the old canal bed and railroad route were reclaimed and turned into a scenic recreational area. Now known as the Lower Trail, the corridor passes several remnants of the past. The ironmaster's mansion is still visible from the trail's midpoint, about five and half miles from Williamsburg. A church from the same period stands nearby, now converted into a dwelling. Nearby, four ironworkers' log houses are still standing near the road leading to the Mt. Etna furnace.
At present, the Mt. Etna mansion is deserted, the victim of arson. But it is still possible to imagine how grand it must have seemed to the iron workers in the 1850s. Although the ironmaster was of higher social standing than his workers, all classes mingled freely on the iron plantations, buying goods at the same store and going to church in the same building. It was only after iron production moved to central locations in the cities that owners and workers became segregated by class.
Along the river below the Lower Trail, there are still visible remains of some structures associated with the canal. At a point two miles or so downstream from Mt. Etna, the abutments and portions of the guard lock at Willow Dam can be seen in and near the river.
There were several dams of this type across the Frankstown branch of the Juniata, creating long pools of water at intervals along the river. The Mt. Etna/Lower Trail area is very rocky in some places, making digging a canal channel very difficult. The canal engineers designed the route to bypass these rocky outcroppings, taking the canal out into these pools. Outlet locks were used to move boats from the canal into the slackwater, as it was called, while guard locks enabled the boats to safely pass around the dams.
Between Mt. Etna and the remains of Willow Dam, the Lower Trail passes over an old railroad bridge, which in turn made use of the piers of a still older canal aqueduct. At many points along the trail, cut-stone bridge abutments can be seen. Hundreds of bridges were constructed along the entire length of the Pennsylvania Canal and were used to carry wagon roads across the canal channel. In other places, bridges were needed to carry the canal's towpath across small streams and millraces.
Upstream from Mt. Etna, other structures and building foundations can be found. The foundation of a locktender's house is near the trail at this point and is identified by a marker. Further up the trail, the remains of a small limestone mining town are clearly visible. This was Camlim, which was founded some years after the heyday of the Pennsylvania Canal.
The route of the Lower Trail runs from the trailhead at Alfarata near Alexandria in Huntingdon County to the one at Williamsburg, Blair County. In Blair County you can continue from the Williamsburg trailhead all the way to Canoe Creek State Park near Hollidaysburg. The trail itself is open to pedestrians, bicyclists, and equestrians. Motorized vehicles are prohibited. There are no camping facilities.
Last updated: December 16, 2016