Each School District Has a Unique Iron History

Schools in each district are marked with a dot.  Click on the region to get more information!


The Iron Industry in the Bald Eagle Area School District

The Bald Eagle Valley was a main focus for much of Centre County’s charcoal
iron industry. Six iron furnaces operated in what is now the Bald Eagle
Area School District: Milesburg Iron Works (1797-1890), Curtin Iron Works
(1810-1921), Howard Iron Works (1830-1889), Hannah Furnace (1830-1850),
Julian Furnace (1832-1858), and Martha Furnace (1832-1857). They took advantage
of the fast-flowing water of Bald Eagle Creek for their power and for their
transportation.

The iron pigs (the most basic iron product) were usually taken elsewhere
for further processing, most often to Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in the
early years. The first method of transportation was by mule and/or wagon,
using early roads. In the Bald Eagle Valley the road that is now Route
220 had been a Native American path, so it was already built for the iron
furnaces’ use. Another early form of transportation was by “ark” – flatboats
that floated on creeks and rivers. The Bald Eagle Creek served as a water
route, flowing into the Susquehanna River. As long as the iron could make
it by road to a point where the creek was navigable, it could be loaded
onto the arks for the rest of its journey.

The two biggest transportation revolutions in the 19th century were
canals and railroads, both of which ran along Bald Eagle Creek. The Bald
Eagle and Spring Creek Navigation Company was formed in 1834 to finance
and build a canal from Lock Haven to the iron furnaces of Centre County.
The first half, finished in 1835, went as far south as Howard Furnace;
13 years later the canal finally reached Bellefonte. Its route paralleled
the old road, now Route 220. Railroads were faster, cheaper to build, easier
to connect, and not as seasonal as canals. A railroad ran from Bellefonte,
through Milesburg, to Snow Shoe in 1859; by 1863 there was a route from
Tyrone to Lock Haven, the Lock Haven and Tyrone Railroad (later the Tyrone
Branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad). This second railroad through the
Bald Eagle Valley really spelled the end of the canal, but also gave the
two remaining ironworks in the valley (Curtin and Howard) good transportation
to markets.

A few reminders of the iron industry in the Bald Eagle Area School District remain. Primary, of course, is Curtin Village, the restored iron plantation on Rt. 150 between Milesburg and Howard. The Howard Iron Works was demolished when Sayers Dam was built; it is now under the lake. Hannah Furnace Mansion is a private home; Martha Furnace Mansion is now a bed-and-breakfast. Remnants of the Bald Eagle and Spring Creek Navigation Company canal are also still visible in Milesburg.

 

The Iron Industry in the Bellefonte Area School District

Although charcoal iron in Centre County began at Centre Furnace, the Bellefonte area became the center of the county’s iron industry. Seven of the county’s nineteen ironworks were located in what is now the Bellefonte Area School District. At least one – Philip Benner’s Rock Iron Works (1793-1852) – was started specifically to forge Centre Furnace pig iron. The industry was so profitable, however, that they soon expanded, as did the other nearby furnaces and forges: Harmony Forge (1795-1882), Turner Iron Works (1795-1818), Logan Furnace (1797-1842), Valentine & Thomas Iron Works (1798-at least 1887), and Hecla Furnace (1825-1857). Bellefonte Furnace (1888-1891) was part of the second brief wave of ironmaking.

This abundance of ironworks brought a great deal of money to Bellefonte. The men who ran them wanted – and achieved – political power; their quest led to Bellefonte’s place as the county seat and Centre County’s reputation as the home of governors (5 in Pennsylvania and 2 in other states). As the hub of the county, any transportation improvements, especially canals and railroads, passed through Bellefonte, enabling the area’s ironworks to have good and efficient ways to get their iron to far-flung markets.

Bellefonte was also one of the few places in the county that had iron works after the Civil War. Most county furnaces closed in the 1850s, but two Bellefonte works took advantage of newer technology to keep themselves in business. The Valentine & Thomas ironworks at Bellefonte added a hot blast coke-fired furnace in 1887, and the Bellefonte Furnace was constructed in 1888 with the latest technology.

