Catoctin Mountain Park
Historic Resource Study
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Chapter Two:
War and Industry on the Mountain


In 1841, The Baltimore Phoenix and Budget carried a long article reflecting on a half-century of change having occurred in the shadow of the Catoctin mountains. The piece began by recalling the idyllic state of the mountain and environs in the late eighteenth century: "At that period . . almost uninterrupted forest; and game of various descriptions. . . the frightful shrieks of the howling wolf were heard at night." But "a few years brought the woodman's axe in fearful conflict with the mighty oak that had withstood the blasts of many winter, and the majestic trees whose towering height almost pierced the clouds all were laid low." By the early nineteenth century, explained the author: "Now how changed the scene! The p'ough is seen gliding o'er the horizontal plain, attached to furious steeds, and the husbandman is heard merrily whistling, as the chargers fling the foam--now the clank of busy mechanic, and the rattling of chariot-wheels, and the hum of business are always heard." The once peaceable mountains, according to the writer, had changed forever. [1]

This chapter covers the evolution of the area, later to become Catoctin Mountain Park. It carries the story through a time of tumultuous change--from the time of the American Revolution through to the 1830s. While the region remained primarily agricultural, industry, in the form of the iron works, increasingly changed the face of the area both environmentally and socially. To the already diverse Catoctin population was added a new group--African slaves who worked in the furnace. Their work was often brutally hard. But industrial slavery at Catoctin appears to have been a fundamentally different experience from the plantation slavery also practiced at the time.

Forging a Revolution

In 1775, a band of western Marylanders, led by Michael Cresap, marched off to join their colonial brothers under siege in Boston. This was not unexpected. Most residents of the upper Monocacy and Catoctin region were strong supporters of the movement for American independence. The English-descended elites in the region had plenty of reason to resent their colonial overlords. Many were in debt. Others were angered by high taxes. Still others were beset by the mercantile regulations imposed by the British Parliament that circumscribed their businesses. Nor did the Germans in the area have any great allegiance to Great Britain. Many had come to America to escape religious persecution, and efforts to tighten imperial control did not sit well with a population that prized religious and political freedom. Rumors freely circulated that the British planned to impose Church of England practices on all dissenters. Likewise, the Germans--barred by colonial law from voting--felt alienated from the civic life of the region. [2]

Many in the Catoctin area contributed both materially and with their lives to the American cause. [3] Unlike the previous French and Indian War and the future Civil War, there was to be no fighting in the immediate Catoctin vicinity. Nevertheless, western Marylanders volunteered in large numbers to aid the new nation's cause. With a estimated 130,000 colonists of German origin, the continental army organized special German regiments. Most members of the special force came from Maryland and Pennsylvania. German regiment officers were bilingual, but German was the spoken language among the ranks. These special regiments saw action in both the Trenton and Princeton campaigns and spent time at Valley Forge. [4]

Germans from Frederick County and newly-formed Washington County (created out of the Western portion of Frederick County in 1776) served in the German regiments. [5] A survey of the German regiment muster rolls, however, turns up none of the prominent family names from the Catoctin area. However, members of the Frederick County--Middle District regiment did include a few familiar family names including Vallentine Creager, Ludwick Moser, and Michael Fox. Members of the Frederick Company Third District organized out of Emmitsburg included Philip and John Weller, Lawrence Freagers, and Peter Shover (who owned a small farm on what would later become parkland). First Lieutenant Frederick Nicodemus (ancestor of a Nicodemus who owned the furnace property in the twentieth century), headed up the Flying Camp in Washington County. [6]

The paucity of Catoctin-area names among the ranks of Maryland's soldiers may have been due to incomplete records, but also may have related to religious strictures against war. For instance, despite their sympathy for the American cause, Moravian beliefs forbade the taking up of arms. Nevertheless, the Graceham Church recorded that patriotism led some members of the congregation to join the Continental army despite their pacifistic convictions. [7]

American officials viewed those Marylanders who did fight, including those in the German regiments, as among the best soldiers in the continental army. After fighting with distinction in the northern campaigns, the Maryland soldiers were redeployed. They passed through their home state on their way south to the Carolinas. This would be the next theater of the war. In the Southern campaigns, General Nathaniel Greene exalted that, "nothing could exceed the gallantry of the Maryland line." Others recalled the Maryland forces as having "the hottest blood in the union." [8]

