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Iron Industry

A man of distinguished presence, popular with everyone with Whom he came in contact, his defeat for Governor failed to dim his energies-Returning to his business interests after the election, he started new furnaces In Huntingdon, Lycoming, Mercer and Monroe counties and by the year 1854 he was interested in the business and management of ten charcoal iron furnaces, as well as forges, mills and farms all through the central portion of the Commonwealth. He took an active interest in all movements for the public welfare, especially In the construction of turnpikes and canals, and was one of the first to urge the construction of a railroad through Bald Eagle' valley.

The action for which his memory should be most cherished by the citizens of Centre county was probably the part he played in the establishment of the Pennsylvania State College, While H. M. McAllister of Bellefonte, and Frederick Waits, of Carlisle, were the first to make definite plans for the "Farmers' High School," they found the General Assembly was not willing to provide the initial funds for the proposed institution. . Returning to Bellefonte, after their conference with the committee and the Governor at Harrisburg, these men called upon General Irvin. To their delight he at once agreed to donate the two hundred acres of land upon which the Main building now stands as well as to subscribe generously to the fund which they found necessary to raise. With this encouragement McAllister and Watts had little trouble in raising the remainder of the money and in making an Immediate start with the school.

From today's standpoint the lack of interest in the school evidenced by the agricultural portion of the community seems a strange matter. However, when we realize that practically all the best farming land then cultivated in the county was in the hands of two classes, first, those of the German settlers In Penn's valley, and second, those lands which were owned or controlled by the Ironmasters, we see that the English speaking individual owners of good farm land were a minority of the population.

Each iron company possessed many thousand acres of land, and as their valley land was cleared of timber in the coaling operations, Or as the ore mines on certain tracts were worked out, they were used to grow food for both man and beast. Each iron plant was therefore in the farming business, their owners understood the value of Increased agricultural production, hence the Ironmasters were heartily in favor of the new school and became the principal contributors to its fund.

Etting Bros. & Co., other Iron merchants of Philadelphia purchased an interest in the Howard Iron Works, whose iron they had been handling since the death of Jacob Lex, and the plant was then run under the firm name of John Irwin Jr. & Co."

By 1854, with many outside interests taking much of his time, William A, Thomas employed Moses T. Millikin as general manager of Valentines and Thomas Millikin had been in the employ of this firm for several years both as bookkeeper and mine foreman, arid had married the daughter of George Valentine. Ore was discovered on the land of William A. Thomas on the northern slope of Muncy mountain in 1854 and John Irvin promptly leased this ore field for the benefit of his furnace at Julian, to save hauling over the mountains from the Centre Furnace mines which had been supplying this plant.

The Hales, who became Generals, Judges and Congressmen from this section, succeeded those of the Philips name as the leaders from the Philipsburg portion of the county, and formed a-hat was to be the dominating group of that region for half a century. They interested E. D. Morgan, formerly Governor of New York, and his brother, in the organization of a coal and lumber company, took over all of the Hard-man Philips lands, together with the furnace and forge located there, and started a great increase in the business of that community.

In 1856 the "Bessemer process" for making steel was invented, which made use of the cheaper irons and did not necessitate the use of charcoal iron. The quality of the charcoal iron made from the Centre county ores was superior to the grade made from many other ores. So much was this apparent to the trade that many devices were tried by which to make a cheaper product which would compete particularly on price.

These attempts finally resulted in the use of coal in place of charcoal. which latter fuel had risen in price as the virgin timber became scarce or harder and more expensive to obtain. While the "anthracite iron," as it was termed, could not compete in quality with the "charcoal iron" it could be made at much less expense and was sufficiently good to fill the great majority of the needs of the iron trade.

Charcoal iron equaled low grade steel for many purposes and cost less to make than this quality of steel, hence a charcoal furnace with the requite capital could continue to make money as many of them did.  However, the invention of the "bessemer process" was sufficient cause for the blowing out of many a small furnace which was not making enough profit to justify its existence.

Moses Thompson decided to discontinue work at Martha furnace in this year, so it was blown out and never again refired. Its parts were used at other plants in which Thompson was interested. This was also the year in which the Snow Shoe Land Association purchased the Gratz lands in Snow Shoe and Burnside townships, which action was an additional incentive for the building of the Bellefonte and Snow Shoe Railroad.

