Follow the Silica Brick Road
Spring Exploration looks at the Mt. Union brick
by Doug Linebaugh
photos as noted
Originally published in the
Timber Transfer, Vol. 24, No. 1, Summer 2007
FEBTís now-traditional Early Bird Exploration is looked forward to every spring for a variety of reasons. For starters, itís a chance to answer what I have termed "the call of the rails" that beckons the devotees of the East Broad Top Railroad after several long winter months after the narrow gauge has blown off the steam of a tourist season. Then thereís the opportunity to renew acquaintances, and make new ones, with fellow friends of the EBT. Fresh air, if not always the best of weather, and a healthy dose of walking over the hills and dales of Huntingdon County, Pennsylvania are a given. Last but not least, though, is the uncommon opportunity to acquire knowledge and lore about this esteemed railroad and its physical and industrial ecosystem "on location."
The 2007 edition, as announced in the February newsletter, was to have a few different wrinkles; mainly, a one day format, interaction with another historical-interest group, and leadership by Pete Clarke, known to many of us as FEBT's membership coordinator and frequent event participant. Pete was now stepping up to share with us the fruits of his over-winter research of the silica brick industry that had several of its tentacles along the narrow gauge, and quite literally engulfed Mount Union, during the railroad's twentieth-century common carrier era.
April 14, 2007 provided stony-white skies that aptly kept with the ganister theme of the day, dry enough conditions on the ground, and temperatures appreciably milder than the breezy low-forties that were forecast. During the 8 o'clock hour, twenty-some registrants trickled into the former paint shop on the otherwise quiet grounds of the EBT's Rockhill yard. Partly stripped-down combine #14 dominated the scene inside the building (now the FEBT's leased restoration facility) and provided the backdrop against which the morning's gathering stoked the usual banter over coffee and doughnuts while registration details were completed. One significant unplanned difficulty was immediately obvious. As a result of a recent skiing injury, guide Pete was rather hampered, physically and vocally. It was just as clear, however, that his recovery program was going to pause for a day while this show went on. With wife and constant companion Jane Clarke ably sharing the duties to best advantage, the value of their strong partnership would be evident over the course of the day. Speaking of couples, we were also honored by the presence of new FEBT members Charles and Lola Null as they were that day marking their 34th anniversary (or 43rd, depending on which one you asked!).
All attendees were given a couple of pamphlets produced by Pete that included a tour narrative, a historical review, and supplemental photos and maps relative to the journey of ganister rock from mountainside to the refractory brick market. This dayís focus would take us to both ends of the 15 mile-long southernmost segment of Jackís Mountain, a high ridge rising above Three Springs and sliced on the north by the Juniata River at Mount Union.
Organized and emerging from the paint shop, only a few foot-steps took us to our first stop, specialized box car #168, of topical interest in that it had been adapted to haul fire clay to the brick plants. Bill Adams led a discussion around the past and future of this piece, stripped of its siding and destined for tourist service after conversion into an open-air rider car. Nearby, side dump hopper 802 posed proudly, nearing the end of its rehabilitation and also attesting to the impact FEBT'S restoration projects are making.
Around 9:30 the group took to the road, carpooling to Three Springs where we parked on Railroad Street and began the 10-minute walk upstream between the track and Three Springs Creek, trying not to disturb the anglers enjoying their first day of trout season. Upon spotting our objective, we crossed the rails, navigated the wet ground around the site, and were soon clambering over the built-to-last concrete hulk of NARCo's 1911-1942 ganister tipple foundation. Some followed the tramway channel part way up towards the Three Springs-Saltillo road. Questions were asked and answered to various degrees of certainty and speculation. When all got safely down off the tipple remains and back to the vehicles at 10:50, the temperature at the bank read 50 degrees and the event had gotten off to a good start.
The tour would resume in Mount Union after an early lunch, so we proceeded to the old brick-yard town via route 747 or by roads following the EBT'S main line, reconvening at the "Enginehouse McDonald's," a mere switch-throw from the East Broad Top's storied dual-gauge yard. As we washed down lunch, we lingered in our section while Jane (designated voice of the 2007 event) gave us a brief narrative of the history of the local refractory industry, pointing out to us, among other things, that Mt. Union in its hey-day achieved rankings as high as number one among al1 shipping points on the Pennsylvania Railroad's Middle Division.
