The Story Behind Buena Vista Furnace – Part I

Origins

On February 22 and 23, 1847, United States troops under the command of General Zachary Taylor defeated a much larger Mexican force at a hard-fought battle three miles north of the hacienda of Buena Vista (Fair View).  Excitement over this event resulted in the naming of Buena Vista Furnace.  Exactly when construction of the furnace began, or when it was named, is not known.  The partners in the enterprise were Henry T. McClelland, Elias B. McClelland, and Stephen Alexander Johnston, who obtained a deed on April 29, 1847 to a tract of about 90 acres along Black Lick Creek for a consideration of $300 paid to William Jonas of Somerset County.  The deed describes the tract as being situated on both sides of Black Lick Creek.  Here on the north bank of the creek between Armagh and Brush Valley and within sight of the Route 56 highway bridge over the creek, Buena Vista Furnace was erected.

Almost nothing is known of the McClellands.  One source credits Henry McClelland with the construction of the furnace.  Elias B. McClelland was employed at Elias Baker’s “Indiana Iron Works” in East Wheatfield Township not long after he left Buena Vista Furnace.  His wife “Sallie” or Sarah had literary inclinations and wrote five short stories and a poem which were published in the Indiana Weekly Register during 1857-59.  A daughter, Ella, nearly three years old, died October 8, 1857.

Stephen Alexander Johnston, son of Dr. Alexander Johnston and Elizabeth (Lowry) Johnston, was born June 30, 1820 in or near Hollidaysburg, Blair County.  At age 12 he clerked in the store of John Bell at Bellwood, Pa.  He apparently came to Armagh with his father prior to 1847.

Buena Vista and the Central Railroad

It appears that one of the factors which decisively influenced the decision to build Buena Vista Furnace was the prospect that the route of the railroad from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh, which later was the Pennsylvania Railroad, would go through the valley of Black Lick Creek rather than the Conemaugh River.  As early as November 21, 1845 a meeting was held in Blairsville of persons “favorable to the construction of a continuous Rail Road from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh, by way of the Juniatta and Blacklick, vallies, as surveyed by Col. Schlatter, and recommended to the Pennsylvania Legislature.”  Shares of stock in the proposed railroad were sold in Blairsville and Indiana during August 1846.  The next year the little village of Mechanicsburg – now Brush Valley – took advantage of what seemed like excellent prospects for a railroad to promote itself.  It had been laid out in September 1833 by John Taylor on behalf of Robert McCormick, who also owned some of the land adjoining Buena Vista Furnace.  Although Buena Vista Furnace had not yet been built at the time of the following advertisement dated February 3, 1847, it is possible McCormick may have had some advance knowledge of the plans of the McClellands and S.A. Johnston.  A sale of lots in Mechanicsburg, with six to nine months credit, was to be held April 1, 1847:

Mechanicsburg is situated in one of the best settlements in the county, and directly on the route intended for the CENTRAL RAILROAD – surrounded by IRON WORKS – it affords a first rate market for Country produce.

On March 1, 1848 a meeting of citizens of Indiana County favorable to the Black Lick route was held at the Court House in Indiana.  Archibald Stewart served as chairman of the meeting.  A Mr. Gallagher who had examined the proposed route through the Black Lick Valley reported that “the route of a Rail Road located by Mr. Roebling, principal assistant Engineer to Mr. Schlatter” was “very favorable for Rail Road purposes.”  The meeting named a committee to procure subscriptions to the stock of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company “contingent upon the adoption by that company of the route above referred to,” the newspaper report stated.  One of those named to this committee was Elias B. McClelland, one of the Buena Vista partners, and another was David Stewart, proprietor of Black Lick Furnace.

More Land Purchased

The partnership acquired additional land for their proposed operations.  On May 21, 1847 after the store on the original tract had begun to operate – and probably after furnace construction had begun – another tract of 100 acres in Brush Valley Township adjoining the first was purchased from Thomas Martin for $1,000.  This tract included Martin’s dwelling and other buildings.  On December 3, 1847 a third tract was acquired by purchase ($1,000) from Adam Altimus of Center Township.  It was described as “Situate on Blacklick Creek in Brushvalley Township…Part being in Wheatfield township.”  This brought the partnership’s land holdings to 421 acres.  Because of the need for large acreages of timber to furnish wood for charcoaling, it was necessary for furnace proprietors to have large tracts of woodland.

