Iron Production and Railroads in the Cumberland Valley

Pine Grove Furnace in operation

An 1875 photograph showing the Pine Grove Iron Works and auxiliary structures such as the site's railroad tracks, which were serviced at this time by the South Mountain Railroad, a subsidiary of the Cumberland Valley Railroad. In the background on the left, a train and the superintendent's mansion house can be seen.

The Cumberland Valley was host to seventeen different blast furnaces from the colonial era to the end of the nineteenth century.  Nine furnaces were in operation in the 1830s and 1840s, the height of iron production in the region.  These pyramid-shaped stone structures were heated by charcoal.  The charcoal was produced by slowly heating wood, cut from the surrounding forests, in large mounded kilns known as pits.  Colliers tended the burning wood, day and night, for approximately two weeks until it had "come to foot" and was completely charred.

Pine Grove Furnace

A modern day image of the Pive Grove Furnace.

G. F. Walters and Son

The furnaces smelted the brown hematite rocks into ingots of pig iron.  The pig iron was transported to local forges and rolling mills where it was transformed into cast or wrought iron and then crafted into everyday items like stoves and cookware.  Some Cumberland Valley iron was even made into munitions used by the patriots during the American Revolution.

Although created towards the end of the iron industry in the area, this 1902 local advertisement for the G.F. Walters and Son, a hardware store in the town of Shippensburg, presents some of the products made from Cumberland Valley iron.

Deep Quarry Pit

Quarry pit during iron production at Pine Grove Furnace circa 1875.

Pine Grove Iron Works

In 1764, partners George Stevenson, Robert Thornburgh and John Arthur built a furnace stack along a tributary of the Yellow Breeches Creek near a quarry of iron.  They named their operation the Pine Grove Iron Works.  The furnace at Pine Grove smelted iron ore that was transported to forges to produce cast iron products such as wagon wheels, fireplace backs, kettles, and stoves. 

In 1782, Michael Ege purchased the iron works.  He and his family grew the business significantly over the next fifty-five years.  Under their ownership, Pine Grove evolved into an iron plantation.  Typical of the times, the plantation included an Ironmaster's Mansion, houses for workers, a clerk's office, stables, a grist mill, a charcoal house for storage, a blacksmith shop, a store, and other necessary buildings.

Unfortunately, the Panic of 1837 bankrupted the company.  Charles Bingham Penrose and his law partner Frederick Watts, who would later help to found Penn State University, purchased Pine Grove at a sheriff’s sale the following year.  In 1864, the famed Philadelphia financier Jay Cooke bought the company and formed the South Mountain Iron Company.  Although the Panic of 1873 wreaked havoc on Cooke’s holdings, he was able to re-organize in 1877 and continued to operate the iron works.

At that time, John Birkinbine, became the furnace’s engineer.  Birkinbine, a future founding member of the Pennsylvania Forestry Association, renovated the furnace, increasing its output.  In 1883, the new furnace’s peak year, it produced 6,000 net tons of cast iron.  Some of this product was used to make locomotive parts.

The CVRR: Transporting Iron and Supporting the Industry

When the Cumberland Valley Railroad (CVRR) was chartered in 1831, the company’s Chief Engineer and Builder, William Milnor Roberts, believed that a regional railroad would be profitable.  Roberts optimistically estimated that although the cost of building the railroad to Harrisburg, including the bridge across the Susquehanna River, would be $564,064, the average annual receipts of the road would be $284,617.50.  In addition, he projected 35,000 tons of through freight and 51,950 tons of local freight, all at the rate of four and one half cents per ton per mile, and 100 passengers each way per day at three cents per mile.   Accordingly, he predicted that the company could recoup its startup costs in only a few years.  

Although Roberts projections were considerably higher than actual receipts, the company was highly lucrative.  From the time it officially opened in 1837 until it ceased operations in 1919, nearly every product entering or leaving the valley moved on the CVRR's lines. 

Iron comprised a significant portion of the CVRR's freight revenues.  

Ore Roaster Diagram

An 1895 sketch of an ore roaster arranged for filling directly from railroad cars as part of the iron-smelting process.

Iron Rails

The CVRR not only became instrumental in transporting the iron throughout its various phases, it also supported the industry by purchasing local iron to use in the construction of its rail.  At first, rails were created by placing iron strips on top of oak beams.  While this method could produce track quickly and inexpensively, the rail could not withstand heavy loads or long-term wear.  Sometimes the iron separated from the wooden base and speared the floors of the carriages. 

In 1831, the Flanged T rail (also called T-section) was introduced in the United States for use in Pennsylvania by Col. Robert L. Stevens, President of the Camden and Amboy Railroad.  After quickly recognizing its benefits, all US railroads adopted it.  When Frederick Watts became president of the CVRR in 1841, he began replacing the old track with the newer, heavy iron rails.  Twenty years later, Watts oversaw an additional upgrade to steel.