The Story Behind Buena Vista Furnace – Part II

Financial Troubles and Closing the Furnace

The following Sheriff’s Deed dated March 30, 1850 confirms the above statement that the furnace had “ill success.”

Gawin Sutton High Sheriff of Indiana county comes into court and acknowledges his Deed to Alexander Johnston for all the right title…(etc.) of H.T. M’Lelland, E.B. M’Lelland and Stephen A. Johnston of in and to the following described real estate…containing 100 acres more or less, one half of which is improved, having thereon erected a furnace called Buena Vista, a saw mill and two dwelling houses situated partly in Brushvalley and partly in Wheatfield township…bounded on the south by Blacklick creek and by lands of William Murphy, ———- Evans, Robert McCormick and Adam Altimus: Also one other tract of land containing 232 acres, more or less, having thereon erected three dwelling houses bounded on the east by lands of said M’Lellands and Johnston, on the west by Robert McCormick, and on the south by lands of James Campbell, situate in Brushvalley township…Also one other tract of land containing 300 acres, more or less, having thereon erected seven small frame and log dwelling houses, called furnace houses, bounded on the north by Blacklick creek, on the south by lands of James Campbell, situate in Wheatfield township…Also one other tract of land being parts of two larger tracts of land being parts of two larger tracts of land containing 100 acres, more or less, having thereon erected three small dwelling houses and two log barns, about 60 acres of which are improved, bounded on the south by Blacklick creek, on the east and south by lands of Joseph and Thomas Dias, on the north by lands of said M’Lellands and Johnston Situate in the township of Brushvalley in said county. Also one other tract of land situate in Brushvalley township, containing ninety acres, more or less, bounded on the east by lands of said M’Lellands and Johnston, on the south by lands of Christy Campbell, on the west by Brush creek and on the north by lands of Barnum.  Sold as the property of H.T. M’Lelland, E.B. M’Lelland and Stephen A. Johnston for the sum of $580.50.

The total acreage conveyed by Sheriff’s Deed amounted to 822 acres.  The saw mill mentioned in the Deed is probably the one on David Peelor’s 1856 map which may have been the source of the water to power the water wheel.  The two dwelling houses mentioned in the Deed and also shown on Peelor’s map were likely the Furnace Store and Boarding House referred to in the Day Books.  The “seven small frame and log dwelling houses, called furnace houses” are shown on Peelor’s map on the south bank of Black Lick Creek opposite the furnace, although Peelor indicates only four houses at this location.  Perhaps, in the six-year interval between 1850-58, three houses were dismantled or burned.

Dr. Alexander Johnston, father of Stephen A. Johnston, who thus became owner of Buena Vista Furnace and surrounding area, was born February 21, 1790 in Huntingdon County, a son of Rev. John Johnston, Presbyterian clergyman and Revolutionary War veteran.  Dr. Johnston was educated at Pennsylvania Medical College in Philadelphia and settled at Hollidaysburg where he practiced medicine.  Some time in the 1840s he came to Armagh but practiced very little in Indiana County.  A great-great-grandson, Zan Johnston of Armagh, has the doctor’s saddle bags.

It appears, if Samuel A. Douglass clerked at Buena Vista in 1851-52, that Dr. Johnston may have continued to operate the furnace for time but, finding it unprofitable, gave it up.  His son, Stephen A. Johnston, one of the three unfortunate partners, moved to a farm in Butler County “about 1852 at the closing of the old Buena Vista furnaces,” according to an obituary notice.  He returned to Armagh later and entered the mercantile business in partnership with his father-in-law, Alexander Elliott, whose daughter, Elizabeth Elliott, he had married on February 1, 1848.

Was Elias Baker leasing the Furnace?

This is an interesting bit of speculation which has to be posed as a question because of the lack of a definitive answer.  There are several bits of circumstantial evidence which suggest that Elias Baker, a noted ironmaster of Blair County whose home in Altoona is now owned by the Blair County Historical Society, was somehow concerned in the operations at Buena Vista Furnace following the failure of the McClelland-Johnston partners.

We have already noted that three Buena Vista Furnace Day Books, or store journals, are with Baker’s other extensive business records at the Baker Mansion.  This, in itself, lends some weight to the supposition that Baker may have been leasing the furnace.  We know that Baker never owned Buena Vista Furnace, but he did own the Baker Furnace, also known as the “Indiana Iron Works” located only a few miles away at Cramer, PA.  it has also been mentioned that one of the three unfortunate partners, Elias B. McClelland, was afterward employed at Baker’s Indiana Iron Works, possibly as a founder, until as late as 1859.

After the death of Dr. Johnston, an Inventory and Appraisement of his estate revealed that he was a man of considerable substance and the largest item of his estate was a $50,000 bond of the firm “Lloyd, Baker, McCauley & Lloyd.” A published “List of Dealers in Merchandize” in 1863 shows that “Indiana Furnace – Lloyd & Co.” was assessed a $7.00 mercantile license fee.  Here we have evidence that Dr. Johnston had a heavy investment in Baker’s iron enterprises.

