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.