Frederick County was not the scene of much fighting, but it made invaluable contributions to the war effort. With its rich wheat fields, the county, claimed one historian, became the "breadbasket of the Revolution," supplying hungry troops and making up for crops destroyed in the many military campaigns of the war. [9] The emerging industries of the region also provided for the military needs of the war. An important powder depository and gunlock factory was situated in Frederick City. There was also a prison camp in the city which held captured Hessian soldiers. [10] Other important powder mills could be found in Antietam and along the Monocacy River. [11]

Revolution and the Furnace

Frederick County's important role in the war could be credited in part to Thomas Johnson's increasingly central role in the government of the new nation. Johnson, along with his brothers, had numerous business interests in Western Maryland--including the brand new Catoctin iron furnace. Earlier he had helped draft many of the early colonial protests to the King's imperial policies. As a wealthy, well-connected patriot, Johnson was elected to the Continental Congress where, in turn, he nominated his friend George Washington to be commander-in-chief of the continental army. Johnson proved to be a well-respected and important member of congress. Fellow congressman John Adams commented that although not a great orator, "Johnson of Maryland, has a clear and cool head . . . He is a deliberating man." [12]

In January 1776, Johnson's home colony tapped his talents when its Provincial Convention elected him Brigadier General of the Militia. In this position Johnson had the challenging duty of raising supplies and money to arm the new army. The job kept him so occupied that he missed the debate and signing of the Declaration of Independence. His work was demanding and allowed Johnson to utilize his immense network of business interests and contacts. On February 13, 1777, the Maryland legislature elected Johnson the first governor of the state. He was inaugurated amid a lavish ceremony in Annapolis on March 13, 1777. [13]

By the time of the American Declaration of Independence, Johnson's long-planned furnace at the foot of the Catoctin mountains was nearly completed--just in time to meet the demands of war. Continuing uncertainty exists as to the exact contribution made by Johnson's Catoctin Furnace during the Revolution. With few surviving records of the operations of the furnace (even for the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century), current research can do little beyond pointing to probabilities. In the case of the Revolutionary War, it does appear that some war materials were produced from iron manufactured at Catoctin. On July 17, 1776, the colonial Council of Safety contacted Thomas Johnson and his brother, James, a colonel in the Continental Army and proprietor of the furnace about the possibility of producing cannon balls and shot from the furnace. The Council of Safety was the revolutionary body in charge of virtually all elements of war preparation and life in the new nation, and it needed the Johnson's help:

"Sir. We are in want of about 20 41b Cannon, 20 31b and 20 21b and 40 Swivels for the use of the Province and desire to know whether you will engage to furnish us with those quantities immediately--if you can, be pleased to favor us as soon as possible with your terms and the time by which you will have them made, the-it will be such more agreeable to us to see you upon the occasion. We shall likewise want 200 Iron Potts, some to contain 4 and other 2 Gallons, with Gales or Handles to supply the place of Camp Kettles, and should be glad you would advise us whether you could also cast them for us and by what time, likewise the price." [14]

On behalf of his brother, Thomas Johnson replied to the Council. He explained that "our furnace is not yet in blast," but there was on hand "a few potts of about the size you describe." Johnson promised an effort to meet the Council's needs. Meanwhile, he assured the council that his "brother is getting his furnace into Blast with all Diligence and hopes to effect it within a fortnight. You may then have any number of potts and kettles that you please within a short time." Johnson also promised "to cast such guns as are wanted but cannot contract for them in all Events because the metal may not suit, although we have every Reason to expect it will." [15]

Most interested in the guns, the council quickly replied: "If your Brother's Iron is suitable for casting Guns we could contract with you for fifty three pounders, fifty four-pounders, and seventy five Swivels to Carry one point Ball." [16] With the Council's offer to purchase guns, the paper trail ends. By September 1777, the Johnson furnace was fully functioning and the partners were advertising for the sale of "[s]alt pans, ten feet square and fifteen inches deep with crews ready to join an fit them up made at Catoctin Furnace about 10 miles from Frederick Town at 551 per ton." [17] Presumably the Johnson's Bush Creek Forge, built in the mid-1770s near the mouth of Bush Creek, three to five miles from Frederick City, forged the iron produced at Catoctin. The Johnson Forge included a rolling and slitting mill, although these might have been added later. [18]

Several years later, in 1780 James Johnson and his partners contracted with the Board of War to "prepare for casting ten inch shells . . . for the use of the United States." Johnson was to ship the shells to Baltimore and be paid in continental dollars. The Board of War, however, seemed to have had reservations about Johnson's abilities to produce the shells. The contract required that the partners "use their best Endeavors" and instructed that "if they can succeed in Casting them" to follow specific instructions for the delivery of the shells. [19] The writers of the contract apparently had some doubt that the Johnson furnace could produce the shells. On the other hand, it was wartime and uncertainties abounded.