It would appear likely that, after acquiring ownership of Buena Vista Furnace and the surrounding tract of 822 acres, Dr. Johnston would seek for experienced persons to operate it, and that he would turn to the firm of Lloyd, Baker, McCauley & Lloyd in which he had such a large financial interest.

Why Buena Vista Failed

It seems there were three principal reasons for the failure of Buena Vista Furnace: (1) The seemingly poor supply of iron ore at Buena Vista, and the need to waggon ore at Buena Vista, and the need to waggon ore supplies from the Dilltown area or perhaps float it downstream in scows and flatboats during season of high water. (2) The location of the Pennsylvania Railrood main line in the Conemaugh Valley instead of the valley of Black Lick Creek.  (3) The use of improved methods in iron making, was rapidly outmoding the methods used at Buena Vista. (4) The decline in the price of iron.  In 1849 the average price of a gross ton of the best charcoal pig iron sank to the lowest it had ever been – $24.50 for number one foundry iron, as compared with $53.75 in 1815.

Dr. Alexander Johnston and Stephen Alexander Johnston

Dr. Alexander Johnston was born February 21, 1790 in Huntingdon County, a son of Rev. John Johnston, Presbyterian clergyman and Revolutionary War veteran.  He was educated at Pennsylvania Medical College in Philadelphia and afterward settled in Hollidaysburg, PA where he practiced medicine.  Some time in the 1840s Dr. Johnston came to Armagh, but it is believed he practiced medicine very little here.  He and his wife, Elizabeth Lowry, had five children: John Lowry, Stephen Alexander, Mary, George, and James.

Dr. Johnston died at his home in Armagh on December 15, 1874.  By comparison with present standards, it is interesting to note that the total expenses of Dr. Johnston’s funeral were $79.00.  he is buried in Hollidaysburg.  His Will provided that his entire estate be divided between his three surviving children: John, Stephen, and Jane.  The Inventory and Appraisement of his estate showed he had a tiny fortune amounting to $105,643.19 in bonds and judgment notes, plus the house in Armagh valued at $1,000 and 656.5 acres, including Buena Vista Furnace, valued at $10 per acre or $6,565.

A map of these lands was made in 1875 by Thompson McCrea for a fee of $25, and at this time the Court found that Dr. Johnston’s lands “cannot be parted and divided to and amongst the heirs…without injury to or prejudice to or spoiling the whole thereof.”  On December 158, 1875 the Court awarded both the house in Armagh and the 656.5 acres along Black Lick Creek to Stephen A. Johnston, recognizing his claim “that the shares of the other heirs in the said real estate were paid to them in the division of the personal estate” of Dr. Johnston.

Stephen Alexander Johnston, second son of Dr. Johnston, and one of the three partners who had been sold out by the Sheriff in 1850, thus came into complete possession 25 years later.  Born June 30, 1820, he had married Elizabeth Elliott February 1, 1848 during the period when he and the McClellands were getting Buena Vista Furnace in operation.  After the partners were sold out, he went to Butler County where he had a farm.  Then about 1855 he returned to Armagh and went into the mercantile business with his father-in-law, Alexander Elliott.

On February 17, 1900 Stephen A. Johnston and wife sold the Buena Vista tract of 681 acres, 63 perches, to Judge A.V. Barker of Ebensburg for $20,000.

Stephen A. Johnston died October 23, 1904, aged 84 years.  He was the principal stock holder and the last living charter member of the Farmers Bank of Indiana, organized in 1876.

The Delano Coal Company

Judge Barker was apparently acting for the Lackawanna Iron and Steel Company in the purchase of the Buena Vista tract.  A 1901 news item noted that “The Lackawanna Steel Company itself, through Judge Barker, has bought over 20,000 acres of coal land in Indiana and Cambria counties during the past year.  Warren Delano and Moses Taylor, of New York, and Henry Wehrum, of Elmhurst, Lackawanna County, are the principal moving spirits in these latest developments.”  The mines and lands in and around Vintondale, Cambria County, were also purchased by the Lackawanna Iron & Steel Co.  Later the Delano Coal Company was organized as a subsidiary of Lackawanna Iron & Steel and title to the Buena Vista tract vested in it.  Barker transferred title to numerous tracts in Indiana County on July 28, 1902, including a parcel designated as no. 1 conveyed to Barker from Stephen A. Johnston.  The sale to the Lackawanna Coal & Coke Co. netted Barker $141,717.

Warren Delano III was the uncle of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  He lived at his estate, “Steen Valetje,” at Rhinebeck-on-Hudson in the summer and in winter at a house at the corner of Park Avenue and 36th Street, New York City.

