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.

Buena Vista Furnace

Background

Buena Vista Furnace was used in iron making, which was an important industry in Pennsylvania. However, before the making of iron could commence, land needed to prospected for ore, limestone, and timber. Also needed was a stream located nearby for power. Once all the necessary elements were located the “iron master” began to construct the furnace and put it into operation.

These furnaces were located near hillsides, so the ore, charcoal, and limestone could be dumped into the top of the furnace by workers called “fillers.” A bellows provided air to raise the temperature to the point when smelting occurred.

When enough iron was melted, the furnace was tapped and iron ran into channels located in the sand floor of the casting house located in front of the furnace. The main stream of molten iron was called “sow,” and the side channels called “pigs,” henceforth the product which was produced was known as “pig iron.”

Before the pig iron could be used it had to be further refined before it could be used. The iron bars from the furnaces were hauled by wagon to the Pennsylvania Canal and further transported to a forge in Pittsburgh. It was in Pittsburgh where the iron was turned into products such as utensils, stoves and other items.

The Workers

The lives of those who worked at the iron furnaces, did not live easy lives; and their lives varied by skill, responsibility, and social status. The things which the workers needed, ranging from clothing to food to housing was provided by the furnace owner. Workers pay was “in-kind” rather than in cash. The workers included fillers, guttermen, moulders, colliers, miners, laborers, teamsters, and woodcutters. All of their work was supervised by the iron master.

The iron master was considered a capitalist, technician, market analyst, personnel director, bill collector, purchasing agent, and transportation expert.  This means that in order to be a successful iron master one needed to have a combination of numerous qualities including: wealth, respect and pride in producing a good quality product.

The Buena Vista Furnace

Buena Vista Furnace located in Brush Valley Township, located along Black Lick Creek, half a mile downstream of the Route 56 Bridge. The Furnace was erected in 1847 by Henry T. McClelland, Stephen Alexander Johnston and Elias B. McClelland, it has also been known as McClelland’s Furnace.

The story begins on April 29, 1847 when the partners obtained a deed to a tract of about 90 acres for the sum of $300. By December, the partnership acquired additional land so that they had 421 acres.  The Buena Vista Day Books contain entries of purchases of food, supplies and equipment with entries beginning May 7, 1847 and ending in 1849.

If you know about American history, Buena Vista will be familiar to you as a battle in the Mexican War. This battle occurred on February 22-23, 1847 when Santa Ana’s 14,000 Mexican troops met Zachary Taylor’s 5,000-man army near the small hacienda of Buena Vista, Mexico. Taylor’s troops were mostly inexperienced and badly outnumbers, but the two armies fought to a draw. Thanks to Taylor’s efforts at Buena Vista he won fame and later contributed to his presidential victory in the 1848 election. This battle is the namesake for the furnace.

buena vista
Buena Vista Furnace

The furnace began operating in 1848 with about 61 men and boys and 30 mules were employed at the furnace. A summary from an 1850 Sheriff’s Sale, the site contained a store, three houses, seven log cabins (called furnace houses), a blacksmith shop, two log barns, and a saw mill.

There was speculation in 1848 that the Pennsylvania Railroad would construct a line through the Blacklick Valley, which is the likely reason why the site was chosen for the furnace. However, the railroad was not constructed in this area until 1903, and by that time the Buena Vista Furnace was already out of business.

The furnace was 30-foot tall cold blast furnace, and used local iron ore, limestone and charcoal to produce about 400 tons of pig iron in 1848, but the furnace went out of blast in 1849.

In 1850, the Indiana County Sheriff seized the 822-acre property and sold at it at Sheriff’s sale. The Sheriff’s deed was made to Dr. Alexander Johnston, father of Stephen Johnston. The property consisted of 822 acres which included the furnace, a saw mill, “seven small frame and log dwelling houses, called furnace houses” and various other houses, barns, etc.  It was reported that the Furnace produced 560 tons of iron out of shell and bog ore in 1854. The furnace finally closed in 1856, ending a very short business life of less than 10 years.

Another change in ownership came in 1900, when Stephen Johnston sold a 67-acre parcel which included the Buena Vista Furnace to Judge A.V. Barker for $20,000. Barker then sold it and other properties to the Lackawanna Iron and Steel Company in 1902. The property passed again in 1917, this time to the Vinton Colliery Company.

There was a rumor in the 1930s that Henry Ford had an interest in purchasing the Buena Vista Furnace and planned to transport it to Greenfield Village in Michigan via rail. The proximity of the furnace to the railroad would have made dismantling and loading it relatively easy. However, there was then a movement to acquire the furnace and keep it in the local area, this movement may have been sparked by Ford’s interest.

In 1930, the Buena Vista Park Association was organized, with the purpose of preventing the furnace from being moved. There was a hope that the state would acquire the property and turn the property into a historical landmark or public park. As with most projects during the Great Depression, the establishment of the park was stalled.

The Historical Society purchased the furnace in 1957 from the Delano Coal Company. Through the efforts of Clarence Stephenson, county historian, improvements to the site began in the mid-1960s. Then in the summer of 1965 and continuing through 1966-67, a work-training project, through the Indiana County Public Assistance Office, completed site improvements.

The Failure of the charcoal iron furnaces

There are various reasons for the failure of the charcoal iron furnaces. One of those reason was the change of the anticipated railroad route thru the Conemaugh valley instead of the valley of Black Lick Creek. This change negatively affected Buena Vista Furnace. Another reason is the low grade and sometimes unreliable supply of carbonate iron ore. Third was the outmoding within a few years of the charcoal cold-blast method of iron making. Finally, were economic reasons, there was a lack of protection from cheaper foreign iron afforded by the low tariff o 1846. The average price of a ton of iron fell from $53.75 in 1815 to $24.50 in 1849.

The situation was so bad that by around 1850, most or all of the local furnaces were forced to close, some for good. There was an upsurge in the price of iron within a year or two. By 1856, two furnaces were operating in Indiana County, probably the Black Lick Furnace and the Indiana Iron Works, together producing about 2455 tons of iron.

Today the remains of the Buena Vista Furnace are what remains of this once thriving industry.