Shortly after noon, we were ready to resume action and began with our one foray into the RR yard itself. Exchanging greetings with the Mt. Union Connecting Railroad personnel on site with their high-railer, we approached the retaining wall that divides the two levels of the north yard. Here Pete took a minute to highlight the basic gravity physics of the yard. From there, it was time to visit the locations of the three brick plants of yesteryear, starting with NARCo's, wedged between the EBT, Pennsylvania Avenue, and the Juniata River. A short walk up to the edge of town and along Pennsylvania Ave. toward the Kistler Bridge gave us a vantage point to observe the vacant property below and some remaining structures such as the ganister-dumping platform on the spur we were tracing.
Team Clarke then herded us back and across East Shirley Street to the former vicinity of a dual-gauge spur that fanned out into the facilities of General Refractory, smallest of the Mount Union plants but nevertheless second largest in the world as of 1910. As most of its facilities have long since been replaced by a residential neighborhood, we employed the photos in our tour material to "see" what once stood before us. Still standing is the former office building, now the Industrial Museum of the Mount Union Area Historical Society, our next and longest stop. Mike Dimoff Jr., one of MUAHS's roughly 150 members, greeted us outside. Entering, we encountered several other society members and officers, including president Murray Africa, Beverly Tilson, and Elizabeth Goodman, on hand by previous arrangement to share their memories and interpret the fine assortment of land, aerial, and panoramic photos, maps, and implements and literature from various borough industries.
We eventually gathered around to hear Mr. Andy Ketner, the featured speaker, as he took the floor. Ketner was a veteran of the final generation of brick industry in town, beginning his career in the mid-70s and holding superintendent positions for NARCo in Mt. Union and managerial titles for its successor, ANH Refractories, at other installations in the U.S. Obliging an interested audience, he shared his experience and insights for most of an hour, fielding any number of questions from the group. Andy was particularly effective at conveying the little-realized sophistication of silica-brick manufacturing, speaking to such areas as, to name a few, the refractory product lines within the major product families, the implications of nuances in raw material composition and the product development science that took place on-site in the Mount Union plants' own laboratories. Pete had already impressed on us the almost backbreaking, labor-intensive side of the business, and Andy colorfully illustrated it with his recollection of many a newly hired "bricktosser" who never returned from their very first coffee break! We were enlightened as we learned that as the brick companies won contracts away from each other, a portion of the local labor force migrated along, with some workers counting perhaps four or live separate terms of service with each of two or three different plants. Another of the many interesting points was that the EBT was not the only victim of the plants' conversions from coal consumption to liquid fuel - laborers were laid off wholesale when their manual work of feeding the kilns was replaced by pipes and pumps.
By mid-afternoon the museum visit was winding down. The appreciative guests made their purchases and donations to the host society, accepted a free souvenir miniature (but genuine) refractory brick, and then threaded up Market Street to the opposite side of the borough. On the west edge of town we gazed down into the silent industrial crater that once was Harbison-Walker's swarming complex. Pete explained the basic flow of materials, from their movement down off the mountain overlooking us to the rails leading out to the PRR. We then followed the rails back along Pennsylvania Avenue, checking out the few railroad-related features along that stretch.
By 4:00 we were back at the enginehouse, having finished well before the major storm approaching the region could hit. Pete's concluding remarks included a challenge to all who enjoy this event to consider the possibility of likewise devoting some time and effort to heading up a future Exploration using their own newly-researched or longer-held understanding of some EBT-related topic, so that this spring tradition, so well sustained by Chris Coleman and others over the last decade, can continue. With that, and thanks all around to Pete & Jane for a job well done, we scattered back to our individual 21st centuries, with a better understanding of the previous one's life, work, challenges, and accomplishments in this small slice of America, and of the narrow gauge railroad that stitched it all together so well.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Mount Union Area Historical Society
PO Box 1776
Mount Union, PA 17966
Dues: $5 active, $25 patron, $150 life membership.
Cataloged Collection: Several thousand artifacts specific
to the Mount Union area, including artifacts from the Silica
Brick industry as well as the canal and the iron industry;
also research materials: photos, newspapers, etc.
Research services: $8 per hour
Events: Canal Era Day. First Saturday in October
Also visit www.muahs.zoomshare.com.