In 1857, "Irvin & Co.," as the firm was known since John M. McCoy had purchased the Gregg interests, blew out and dismantled both the Julian and Hecla furnaces, concentrating all their business at Milesburg, and Centre Furnace was also blown out in the following year, after sixty-six years of service. Some prestige must have been acquired by the "Hecla" iron, since after it had been closed the furnace at Milesburg was run under the title of "Hecla Furnace No. 2," until it became the sole property of McCoy and Linn.

The discovery of the new gold fields in Colorado in 1858 started revival of industry throughout the nation, and in the following year work was pushed on the new railroads, both the one from Snow Shoe to Bellefonte and the proposed line between Tyrone and Lock Haven. But, by the end of the year, John Brown's raid occurred at Harper's Ferry hastening the approach of civil war.

By 1860 the county had a population of 27,000 and Bellefonte contained 1,477 people, both resuming a healthy growth, while the iron plants of the county were reduced to those which had weathered all financial storms. Lyon, Shorb & Co. were operating Pennsylvania furnace and its allied industries, Valentines and Thomas were running the Bellefonte plants, Irvin, Thompson and McCoy were working the Milesburg Iron Co., Irwin, Thomas & Co. were doing a good business at Howard, and Roland Curtin Jr. and his brothers were continuing the operation ot the Eagle Iron Works.

During the civil war which followed all these companies were kept busy with the feverish preparations which arise under such circumstances, although the interest in this contest and its results so overshadowed everything else that the record of the accomplishments in this industry at this time is only known by the fact that the furnaces kept going and made money for their operators, notwithstanding the higher costs incurred by rising prices and the scarcity of labor.

Two of Centre's Ironmasters attained the dignity of the title of "General" through merited service in this strife, Major-General John Irvin Gregg, a member of the firm of Irvin, Gregg & Co., whose military career was a dazzling one, and John Irvin Curtin, of the firm of Curtin & Co., who served throughout the war and was steadily promoted earning the position of Brigadier-General in 1864. Another member of the Iron family of Curtins, Andrew Gregg Curtin, was elected Governor of Pennsylvania in 1860 and re-elected during the stress of the conflict.

In February, 1862, the Bellefonte and Snow Shoe Railroad was completed and in January, 1863, the first passenger train was run over the new Bald Eagle Valley Railroad Company tracks from Tyrone to Bellefonte, which road gave shipping facilities to four out of the five active Iron plants of the county.

Before the close of the war, in 1864, James Harris Linn joined with John M. McCoy in purchasing the interests of their remaining partners In the Milesburg Iron Works, and until the death of both of these men the firm was known as "McCoy and Linn." Lyon, Shorb & Co. blew out and dismantled the furnace at Bald Eagle in 1865, and Thomas and Irwin sold the Howard Iron Works to the firm of Griscom, Bright & Co, in the same year.

During the next five years the iron business of the county kept steadily on In the five plants which had survived the changes and depressions. Those at Bellefonte, Curtin and Milesburg employed much labor and their payrolls were a continual source of income for the communities which surrounded them. Lyon, Shorb & Co, had moved the main office for their firm to Pittsburgh and still represented a large aggregation of both "charcoal" and "anthracite" iron furnaces and mills. Their distinguished founder, John Lyon, had died in 1868, and William M. Lyon, his eldest son, took charge of the management of the firm.

In 1873 another panic shook the country, caused chiefly by railroad exploitations in the West and the exposure in Congress of the incredible graft which was involved in the matter. The panic was brought to a bead by the failure of the imprudent loans which had been negotiated in connection with this western railroad building, together with what was then thought to be the immense and probably unpayable debt carried by our national government.

Four years of depression ensued, during which Lyon, Sborb & Co. were forced to close some of their plants and their wide flung business was only saved from complete failure by the sacrifice of much of the personal fortune of the head of the firm. The celebration of our one hundredth anniversary as a nation and the general revival of the Iron, coal and steel industries, caused by the Prussian wars in Europe, gave us a new start for another period of good times, and Centre county iron was still in demand.

Griscom, Bright & Co. had not been doing so well with "Howard" and, in 1871, disposed of the plant to Bernard Lauth, who was compelled to spend a large amount of money in improving these works, which had been allowed to run down under their last management. The plant was almost entirely rebuilt and Lauth ran it principally as a feeder for certain steel plants in the Pittsburgh district in which he 'owned an interest.

