Each School District Has a Unique Iron History
The Bald Eagle Valley was a main focus for much of Centre County's charcoal iron industry. Six iron furnaces operated in what is now the Bald Eagle Area School District: Milesburg Iron Works (1797-1890), Curtin Iron Works (1810-1921), Howard Iron Works (1830-1889), Hannah Furnace (1830-1850), Julian Furnace (1832-1858), and Martha Furnace (1832-1857). They took advantage of the fast-flowing water of Bald Eagle Creek for their power and for their transportation.
The iron pigs (the most basic iron product) were usually taken elsewhere for further processing, most often to Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in the early years. The first method of transportation was by mule and/or wagon, using early roads. In the Bald Eagle Valley the road that is now Route 220 had been a Native American path, so it was already built for the iron furnaces' use. Another early form of transportation was by "ark" – flatboats that floated on creeks and rivers. The Bald Eagle Creek served as a water route, flowing into the Susquehanna River. As long as the iron could make it by road to a point where the creek was navigable, it could be loaded onto the arks for the rest of its journey.
The two biggest transportation revolutions in the 19th century were canals and railroads, both of which ran along Bald Eagle Creek. The Bald Eagle and Spring Creek Navigation Company was formed in 1834 to finance and build a canal from Lock Haven to the iron furnaces of Centre County. The first half, finished in 1835, went as far south as Howard Furnace; 13 years later the canal finally reached Bellefonte. Its route paralleled the old road, now Route 220. Railroads were faster, cheaper to build, easier to connect, and not as seasonal as canals. A railroad ran from Bellefonte, through Milesburg, to Snow Shoe in 1859; by 1863 there was a route from Tyrone to Lock Haven, the Lock Haven and Tyrone Railroad (later the Tyrone Branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad). This second railroad through the Bald Eagle Valley really spelled the end of the canal, but also gave the two remaining ironworks in the valley (Curtin and Howard) good transportation to markets.
A few reminders of the iron industry in the Bald Eagle Area School District remain. Primary, of course, is Curtin Village, the restored iron plantation on Rt. 150 between Milesburg and Howard. The Howard Iron Works was demolished when Sayers Dam was built; it is now under the lake. Hannah Furnace Mansion is a private home; Martha Furnace Mansion is now a bed-and-breakfast. Remnants of the Bald Eagle and Spring Creek Navigation Company canal are also still visible in Milesburg.
Although charcoal iron in Centre County began at Centre Furnace, the Bellefonte area became the center of the county's iron industry. Seven of the county's nineteen ironworks were located in what is now the Bellefonte Area School District. At least one – Philip Benner's Rock Iron Works (1793-1852) – was started specifically to forge Centre Furnace pig iron. The industry was so profitable, however, that they soon expanded, as did the other nearby furnaces and forges: Harmony Forge (1795-1882), Turner Iron Works (1795-1818), Logan Furnace (1797-1842), Valentine & Thomas Iron Works (1798-at least 1887), and Hecla Furnace (1825-1857). Bellefonte Furnace (1888-1891) was part of the second brief wave of ironmaking.
This abundance of ironworks brought a great deal of money to Bellefonte. The men who ran them wanted – and achieved – political power; their quest led to Bellefonte's place as the county seat and Centre County's reputation as the home of governors (5 in Pennsylvania and 2 in other states). As the hub of the county, any transportation improvements, especially canals and railroads, passed through Bellefonte, enabling the area's ironworks to have good and efficient ways to get their iron to far-flung markets.
Bellefonte was also one of the few places in the county that had iron works after the Civil War. Most county furnaces closed in the 1850s, but two Bellefonte works took advantage of newer technology to keep themselves in business. The Valentine & Thomas ironworks at Bellefonte added a hot blast coke-fired furnace in 1887, and the Bellefonte Furnace was constructed in 1888 with the latest technology.
Quite a bit of the physical evidence of the charcoal iron industry remains in the Bellefonte Area School District. The Harmony Forge Mansion is located on Route 150, just north of Bellefonte; canal ruins are still visible there and at Milesburg. The ironmaster's mansions and other furnace-related buildings – Logan Furnace Mansion, John Dunlop's Forge House, Valentine's Burnham Place, William Thomas' Wren House, and James Harris' iron mansion at Willowbank – are still along or near Route 144 between Bellefonte and Axemann. The Cerro Metals plant on Route 144 is the location of the former Bellefonte/Valentine & Thomas Iron Works. Less obvious is the site of Philip Benner's Rock Iron Works, but you can see the Rock (along Rock Road) and the fast-flowing waters of Spring Creek that inspired Benner to settle there. And, of course, the courthouse and the wonderful Victorian houses of Bellefonte are reminders of the wealth and influence that accompanied the charcoal iron industry 150 years ago.
The connections between Centre County's charcoal iron industry and Penns and Brush Valleys is not as obvious as the connections with other parts of the county. While no ironworks were put in operation in what is now the Penns Valley Area School District, in the 1770s Col. Samuel Miles acquired 9000 acres of land in what would become Miles Township, later named for him. He leased farms to Pennsylvania German farmers who came to the frontier and, while tilling the soil, plowed up rich iron ore. It was the discovery of this initial high quality iron ore that led Samuel Miles to enter the ironmaking business, first at Centre Furnace and then Milesburg.
Agriculture has always been, and still is, a vital part of the county's economy. The crops and livestock that were raised in Penns and Brush Valleys were integral in supporting a county population that grew because of the iron industry. No doubt many valley settlers, initially attracted to the iron, switched to agriculture to take advantage of the excellent arable land.
