Touring the Iron Age
The FEBT 2005 Spring Exploration
by Chris Coleman
photos as noted
Originally published in the
Timber Transfer, Vol. 22, No. 2, Fall 2005
On April 2nd and 3rd, 2005, over 40 FEBT "Early Birds" headed into the woods for the 9th Annual FEBT Spring Exploration. The tour this year was led by Lee Rainey, co-author of East Broad Top and expert on the early decades of EBT history. In the early 1990s Lee authored a series of articles in Railroad Model Craftsman magazine elaborating on the history of the EBT during the period when iron production was a substantial part of its operations.
After a brief talk on safety and a preview of the day's tour, the group divided to visit two sites at once, neither of which had the capacity for the entire group. The first was a display in the lobby of Community State Bank of Orbisonia. The display contained many photos and diagrams of the iron making Industry in Rockhill Furnace and Orbisonia.
The other site was the Bedford Furnace Property, also located in Orbisonia. On the property is a house that is thought to have been built and used by the owners of the Bedford Furnace, the first iron furnace constructed in the Juniata Valley. The house was to be demolished until purchased by the Orbisonia-Rockhill Furnace Historical Society. The two story log structure is in the process of being restored and returned to its original appearance. The Society was kind enough to allow the Early Birds to tour the interior of the historic building. Behind the log house the group viewed the general area in which the Bedford Furnace itself was located. The exact location is unknown.
As a single group again, the Early Birds next headed into Blacklog Narrows to explore the remains of two other charcoal fired furnace remains. After car pooling to a conveniently large pull off just outside of town, the group set about hiking to the Winchester Furnace. This furnace was excavated by a documentation crew in 1998 and save for the brush, remains largely open. The trough like depression behind the furnace which was once the water flume was clearly visible. The group then proceeded to the Rockhill Furnace, just west of the Winchester. This furnace is less visible than the first, but retains its cast iron tuyre pipes (nozzles).
Beyond the furnaces, the group continued along the newly built, but not yet operational US 522 alignment. Above the new road, a rock quarry was clearly visible that was once served by the East Broad Top via a tramway across Blackleg Creek. I took the opportunity to explore the quarry more closely and found three pieces of light rail still on the hillside.
In order to explore the opposite side of the narrows, the group arranged for a first ever Exploration trolley ride. As the Shade Gap Electric Railway runs the length of the narrows on its south side, it made ideal transportation to the sites located there. The Rockhill Trolley Museum graciously offered to provide York Railways Car 163 for the afternoon.
The first site of interest was the Rockhill Iron and Coal Company iron furnace. The remains of the engine house are a staple view along the trolley line. Unlike normal trolley riders, our explorers disembarked to have a closer look. Lee Rainey spoke at length about the history of the furnace, referencing the diagram of the complex recently erected by the trolley museum. A tour of the remains was then given, including the furnace stacks, store houses and beehive coke ovens.
Back on the trolley, the group made its next stop just beyond the road crossing at the site of an early limestone quarry. The site was soon abandoned in favor of the one to the east of the narrows. Just beyond the quarry site, the group got off to explore one of the siding locations where iron ore was loaded for transportation to the furnace. A grade was clearly visible as well as mine waste piles. The mine site itself was not apparent.
Further up the line, the group disembarked again to explore a known iron ore mine site. Unlike the Broad Top coal mines, the ore seam here is nearly vertical. Ore was mined on a number of different levels, proceeding up the seam to the top of the mountain. The group ventured up the side of Blacklog Mountain to the first level, where a noticeable terrace showed where mine waste was discarded. While the group returned to the trolley, a few dedicated members ventured up the mountain further to explore the additional levels.
At the end of the new track extension, the group disembarked and continued across Rt. 522 to the spur to Groves quarry. The spur was older than the Shade Gap Branch which became the main track in this area, and was part of the original Rockhill Iron and Coal Company tramway.
Visible from the spur was the rain-swelled Blacklog Creek which was nearly bursting its banks. The tour proceeded as far as an original stone culvert which had been exposed by previous heavy rains.
The group then returned to the Trolley and headed for Rockhill Furnace. On the way back a stop was made in the general area in which the tramway to the quarry on the far side of the narrows had stood. The remains of the tramway bridge and the dam proved impossible to see due to the high water.
On the way to Robertsdale for the evening presentation, attendees had the option of coming with part of the group to Trough Creek State Park, a few miles beyond Cooks on PA 994. There, the more complete remains of Paradise Furnace stack gave a good idea of the scale of the operations in Blackleg narrows.
At Robertsdale, the group enjoyed Pizza Star II pizza and snacks courtesy of Patty Coleman. An evening slide and movie show was presented, and included a number of other narrow gauge railroads like the Denver and Rio Grande Western; Sumpter Valley; Tweetsie; and Doe River Gorge. The special feature for the evening was a screening of the Blackhawk East Broad Top film on 8mm film.
On Sunday the group met again at the Rockhill Trolley Museum. The first order of business was a short tour of the restoration work going on in Rockhill Furnace. Stops during this mini-tour included the newly-leased paint shop, the hopper 802 project, the machine shop project, the roof canyon project and the track 3 project. Crew leaders from each project took a few minutes to explain the details of why and how the project was performed.
Back to the Iron Age, the group headed out to visit some of the more obscure places on the weekend's tour. The first involved driving up Sandy Ridge paralleling the old EBT Clay Spur. The destination was an early Iron ore mine atop the ridge. Little more than a depression today, it was an early source of iron ore for the region. Down the other side of the ridge in Loves' Valley, the group next stopped near the former location of an early tannery.
Returning across the EBT at Shirleysburg, the group headed south to Enyeart Road and crossed the Aughwick to visit the former location of the Chester Furnace and Forge. Moving into Hill Valley, the group stopped near the location of the Orbison and Fleck hematite ore mine. Rejoining the railroad at the former location of Prices siding, the group proceeded to Saltillo.
The group parked near the site of the Saltillo Tankhouse. Bill Adams took a few moments to describe the damage that had been done in the Saltillo area by Hurricane Ivan the year before and how the damage had been repaired. The group then proceeded to the nearby hillside to inspect the location of an early limestone quarry served by the EBT. Although not visible, a nearby early iron ore mine was discussed. It was also served by the EBT via a spur off the tail of the Saltillo wye. At that the tour was concluded and the attendees headed toward home.
Many thanks to my special wife and constant helper Patty, to Larry Freeman and Doug Weidman for their great help with meals and acting as motormen, and to Hank Inman for his continued support of this event. A special thanks to Lee Rainey for lending his extensive knowledge of the EBT for the event. A big thank you to the Rockhill Trolley Museum for providing first class transportation. The next exploration is tentatively scheduled for March 25 and 26, 2006. Hope you can join us for a look at the "rest" of the East Broad Top National Historic Landmark.