The Day Books

In the Baker Mansion, home of the Blair County Historical Society, are three Buena Vista Furnace Day Books which, when examined, turned out to be store journals.  “S.A. Johnston” is written on the inside cover of Day Book Number 1.  The first account is dated May 7, 1847 only nine days after the furnace tract was acquired.  Work on the furnace presumably began shortly afterward.  There are four entries under this date to Samuel Singer, William G. Stewart, Thomas Martin, and E.B. McClelland ($3.82 for alpaca, gingham, pants, ribbon, bottle of cologne, and Japan writing box).

On May 10, 1847 and numerous times thereafter were accounts marked “Boarding House,” indicating there was on the site a boarding house to accommodate the laborers.

A few selected entries from these Day Books will throw an occasional bit of light on activities in the furnace area.

June 28, 1847 “William Felton. Moving Exps. from Blacklick Furnace to Armagh. $2.00

July 10, 1847 “Improvements” including 5 shovels $1.00, 1 curry comb 19 cents, 3 door handles 94 cents, 10 doz. “Lights Glafs” (glass panes) $5.00, 4 doz. Screws 50 cents, 1 lb. “Rock Powder” 38 cents, ¼ lb. gun powder 13 cents, 5 “Norfolk Latches” 94 cents

July 12, 1847 “Boarding House” 27 food items $10.84, including 4 chickens 32 cents, 4 doz. Eggs 25 cents

August 2, 1847 “Smith Shop” 1 “Large Anville” $43.00, 1 “Large Vice” $19.50, 25 lb. “Cast Steel” $9.38, and other items. Total $76.33

September 22, 1847 H.T. McClelland. Cloth goods totaling $52.31

October 2, 1847 Boarding House “tomatos” 5 doz. 5 cents, 5 bu. Apples $1.25, 17 head cabbage 51 cents. “Paying Mrs. Underwood for washing $1.00.

October 16, 1847 “Amt. Paid Mrs. Duncan for Produce at different times $16.41

December 31, 1847 “Furnace” 1 “Jack Screw” $9.00, 1 tape line $3.00, 30 bu. oats $9.38, 12 bu. corn ears $2.70, 100 lbs. beef $4.00, 66 lb. pork $2.644, 50 lb. “Veil” $2.00

January 22, 1848 “Furnace” 1 keg white lead $3.50, 1 gal. flax seed oil 75 cents

February 29, 1848 “Furnace” Amt. Geo. S. Wike for Washin Bed Clothes for Board House $6.81

January 11, 1849 “William Felton. To Moveing Exp. From Black Lick furnace to McCormicks”

There are numerous entries in the Day Books in the names of H.T. McClelland, E.B. McClelland, and S.A. Johnston.  The two entries concerning moving expenses of William Felton suggest that his services were needed in connection with initial furnace construction in 1847 and perhaps again in connection with repairs or additional installations in 1849.  He was probably a skilled furnace craftsman, possibly a founder.

Since Elias Baker did not own Buena Vista Furnace, it is something of a puzzle how the Day Books happen to be with Baker’s other voluminous iron furnace and business records at the Baker Mansion.

Operation of the Furnace

The operation of all charcoal iron furnaces was similar.  To start the furnace in “blast” the interior of the stone stack was filled with charcoal and lighted at the top.  Al materials were carried to the furnace “tunnel-head” or opening over a bridge from the nearest embankment.  After several days, when the heated mass of charcoal had slowly dropped to the bottom, the stack was refilled with charcoal.  This time the white hot mass worked its way upward fanned by a steady blast of cold air provided by the blast machinery which now began to operate.

It appears that Buena Vista was among the last of the cold-blast in Western Pennsylvania.  Hot-blast furnaces using anthracite fuel had already come into use as early as 1840 and it was not long until the hot-blast method was adapted for use at some of the charcoal furnaces.

Although it is not known for certain, it is likely the blast of cold air at Buena Vista was furnished by blowing cylinders or tubs – an arrangement which might be described as two pairs of casks fitting one into the other as snugly as possible with leather gaskets and moving up and down alternately on a platform.  The cylinders were powered by a water wheel located between them and below the platform, a connecting rod running from each side of the water wheel to each cylinder.  An air box, made as airtight as possible, received the compressed air.  On two sides of Buena Vista Furnace are “tuyere arches” in which iron pipes leading from the air compression box were fitted.  Thus air under pressure was fed into the bottom of the furnace.