Quite a bit of the physical evidence of the charcoal iron industry remains in the Bellefonte Area School District. The Harmony Forge Mansion is located on Route 150, just north of Bellefonte; canal ruins are still visible there and at Milesburg. The ironmaster’s mansions and other furnace related buildings – Logan Furnace Mansion, John Dunlop’s Forge House, Valentine’s Burnham Place, William Thomas’ Wren House, and James Harris’ iron mansion at Willowbank – are still along or near Route 144 between Bellefonte and Axemann. The Cerro Metals plant on Route 144 is the location of the former Bellefonte/Valentine & Thomas Iron Works. Less obvious is the site of Philip Benner’s Rock Iron Works, but you can see the Rock (along Rock Road) and the fast-flowing waters of Spring Creek that inspired Benner to settle there. And, of course, the courthouse and the wonderful Victorian houses of Bellefonte are reminders of the wealth and influence that accompanied the charcoal iron industry 150 years ago.

 

The Iron Industry in the Penns Valley Area School District

The connections between Centre County’s charcoal iron industry and Penns and Brush Valleys is not as obvious as the connections with other parts of the county. While no ironworks were put in operation in what is now the Penns Valley Area School District, in the 1770s Col. Samuel Miles acquired 9000 acres of land in what would become Miles Township, later named for him. He leased farms to Pennsylvania German farmers who came to the frontier and, while tilling the soil, plowed up rich iron ore. It was the discovery of this initial high quality iron ore that led Samuel Miles to enter the ironmaking business, first at Centre Furnace and then Milesburg.

Agriculture has always been, and still is, a vital part of the county’s economy. The crops and livestock that were raised in Penns and Brush Valleys were integral in supporting a county population that grew because of the iron industry. No doubt many valley settlers, initially attracted to the iron, switched to agriculture to take advantage of the excellent arable land.

In addition, as valley farmers began to adopt newer farming techniques
and especially improved tools and equipment, they increasingly depended
on the county’s iron. Most of the changes in farm equipment in the 19th
century were from wood tools to iron tools; the charcoal iron that was
made in the rest of Centre County was very well suited to farm equipment
such as plow blades. The valley blacksmith got his iron from local furnaces
to keep the oxen and horses shod and create all the kitchen tools used
on local farms. Even Eli Whitney, inventor of the cotton gin and manufacturer
of many other products, wrote to a colleague in 1819:

“About ten or twelve years ago I purchased at Columbia, Pennsylvania,
about 15 tons of the common Juniata Iron made by Philip Benner, which was
wrought, in my manufactory, into various parts of muskets. From my own
observation & experience, I am satisfied that the Juniata Metal, in
its native state, is some of the best in the world & that if it is
carefully & skillfully manufactured, it will answer an excellent purpose
for musket Barrels or any other use.”

One resource that teachers in the Penns Valley Area School District
have for studying iron and its uses is the services of a real blacksmith.
Dragon’s Breath Forge will do on-site demonstrations of blacksmithing.

 

The Iron Industry in the Philipsburg-Osceola Area School District

The Philipsburg area, though in the mountainous western edge of Centre
County and geographically removed from the majority of the county’s charcoal
ironmaking operations, also participated in the industry. Two ironworks
operated in what is now the Centre County half of the Philipsburg-Osceola
Area School District: Cold Stream Furnace (1797-1854), and Plumbe Forge
(1828-1842).

Cold Stream Furnace was built by Philipsburg founder and namesake Henry
Philips. His brother James took over the furnace operation in 1800 after
Henry’s death, and ran it until 1817, when Cold Stream went out of blast
(ceased operation). The youngest Philips brother, Hardman Philips, came
to Philipsburg for the first time in 1810. In 1818 he built a forge at
the ironworks, added a rolling mill, a wire-drawing operation, a small
furnace, and with his partner, Dr. John Plumbe, put the country’s first
screw factory into operation.