No specific evidence could be found that Catoctin Furnace contributed to the production of Revolutionary War munitions. There is ample evidence, however, of discussion relating to munitions manufacturing and the Johnson Furnace. One could surmise that given the Johnson family connections and the length of the war, which lasted seven years following the first blast of the furnace, the Catoctin Furnace did produce iron--either for shot, cannon balls, guns or swivels. At the very least, it appears almost certain that Catoctin iron produced "potts" and other products for the war effort. The Johnson works was a new, centrally-located furnace owned by a well-connected patriotic family. It would be difficult to believe that the Johnson enterprise did not contribute to the war effort.

The announcement of American victory brought tremendous celebration to Frederick County. Fireworks accented festivities in Frederick City, while residents of upper Frederick County enjoyed a victory celebration on Israel Creek. [20] The legacies of the Revolution were many, including the introduction and elevation of industry in the former frontier region. One of the most immediate impacts was the introduction of a new group of German immigrants to the area--Hessian soldiers, many of them former prisoners of war, who decided to stay in the New World. [21] Some apparently found employment in the furnace, eventually becoming key operators. [22]

Rumsey's Steamboat

One of the most interesting events in which the newly built Catoctin Iron Furnace played a role was the launching of James Rumsey's steam ship on the Potomac in 1787. The event grew out of the friendship and common interests of Governor Johnson and George Washington. Both owned land along the Potomac, and both eagerly sought to improve upon their investments. Along with other prominent figures, the two formed the Potomac Company to promote development along the river. Washington served as president of the organization, and Johnson was an active member of the board of directors. [23]

The company hired James Rumsey, an enterprising inventor from Cecil County, Maryland, as its superintendent. Rumsey used his position to generate interest in his plans to construct a steam-powered boat. When he submitted a preliminary proposal to the company, General Washington immediately saw the potential. The founding father declared "that the discovery is of vast importance . . . and if it succeeds (of which I have no doubt) that the value of it is greatly enhanced by the simplicity of the works which, when seen and explained, may be executed by the most common mechanic." [24]

In 1785, Rumsey and Washington visited Thomas Johnson in his Fredericktown home to discuss the manufacturing of needed parts at the Johnson iron works. [25] Over the next couple of months, Johnson's brother, James, attempted to forge and cast the necessary parts. The Catoctin Furnace, however, proved inadequate to the task. Thomas Johnson then arranged to have the cylinders made from copper in Frederick City. [26]

Two years later, Rumsey's ship was ready. On December 3, 1787, a large crowd gathered in Shepardstown, Virginia on the Potomac to witness the first run of Rumsey's engine-powered ship. A vertical pump, seated in the middle of the vessel, driven by a steam engine powered the inventor's eighty-foot long boat. As the crowd looked on, Rumsey's boat struggled up to about four-miles per hour before dying out. [27]

Rumsey was not alone in experimenting with steam engines in the 1780s. Others, including John Fitch of Connecticut were developing similar engines. A bitter debate broke out as to whose engine was actually the first. [28] Seeking to promote his case, Rumsey cited the experiments at Catoctin Furnace--which must have taken place in 1785 or 1786--to bolster his claim to have been first in inventing the steam technology. [29]

While Rumsey's engine was hardly ready for immediate commercial utilization and may not have been unique, his invention suggested a real future in steam travel. Robert Fulton's steam ship in 1807 and the rapid spread of the railroad, of course, later realized this. The Johnson enterprise did not produce any of the parts used in Rumsey's engine. But having played a role in the important experiments leading to the steam engine, the Catoctin area can claim a small part in the work of a man whom Thomas Jefferson called "the most original and greatest mechanical genius I have ever seen." [30]

Early Industry

Others in the Catoctin region soon followed the Johnson brothers in exploring the potential of industry. By the early nineteenth century, numerous small industries had sprung up east of the mountains, especially in the town soon incorporated as Mechanicstown. One of the first was a 1793 tannery constructed by Daniel Rouzer, a German immigrant who had first passed through New Jersey before coming to the Catoctin area (see Map 2). The tannery, set on Owens Creek, made use of the tanning agent found in the bark of abundant oak tree bark found in the area. Heavy stones crushed the bark and water from nearby creeks allowed for the soaking of animal hides. The business prospered and remained in family hand when Daniel Rouzer's son John took over the tannery in 1815. [31]