At Buena Vista the remains of the water raceway are clearly seen leading form the furnace and emptying into Black Lick Creek.  There is some reason for thinking the source of water was not Black Lick Creek, as most persons suppose.  For one thing the flow of water from the creek, supposing that it came to the furnace by a feeder, would not have had much force or power to turn the wheel.  Also there are no traces of a water channel leading from the creek to the furnace.  Further, David Peelor’s 1856 map of Indiana County (see page 12) shows a saw mill dam on the hill not far above the furnace.  It is a definite possibility that the water to power the wheel came from this source by means of a sluiceway.  One obvious advantages of this would be that the water flowing down hill would have greater force, particularly if an overshot wheel were used.

Returning to the operation of the furnace itself, as the second filling of charcoal was fanned to a white heat by the cold blast, alternate layers or “charges” of charcoal, iron ore, and limestone were added.  The slag formed by the chemical fusion of the limestone with the impurities in the ore floated on top and was ladled off from time to time.  The molten iron, being the heaviest element in the glowing mass, sank to the bottom of the furnace into a small reservoir known as the “crucible.”  About twice a day the molten metal was drawn out of the crucible through the hearth into a casting bed of sand.  At Buena Vista the hearth is the side of the furnace facing Black Lick Creek.  Here there was probably at one time a wooden shed or cast house.  The main stream of iron issuing from the hearth was called the “sow” and the side feeders “pigs,” therefore the product was commonly called “pig iron.”  It required about two tones of ore, one to two tons of charcoal, and a few shovelfuls of limestone to make a ton of pig iron.

The most skilled workman was the founder who regulated the furnace, made the sand molds, and cast the iron.  The keeper, or right-hand man to the founder, was responsible for the proper functioning of the blast equipment.  The filler kept the furnace filled with the necessary charges.  The gutterman had charge of the sand molds.  It is not yet known whether small finishing castings were made at Buena Vista.  It is hoped to do some archaeological digging on the site of the cast house to obtain an answer to this question.  Perhaps the only product was pig iron.

Buena Vista appears to have had a clerk also.  It has been reported that a Samuel A. Douglass was admitted to the Bar at the September 1851 term of Indiana County Court and for a year or more afterward clerked at Buena Vista Furnace.

Periods when the furnace was in blast, or “campaigns,” were of short duration, seldom exceeding eight or nine months of continuous operation due to the necessity of renewing the crucible and inner linings of firebrick called “boshes.”  At Buena Vista some of the firebricks from the inner bosh were removed by workmen at the site who drew them out through the hearth, causing more of the remaining inner bosh to collapse.

Buena Vista appears to have had a clerk also.  It has been reported that Samuel A. Douglass was admitted to the Bar at the September 1851 term of Indiana County Court and for a year or more afterward clerked at Buena Vista.

Source of Furnace Ingredients

The charcoal or charred wood used at Buena Vista was made by workers known as colliers who piled wood cut into fixed lengths in a large circular cone shape in a dry, level clearing.  In the center of the stack was a small “chimney”’ filled with chips and dry leaves which were lighted at the top.  Then the top was partly closed with turf and most of the stack, except for a few necessary air holes, tamped with loose earth or turf.  The colliers had to stay with the slowly smoldering pile night and day, watching it carefully to prevent flames.  After three to ten days the charcoal was raked into piles to cool.  It has been estimated an average furnace consumed 800 bushels of charcoal every 24 hours – the equivalent of 50 cords of wood.

At present it is not definitely ascertained where the limestone used at Buena Vista was obtained.  It may have been obtained locally or, since only a small quantity was needed in comparison to the other materials, it may have been waggoned from some farther distance.

The following comments regarding iron ore appear in the Pennsylvania Geological survey of 1880:

The section of Lower Barrens exposed along Black Lick between the Cambria County line and Dilltown embraces over four hundred feet of rocks, in which are included three small coal beds and several limestone layers.  Besides these, there is a band of carbonate iron ore, which ranges near the top of the section and which is known generally by the local name of the “Black Lick ore.”  This ore strantum was at one time extensively worked, supplying not only the Black Lick furnace with materials for smelting, but also the Buena Vista furnace below Dilltown, and even the Baker furnace on the Conemaugh…It ranges as a persistent deposit, varying from six inches to two feet in thickness; resting in shale it can be cheaply mined, and a sufficient amount of ore was easily obtained near at hand, for the supply of the small furnaces once dependent upon it for support.  The ore is rather coarse grained, of a bluish cast, and to all appearances rich in iron….

Buena Vista furnace stood on the right bank of Black Lick, about one-half mile below the month of Armagh run.  The ore supply at this place seems to have been inconstant and irregular, and the furnace was long ago abandoned on account of ill success.