Dr. Plumbe, a friend of the Philips family and at one time overseer
of the Cold Stream foundry, added to the area’s industrial development
in 1828 by building Plumbe Forge a few miles east of Philipsburg, along
Six Mile Run. The forge made “blooms” from pig iron hauled from Bald Eagle
Valley furnaces, and then transported them by mule to towns in Huntingdon
County for shipping on the Pennsylvania Canal.

Hardman Philips and John Plumbe recognized the need to find a more efficient
and economical method to ship iron, and by the late 1820s began to make
plans for construction of what would have been one of the country’s earliest,
the Philipsburg and Juniata Railroad Company. They were unable to find
local investors, however, and soon after Philips and his family returned
home to England. High transportation costs forced the forge’s closing in
1842; Plumbe moved west to Iowa, and Philipsburg’s ironmaking era was over.

A few reminders of the iron industry in the Philipsburg area remain.
A state historical marker notes the former site of Plumbe Forge; the marker
is on Route 504 between Philipsburg and Black Moshannon State Park. Nothing
can be seen of Cold Stream Furnace, but reminders of the Philips family
still exist: Hardman Philips’ home, Moshannon Hall, is now known as Halehurst
and is on the National Register of Historic Places, and there is still
a marker and monument to the first screw factory in the United States,
in the intersection of Moshannon St. and Curve St. just outside of the
borough. The bell from that screw factory is in the tower of the Union
Church.

 

The Iron Industry in the State College Area School District

The first charcoal iron furnace in what is now Centre County was Centre
Furnace (1792-1809, 1826-1858). It spawned an entire industry in the county
that lasted until 1921. Three other former iron operations are located
in the State College Area School District: Tussey Furnace (1810-1818),
in Pine Grove Mills; Pennsylvania Furnace (1815-1911?), which is partly
in Centre County and partly in Huntingdon County; and Scotia (1881-1912),
and iron mining rather than an iron making village.

Centre Furnace had an enormous impact on Centre County as a whole, and
the State College area in particular. Because of the iron industry’s start
here, a great deal of money and political influence made its way into the
county. When the Pennsylvania Agricultural Society wanted to find a home
for a farmer’s high school (really, an agricultural college), Centre County
was selected as the location because of its financial and political strength.
Centre Furnace ironmasters James Irvin (who lived in Oak Hall) and Moses
Thompson (who lived in the Centre Furnace Mansion) offered 200 acres of
Centre Furnace land and a promise of further financial support from them
and their Bellefonte associates for the new school. The offer was accepted,
and the agreements were drawn up at the Centre Furnace Mansion. That school
is now known as The Pennsylvania State University; almost all University
land was once Centre Furnace land belonging to Moses Thompson. In addition,
parts of Patton and Harris Townships, approximately half of College Township,
and nearly all of the land on which the Borough of State College is located,
including the donated 200 acres of Penn State land, were originally part
of landholdings.

There are still a number of remaining iron industry-related buildings
and sites left in the State College Area School District. First, of course,
is the Centre Furnace Mansion, stack, and its grounds. Centre Furnace Village
extended from Thompson Spring (above the Duck Pond), the source of the
water that powered the furnace, to Millbrook Marsh, near the location of
the early village grist mill. The miller’s house for that mill is the brick
house on Puddintown Road behind Clinefelter’s Flooring. Old Main, on the
Penn State campus, was the first building for the Farmer’s High School
built on former Centre Furnace land. The Henry Varnum Poor murals inside
tell some of the iron story, and the young man with Abraham Lincoln in
the mural is John Thompson, Moses Thompson’s oldest son. Moses Thompson
and his family are buried in the Centre Hills cemetery next to the Centre
Hills Country Club. James Irvin’s house, barn, and mill are still visible
on Boalsburg Road in Oak Hall (the mill is now part of a private house).
The ruins of Pennsylvania Furnace are barely visible in the town, but the
mansion offers a reminder as does the state historical marker explaining
the furnace’s history. Few, if any, remnants exist from Tussey Furnace,
and what little remains of the large iron ore operation at Scotia is now
part of the state game lands.