In addition, as valley farmers began to adopt newer farming techniques and especially improved tools and equipment, they increasingly depended on the county's iron. Most of the changes in farm equipment in the 19th century were from wood tools to iron tools; the charcoal iron that was made in the rest of Centre County was very well suited to farm equipment such as plow blades. The valley blacksmith got his iron from local furnaces to keep the oxen and horses shod and create all the kitchen tools used on local farms. Even Eli Whitney, inventor of the cotton gin and manufacturer of many other products, wrote to a colleague in 1819:
"About ten or twelve years ago I purchased at Columbia, Pennsylvania, about 15 tons of the common Juniata Iron made by Philip Benner, which was wrought, in my manufactory, into various parts of muskets. From my own observation & experience, I am satisfied that the Juniata Metal, in its native state, is some of the best in the world & that if it is carefully & skillfully manufactured, it will answer an excellent purpose for musket Barrels or any other use."
One resource that teachers in the Penns Valley Area School District have for studying iron and its uses is the services of a real blacksmith. Dragon's Breath Forge will do on-site demonstrations of blacksmithing.
The Philipsburg area, though in the mountainous western edge of Centre County and geographically removed from the majority of the county's charcoal ironmaking operations, also participated in the industry. Two ironworks operated in what is now the Centre County half of the Philipsburg-Osceola Area School District: Cold Stream Furnace (1797-1854), and Plumbe Forge (1828-1842).
Cold Stream Furnace was built by Philipsburg founder and namesake Henry Philips. His brother James took over the furnace operation in 1800 after Henry's death, and ran it until 1817, when Cold Stream went out of blast (ceased operation). The youngest Philips brother, Hardman Philips, came to Philipsburg for the first time in 1810. In 1818 he built a forge at the ironworks, added a rolling mill, a wire-drawing operation, a small furnace, and with his partner, Dr. John Plumbe, put the country's first screw factory into operation.
Dr. Plumbe, a friend of the Philips family and at one time overseer of the Cold Stream foundry, added to the area's industrial development in 1828 by building Plumbe Forge a few miles east of Philipsburg, along Six Mile Run. The forge made "blooms" from pig iron hauled from Bald Eagle Valley furnaces, and then transported them by mule to towns in Huntingdon County for shipping on the Pennsylvania Canal.
Hardman Philips and John Plumbe recognized the need to find a more efficient and economical method to ship iron, and by the late 1820s began to make plans for construction of what would have been one of the country's earliest, the Philipsburg and Juniata Railroad Company. They were unable to find local investors, however, and soon after Philips and his family returned home to England. High transportation costs forced the forge's closing in 1842; Plumbe moved west to Iowa, and Philipsburg's ironmaking era was over.
A few reminders of the iron industry in the Philipsburg area remain. A state historical marker notes the former site of Plumbe Forge; the marker is on Route 504 between Philipsburg and Black Moshannon State Park. Nothing can be seen of Cold Stream Furnace, but reminders of the Philips family still exist: Hardman Philips' home, Moshannon Hall, is now known as Halehurst and is on the National Register of Historic Places, and there is still a marker and monument to the first screw factory in the United States, in the intersection of Moshannon St. and Curve St. just outside of the borough. The bell from that screw factory is in the tower of the Union Church.
The first charcoal iron furnace in what is now Centre County was Centre Furnace (1792-1809, 1826-1858). It spawned an entire industry in the county that lasted until 1921. Three other former iron operations are located in the State College Area School District: Tussey Furnace (1810-1818), in Pine Grove Mills; Pennsylvania Furnace (1815-1911?), which is partly in Centre County and partly in Huntingdon County; and Scotia (1881-1912), and ironmining rather than an ironmaking village.
Centre Furnace had an enormous impact on Centre County as a whole, and the State College area in particular. Because of the iron industry's start here, a great deal of money and political influence made its way into the county. When the Pennsylvania Agricultural Society wanted to find a home for a farmer's high school (really, an agricultural college), Centre County was selected as the location because of its financial and political strength. Centre Furnace ironmasters James Irvin (who lived in Oak Hall) and Moses Thompson (who lived in the Centre Furnace Mansion) offered 200 acres of Centre Furnace land and a promise of further financial support from them and their Bellefonte associates for the new school. The offer was accepted, and the agreements were drawn up at the Centre Furnace Mansion. That school is now known as The Pennsylvania State University; almost all University land was once Centre Furnace land belonging to Moses Thompson. In addition, parts of Patton and Harris Townships, approximately half of College Township, and nearly all of the land on which the Borough of State College is located, including the donated 200 acres of Penn State land, were originally part of landholdings.
There are still a number of remaining iron industry-related buildings and sites left in the State College Area School District. First, of course, is the Centre Furnace Mansion, stack, and its grounds. Centre Furnace Village extended from Thompson Spring (above the Duck Pond), the source of the water that powered the furnace, to Millbrook Marsh, near the location of the early village grist mill. The miller's house for that mill is the brick house on Puddintown Road behind Clinefelter's Flooring. Old Main, on the Penn State campus, was the first building for the Farmer's High School built on former Centre Furnace land. The Henry Varnum Poor murals inside tell some of the iron story, and the young man with Abraham Lincoln in the mural is John Thompson, Moses Thompson's oldest son. Moses Thompson and his family are buried in the Centre Hills cemetery next to the Centre Hills Country Club. James Irvin's house, barn, and mill are still visible on Boalsburg Road in Oak Hall (the mill is now part of a private house). The ruins of Pennsylvania Furnace are barely visible in the town, but the mansion offers a reminder as does the state historical marker explaining the furnace's history. Few, if any, remnants exist from Tussey Furnace, and what little remains of the large iron ore operation at Scotia is now part of the state game lands.