Socialist Women in Black Lick and Socialville

The coming of the Great Depression brought major economic and political changes to the county, as poverty and unemployment became more oppressive and pervasive, creating a situation which led some of the unemployed and their supporters to organize and protect.

The problems of the coal industry, the major business and the leading employer in the county, illustrated general conditions.  Many mines which had operated through the lean years of the 1920s had closed by 1932.  County residents also suffered when the unemployment rate reached 25.4 percent in 1932.  In that year the county fair was canceled for the first time in the twenty-five year history, because of the state of the economy.  Other indicators of the county’s economic plight included more than twenty-five thousand property liens issued by the tax collector in 1932, and more than nine hundred children unable to attend school because of a lack of clothing.

The Depression created great hardships, and county residents searched for new solutions to their problems.  The unemployed responded to this economic crisis by affiliating with national and state activities and groups and by establishing their own organizations.  When the national Bonus Army passed through Indiana County in the spring of 1932, local people gathered to cheer them on.  Father Cox’s Hunger March received a warm reception in Blairsville as they marched from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C.  On the local level, the Worker’s Unemployment Council of Indiana County emerged in 1933.  The Workers Federation of Pennsylvania was also becoming active at this time.  Both groups held meetings and conducted protests highlighted by a giant action at the County Relief Board held by the Workers Federation in July 1933.  County and local unemployed groups had a diverse membership and leadership.  Socialists, including women such as Marie Widdowson and Florence McNutt, played prominent roles, through their activities.  Yet this along with the growing presence of the United Mine Workers and the Democratic Party failed to dislodge the Republican Party and the business elite from their dominant roles in Indiana County.

The Republican Party dominated politics in Indiana County prior to the mid-1930s.  This dominance reflected the realities of the state and the political power of the business community in the county.  Socialists failed to threaten this supremacy even with the opportunities provided by the Depression of the 1930s.  However, a different story unfolded in a small enclave around Black Lick and Socialville, a community named after the Socialists who lived there.  This enclave contributed many socialist candidates, hosted numerous speakers and provided a sense of community for participants in socialist activities.  Although socialist men contributed to these achievements, it was socialist women who played the pivotal roles.

Socialist Women Newspaper
Socialist candidate campaign advertisement from election of 1934.

Prior to 1930, Indiana County socialists engaged in a number of political contests.  In the election of 1912, Eugene Debs, the presidential candidate of the Socialist Party, polled 6% of the countywide vote, but did much better in the Black Lick and Socialville areas.  Reuben Einstein, a prominent Blairsville merchant, entered several local races, and in 1917 won 45% of the vote in a race for burgess of Blairsville.  Davis A. Palmer, a leading Black Lick merchant, ran several races for state and national offices on the Socialist Party ticket in the 1920s.

Socialists continued to run for office in the 1930s, with women joining men as candidates.  Marie Widdowson, a prominent Black Lick socialist, ran for a seat in the Pennsylvania General Assembly in the 1932, 1934, and 1936 elections.  In the latter year, Florence McNutt, another key Black Lick socialist, also ran for a Pennsylvania General Assembly seat.  While they won negligible proportions of the total vote, usually 2-3% in these races, in the races for local offices they achieved more impressive results.  Florence McNutt was elected as inspector of elections in Black Lick, and Marie Widdowson became the township auditor.

Black Lick and Socialville socialists maintained contact with the Socialist Party and other progressive causes by attending state and national conferences.  Florence McNutt attended socialist conferences held in Reading and Harrisburg, while Mrs. Eugene Morton of Socialville attended a socialist conference in Reading and Marie Widdowson and Rhoda Lowman of Socialville attended a state socialist convention in Harrisburg.  Mrs. Widdowson also attended a meeting of the Worker’s Federation held in Harrisburg and a meeting of the Continental Congress of Workers and Farmers for Economic Reconstruction held in Washington, D.C.  In addition, she represented Indiana County as a delegate to a meeting of the Women’s International League for Peace held in Pittsburgh.  Florence McNutt served as a delegate to the 1932 Milwaukee Convention of the Socialist Party which nominated Norman Thomas for President.

Socialists also hosted a variety of local activities which attracted large audiences and brought outsiders to the area.  Campbell’s Mill Park, in Black Lick Township, provided the site for outdoor activities, particularly the very popular annual Labor Day basket picnics.  In 1932, party members and friends from Indiana County and surrounding counties, including Allegheny County, attended the event.  The celebration featured athletic events, speakers and a supper served to over 300 persons.  Mrs. Mary Bennett (“Grandma Bennett”) won a special prize for being the oldest person at the picnic.  On a smaller scale, the enclave received some attention when Mrs. Eugene Morton hosted a meeting of the Young People’s Socialist League’s State Executive Committee at her home in Socialville.