Other tanneries followed. The Wampler Tannery opened for business in 1810. Ten years later, Captain W.L. Jones of Baltimore built a two-story, stone-faced tannery, containing 200 vats for soaking, located on Hunting Creek. [32] The creek's flowing water propelled a large "grinding apparatus," and the tannery yearly consumed some 2,000 cords of bark, employed fifteen men, and produced 25,000 hides of leather per year. [33]

Other industries developed east of the mountains in the early national period including a snuff factory in Graceham, an extensive edge-tool manufactory erected in 1811, and a matchmaking factory begun by the Weller family. [34] Meanwhile, into the early nineteenth century, the Johnsons continued to expand their business enterprises. Alongside his furnace, James Johnson also owned a flour mill on Fishing Creek. [35]

Each of these early industries made ample use of one of the region's most abundant natural resources--timber. In fact, logging was a major mountain area industry. Sawmills, which were features of the mountain since the arrival of white settlers, continued to operate and expand. When Catoctin Furnace owner James Johnson sold 715 acres of mountain land roughly a half mile from his business, "abounding with chesnut, locust, poplar, and oaks of all kinds," he made sure to mention the additional presence of "a saw mill that would work four or six months in the year." [36] Ten years later Johnson put on the market "325 acres of heavily timbered Mountain land." Again the land was within a mile of his furnace. Johnson suggested that the land might be divided into four to six lots, and among the enticements, he trumpeted a "saw mill set and a seat for a distillery or tanyard." [37] No doubt dozens of other sawmills dotted the Catoctin area.

Small industry also proliferated along Hunting Creek as it flowed through the valley at the foot of the mountain. Soon locals began calling the area Mechanicstown for the large number of mechanics operating in the area. In 1882, Andrew Sefton, longtime resident of Mechanicstown, recalled his arrival: "I came to this town, April 1st 1831. It then numbered about three hundred inhabitants and was a very business place for its size." Sefton married one of the daughters of Jacob Weller and settled down. In the 1830s, he recalled:

"seven tanniers in town and vicinity, two blacksmith shops, a tilt hammer, grand stone, polishing wheel and turning lathe, all propelled by water power, one wool and cloth factory, two shoemaker shops three tailors, three weavers, one gunsmith, one silversmith, two wagon and coach shops, two mill-wrights, three cabinet maker and house carpenter shops, one saddler, one hatter, one doctor, three stone and brick masons, three hotels and a match factory." [38] In 1832, the thriving settlement was incorporated as the town of Mechanicstown.

Growing industry, of course, required transportation, a perennial problem in the mountainous Catoctin area. What roads existed as the new century began often were barely passable. Many were essentially dirt trails through dense forest, with tree stumps cut at 16 inches so axles could clear them. Frenchman Ferdinand M. Bayard, traveling through Frederick County in the early nineteenth century, found himself "confronted with abominable roads . . . where one runs the risk of being upset at any moment on sharp stones or of being thrown into mudholes." [39] Travel by stagecoach from Baltimore to Hagerstown in 1803 required one to board the coach in Baltimore at three in the morning, arriving in Frederick by evening. A second coach in Frederick, again departing at three in the morning, arrived in Hagerstown by early afternoon. Fare for the two-day journey was three dollars and an extra dollar and a half for additional luggage. [40] There does not appear to have been a coach that traveled north from Frederick during this period.

With Baltimore the largest growing city in the country by the 1790 pressure grew to create a network of useful, passable roads radiating out from the city. Turnpike companies were incorporated to build the necessary links. One of the first construction endeavors was a turnpike from Baltimore to Frederick, which, by 1807, was extended to Boonsborough, and later to Williamsport, where it could link up with routes along the Potomac River. [41] Construction of the famed National Road then followed. The road linked existing roads to a major turnpike that ran from Cumberland, Maryland, on the Potomac River to Wheeling, Virginia on the Ohio River.

In the Catoctin area, the first phase of the transportation revolution involved the Westminister-Hagerstown Turnpike completed in 1816, which connected to the National Road in Hagerstown (see Map 2). The Turnpike ran through Mechanicstown and Harmon's Gap (a portion of the pike that appeared to have been called Harmon's Gap Road) and what became Mechanicstown. [42] Within a few years, the Frederick-Emmitsburg Turnpike, passing through Creagerstown to the east of Mechanicstown was also completed. [43]

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Last Updated: 21-Nov-2003