There is a source that confirms in May 1920 Warren Delano III took his sisters, his children, his nephews and nieces to see his mines in Cambria County.  It is possible that Franklin Roosevelt accompanied his uncle, but it is not known for sure.  This presents another interesting speculation.  Could it be that Franklin Roosevelt might have visited Buena Vista Furnace?

Earl E. Hewitt Sr. recalled in an interview with the author that Warren Delano often came to the Vintondale vicinity where he had some horses stabled.  He usually stayed at a hotel in Johnstown.

Mr. Delano had been educated at a military school in Brattleboro, Vermont, and graduated from Harvard University, Class of 1874.  A lover of horses, he met a tragic death on September 9, 1920 when a spirited horse he was driving in a surrey to meet a group of friends at the railroad station in Barrytown, New York, bolted into the path of the locomotive.  By a strange coincidence, Franklin D. Roosevelt that very same afternoon was officially notified at his mother’s Hyde Park estate that he had received the Democratic nomination for Vice president of the United States.

C.M. Schwerin succeeded to the presidency of the Delano Coal Co. after Mr. Delano’s death.  Financial troubles beset the company during the Depression.  In 1940 Mr. Schwerin announced that the mines at Vintondale would not reopen, but the company was later reorganized and the mines reopened.

Buena Vista Furnace Park Association

During the period of the Depression a group of civic-minded persons conceived the idea of leasing or purchasing the site of Buena Vista Furnace in order to preserve the furnace as a historical landmark, and to create a public park.  Various meetings in 1930 resulted in the election of Assemblyman Charles R. Griffith of Marion Center as president of the Association; A.A. Cresswell, Johnstown, vice president; Mrs. G.M. Dias, Johnstown, secretary; and Royden Taylor, Indiana, treasurer.  The following Board of Trustees were named: Miss Florence M. Dibert, Attorney John H. Stephens, Attorney Harry Doerr, M.D. Bearer, and John H. Waters, all of Johnstown.  Charles M. Schwab, Loretto.  Assemblyman Elder Peelor, Indiana.  Earl E. Hewitt, Indiana.  M.C. Stewart, Brush Valley.  Postmaster Harry H. Wilson, Blairsville. John c. Thomas, Homer City. R.M. Mullen, Windber. State Senator Charles H. Ealy, Somerset. Rev. C.A. Waltman, Marion Center.

It was planned to later elect two additional trustees each from Clearfield, Jefferson, Armstrong, and Westmoreland Counties.  Five additional vice presidents were also to be chosen.

At first Mr. Griffith was authorized to enter into negotiations for a lease on the land, but when application for incorporation was made before Judge J.N. Langham on January 5, 1931 the stated object of the “Buena Vista Furnace Park Association” corporation was

The purchasing, holding and rehabilitating of the old Buena Vista Furnace and maintaining the same for historical and educational purposes, and as a public park; and to this end to purchase and hold necessary lands…and erect suitable buildings and improvements thereon.

The persons making application for the charter on behalf of the Association were Elder Peelor, C.R. Griffith, Thomas Pealer, A.A. Creswell, Mrs. G.M. Dias, Royden Taylor, and E.E. Hewitt.

The estimated cost of the project was about $3,000 and it was planned to appeal to the public for funds.  An effort was also to be made through Assemblymen Griffith and Elder Peelor to obtain State financial aid.

According to Mr. Hewitt, Henry Ford had made an effort at one time to secure Buena Vista Furnace for his Greenfield Village project.  The proximity of the furnace to the railroad would have facilitated dismantling and loading on railroad cars.  Perhaps it was Henry Ford’s interest in the furnace which sparked the movement to acquire the furnace and keep it in the local area.

Mr. Hewitt tells us the Association was unable to acquire Buena Vista Furnace in spite of very commendable efforts, because of litigation involving the Delano Coal Company which at that time precluded obtaining a clear title.  Probably another factor was that in 1930-31 the Depression had gripped the entire nation and economic conditions would have made the job of raising funds almost impossible.

Gift to the Historical Society

Eventually economic conditions improved and the tangled affairs of the Delano Coal co. were straightened out.  Mr. Hewitt was later elected to the General Assembly himself, and continued to take an interest in the Buena Vista Furnace park project.  To Mr. Hewitt belongs a great deal of the credit for negotiating with the officials of the Delano Coal Co. the transfer and gift of a 5.16-acre tract, including the furnace, to the Historical Society.

The deed was prepared November 1, 1957 and states that the Delano Coal Co. organized under the laws of the state of New York, and having its principal place of business at Great Neck, Long Island, New York, has authorized Francis T. Schwerin, Vice President of the company, to execute, acknowledge, and deliver the deed.  Gas, oil, coal, and mining rights were excepted and reserved.  On November 5 Mr. Schwerin appeared in person before Mr. Sylvia P. Hagney, notary Public of Indiana, PA to formally concluded the transaction.  The Deed was recored the next day November 6.