The Coleraine forges were closed in 1878 and their business removed to the Tyrone forges, which were on the main line of the railroad, but a branch road was begun to connect with the Pennsylvania furnace, which was finished in 1880, and that plant continued to function. Bellefonte, Milesburg, Curtin and Howard furnaces kept going on with the same railroad facilities, which by this time were an absolute necessity for any iron plant. Many furnaces were abandoned after 1875 for the sole reason that they were unable to obtain a direct railroad connection and much praise or blame was handed to the railroad management for their action or inaction in these matters.

Shortly after the railroad had been built from Tyrone through Pennsylvania furnace to the "Scotia" ore mines, Andrew Carnegie purchased several of the Lyon, Shorb & Co. plants in and near Pittsburgh, and came to Centre county to Investigate their furnaces and mines here, where he met Daniel Clemson, then a foreman at "Pennsylvania," and persuaded him to join his organization in Pittsburgh. Carnegie was also pleased with the quality of the ore of Patton township and, encouraged the formation of the Juniata Mining Co., which was incorporated In 1880 to mine and market ore from the fields of this region. For some years James Pierpont, of Bellefonte, was the general manager of this company.

In the early "eighties" several movements were on foot looking toward a better form of transportation between Bellefonte and the Pennsylvania State College, since both the student population and the town surrounding the college were growing rapidly. This culminated in the formation of the Bellefonte, Buffalo Run & Bald Eagle Railroad Co. in 1885. The contractors who were to build this railroad were Thomas, Peter and Philip Collins, who were the well known contracting firm of "Collins Bros."

When these men first came to Centre county they rioted that all the surviving iron firms of the neighborhood were still making charcoal iron with cold blast furnaces, and saw the possible profits in the use of the well known Nittany ores for the making of iron under modern methods. As soon as the railroad was well under way with its construction in the year 1886, they purchased the property called "The Fair Grounds," north of Halfmoon Hill, and part of the Thomas farm which extended from the railroad right of way southward nearly to the western banks of Spring creek, together with many hundred acres of ore lands in the western part of Nittany valley.

Bellefonte Furnace

By 1887 work had been started on the furnace and its Furnace Co. accompanying buildings and on February 29th, 1888, the year 1886, they purchased the property called "The Fair Grounds," north of Halfmoon Hill, and part of the Thomas farm which extended from the railroad right of way southward nearly to the western banks of Spring creek, together with many hundred acres of ore lands in the western part of Nittany valley.

By 1887 work had been started on the furnace and its accompanying buildings and on February 29th, 1888, the first hot blast, coke fed, furnace was put in blast in Centre county by the Bellefonte Furnace Co., which had been incorporated for this purpose, under the management of Thomas A. Shoemaker, a nephew of the Collins brothers.  It was lighted by the late Winifred Meek Morris, youngest daughter of the late Senator P. Gray Meek, of Bellefonte.                                           

Also in 1885, after seventy years of continuous active existence as a charcoal iron firm, the partners of Valentines and Thomas gave an option on their plant and ore lands to Edmund Blanchard and W. M. Stewart, who, during the following year. purchased the same for the sum of six hundred thousand dollars.  In writing of the history of this firm, John B. Linn says: "During the many years these works have existed no time has ever been lost for want of work, and operations have ceased only when repairs were necessary." This statement was made for the reason that many of the smaller iron companies were accustomed to close their operations whenever they could not make the usual profit on their commodity, only resuming work when prices rose. But Valentines and Thomas, with their conservative management and always sufficient capital, continued their iron making through all the hard times which the country had experienced since 1815, and consequently reaped the benefit of any quick renewal in the demand for their product.

Centre Iron Co., Valentine Ore Land Association

Associated with Blanchard and Stewart were B. K. Jamison, of Philadelphia, and others, who organized the Valentine Ore Land Association to hold the title to these properties, and who were also the incorporators of the "Centre Iron Co.", which was to become the iron making part of their plan. They built a steam driven, hot blast, "anthracite iron" furnace to replace the old water power, cold blast, "charcoal iron" one, and started its first run of iron on March 4th, 1888, Just eight days after the Bellefonte furnace had gone into blast.

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Latest Update
29 July 2003

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