Iron Mountains, Iron Rails: How Iron Forged the Cumberland Valley Railroad

South Mountain Railroad Engine #1

South Mountain Railroad Engine #1 "South Mountain" and Superintendent William H. Woodward, c. 1875Courtesy of the Cumberland County Historical Society, Carlisle, PA.


Located in South Central Pennsylvania, along the Appalachian Mountains, the Cumberland Valley is filled with rich deposits of brown hematite, the mineral form of iron.  Mining and refining of this ore in the region dates back to colonial times.  Many early settlers opened up the pockets and strips on their land and began ore-digging.  To extract the metal from the ore, blast furnaces were built in the valley beginning in the 1760s.  After the American Revolution lifted British restrictions on manufacturing, forges, foundries, and rolling mills soon followed.  These workshops cast the smelted metal into useable products.  The greatest concentration of iron production was located in the South Mountain region and one of the most productive furnaces in that area was the Pine Grove Iron Works.      

With a high demand for iron products in the early nineteenth century, the local iron industry surged.  This growth created a need for improved transportation from mines to furnaces to foundries, both regionally and to larger urban areas across the country.  In 1837, the Cumberland Valley Railroad (CVRR) was established to provide this essential service.  After completing a main line from Harrisburg in the north to Chambersburg in the south, branch lines were built to connect the CVRR directly to production centers.  All of these different lines would eventually merge with the CVRR.

However, at that same time, greater sources of iron ore were being discovered in western states.  The new deposits soon eclipsed local supplies.  In addition, advanced methods of smelting were being adopted in other areas.  Furnaces were transformed from stone stacks fueled by charcoal into steel towers that were heated by anthracite coal, bituminous coal, and coke.  These factors, combined with the growth of the steel industry, caused a critical decline in iron production in the Cumberland Valley. 

Like the other local furnaces, Pine Grove closed by the end of the nineteenth century and became a relic of a bygone era.  The forests once clear-cut to feed the furnaces regrew and the branches of the Cumberland Valley Railroad lay idle.  In its next iteration, the once industrial land was transformed into a space for calm reflection, exercise, and education that can still be enjoyed today.

Iron Mountains, Iron Rails: How Iron Forged the CVRR