Campbells Mill
Campbell’s Mill Park, location of socialist gatherings in the 1930s.

In addition to these special features, local socialists organized many ongoing services and activities. Some of these activities were directly related to socialism while others were of a general progressive nature.  The socialists established a reading room on Main Street in Black Lick for the benefit of the community.  While it housed some socialist literature, it also included a wide variety of reading materials, especially those which covered current events.  Regular meetings of the Black Lick local, often held in conjunction with an active Young People’s Socialist League branch, attracted approximately forty-five participants from both Black Lick and Socialville.  At these meetings members received pamphlets from the national office and discussed national and local issues.  The Young People’s Socialist League published The Rising Sun, a newspaper which contained articles about local and national history, and political commentary often written by Florence McNutt, as well as a page of ads for local businesses.  Local socialists also devoted much of their efforts to aiding the unemployed.  Several socialists played leadership roles in unemployed groups.  For example, Florence McNutt and Marie Widdowson served on a local committee to provide relief work for the unemployed.

Socialists also participated in more informal activities which included paying one another frequent visits and periodic bingo parties.  Socialville socialists, especially Mr. and Mrs. Eugene Morton, hosted most of the bingo parties, but Black Lick socialists also held parties.  These events raised funds for the Young People’s Socialist’s League and provided entertainment for guests who often numbered from twenty-five to forty-five.  Local socialists often exchanged visits and socialized and traveled together.  A few items from the many examples in the Blairsville Dispatch illustrate some of the personal connections which linked enclave socialists.  Florene and Darius McNutt and their children and Mrs. Widdowson were guests of Mr. and Mrs. Eugene Morton in June 1932.  Later that month Mrs. Morton was a guest of the Widdowson family.  The McNutt’s, the Widdowson’s and Mrs. Morton attended a meeting sponsored by the Saltsburg socialists held the following month.  In February 1933, Mrs. McNutt and Mrs. Widdowson were guests at the Morton’s, and later that month they attended a meeting of the Federated Council of Churches in Pittsburgh.  In November 1934, the Widdowson’s were guests of the Forest T. Lowman’s of Socialville.

These activities reflected and reinforced a strong sense of community which resulted from ideological affinities and connections based on family and friendship ties.  Florence McNutt was a cousin of Marie Widdowson who was the wife of Dr. Widdowson and the daughter of Jessie Palmer, both prominent Black Lick socialists.  Mary Jane Bennett (“Grandma Bennett”) played the pivotal role in Socialville both as a co-founder of the Socialist Party in Indiana County and as a mother whose daughters helped to spearhead enclave socialism in the 1930s.  For example, one of her daughters married Forest T. Lowman, a Nash dealer in Blairsville, and both of them became prominent local socialists.  Bonds of friendship helped to form ties between Reverend Theodore Miner, the leading Socialist in Saltsburg, and Black Lick and Socialville Socialists.  He joined the Black Lick socialists when they attended major meetings in Pittsburgh, and he came to many meetings in the Black Lick area.  He and his family were guests of the Forest T. Lowman family of Socialville in July 1933.  The following month Mrs. Lowman joined Reverend Miner and his family for an evening at Campbell’s Mill Park.  In November, Reverend Miner and his family were guests of the Widdowson family.  Furthermore, a strong friendship formed between Florence McNutt and Mrs. Miner.

In the Black Lick-Socialville enclave, women served as political candidates, convention and meeting participants and organizers of social events.  More crucial, however, was their role as initiators and catalysts.  Mary Jane Bennett played that role in Socialville and Marie Widdowson in Black Lick.  She brought Dr. Widdowson and Florence McNutt into the Socialist Party.  Under her tutelage his politics shifted from a conservative Republic stance.  Florence McNutt also experienced a political awakening through discussions with Mrs. Widdowson.

A small corps of women supported by men built a movement which produced annual picnics, a reading room, an ephemeral newspaper and frequent meetings.  They attended events in other locales, and attracted speakers and spectators to their local activities.  They saw the plight of people and worked through their own channels, unemployment organizations and government agencies to alleviate their problems.  They built a sense of community which sustained and nourished them.  They offered some residents of the area a temporary alternative or supplement to mainstream politics, information and entertainment.  Even after the demise of the local Socialist Party some of the women found other outlets for their civic-mindedness, with Florence McNutt playing a crucial role in the development of the community center and the park in Black Lick.