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Gateway to the Mountains

George Wireman

Chapter 3: The Catoctin Iron Works

Located about three miles south of Thurmont, on US Route 15, is the thriving little community of Catoctin Furnace. Nestled in the valley at the base of the beautiful Catoctin Mountains, this little village was once the scene of much activity, for it was here that the Catoctin Iron Works was first established and in later years it contributed much to the history of early America.

In 1768, a grant of land consisting of 7,000 acres was given by Leonard Calvert to Thomas Johnson and Launcelot Jacques for the specific purpose of establishing a forge mill. This operation soon became very successful and gave employment to many persons in the immediate area.

The discovery of iron ore in the Catoctin Mountains soon led to the building of a smelting furnace. A dozen or more houses were built along the turnpike for the workers and the village of Catoctin soon became a behive of activity. Great open spaces were made in the mountain where the old trees were burned into charcoal, and then hauled down the mountain by four-mule teams to the hearths of the furnace, where it was used in the process of turning the ore into pig-iron.


Scenes of Catoctin Iron Works 1895

By 1773 Launcelot Jacques withdrew his interests at Catoctin and built his own furnace across the mountain. Thomas Johnson was then joined by his brothers, Baker, Roger and James and a second furnace was constructed to meet the growing demands for pig-iron.

During the American Revolution, this prosperous little industry had the honor of making cannon, shot and shell for General George Washington's army while he was engaged in the battle of Yorktown. It was several years later while conducting experiments with a steam-boat that James Rumsey visited the "Furnace" and personally supervised the casting of several parts for his ship, the first vessel propelled by steam in American waters. A large imperfect casting stood for years imbedded in the ground near the cross-roads.

As the iron works grew in importance, Catoctin House was built for Thomas Johnson, who was the leading figure and superintendent of the furnace. Today this house is a pitiful ruin, staring with vacant eyes upon what was once the scene of great activity. In 1803 Baker Johnson took over the operations of the business and Thomas Johnson withdrew his interests and entered politics, later becoming the first governor of the State of Maryland. What a shame that some of our historical societies haven't taken enough interest in the site to preserve Catoctin House as a monument to the first governor of Maryland.

Baker Johnson, like his brother Thomas, wanted a big home and in 1805 he built a beautiful house at Auburn Farm where he lived for a number of years. Near the gateway to the driveway to Auburn was a small forge where castings were made. Several years ago when the State widened the road, a number of cannon balls were plowed out of the old site along with several iron wedges used to direct the flow of molten iron when it was run off in the casting house. To the left of the driveway, stood a warehouse of charcoal. Even today, the soil at this site is still blacker than anywhere else in the area.

Baker Johnson at one time leased the iron works to Blackford and Thornburg, but before the expiration of their lease, Mr. Johnson died and the business was sold to Welloughly and Thomas Mayberry in 1813. Seven years later the property changed hands again and was purchased by John Brien and his brother-in-law John McPherson, who made many improvements which increased its capacity. Tin plate stoves and the popular Franklin stoves were ,cast at Catoctin during the Brien ownership. The tin plate stoves were very popular at the time for they permitted the burning of full-length cord wood. The Franklin stoves were made to fit into fireplaces, some of which are still preserved and bear the inscription "McPherson and Brien, Catoctin Furnace."

By 1852 the Catoctin Iron Works was under the ownership of James P. Fitzhugh and Jacob M. Kunkel. In 1855 the Fitzhughs decided to go to California and shortly after their departure, Jacob Kunkel sold the business to his two sons, John B. and John M.

Kunkel. In 1885 John B. Kunkel died and John M. continued the business alone. He later added 4,000 more acres to the property and another furnace was erected. Abundant iron ore of the best quality of hemetite was found on the land and it was during this period that the Catoctin Iron Works produced about 12,000 tons of fine pig-iron annually. This was used in the manufacture of car wheels and for all foundry and rolling mill purposes.

March 9, 1862 was a very important day to the people of Catoctin, for it was on this day that the Monitor engaged the Merrimac in the battle at Hampton Roads, Virginia.

The Monitor, an armored naval vessel, was designed by and constructed under the direction of the American engineer, John Ericsson. The vessel was propelled by steam and had guns mounted in a revolving armored turret. The freeboard of the vessel was low and the turret was small in comparison with the over-all length; because of its shape the vessel was divisively called by the Confederates the "Yankee cheese box on a raft."

On March 9, 1862 the Monitor met up with the Merrimac at Hampton Roads, Virginia, where the previous day the Merrimac had destroyed several wooden Federal vessels. The Monitor, lighter and less unwieldy than its opponent, was able to outmaneuver the Merrimac. The battle between these two ships lasted several hours, with the Merrimac finally withdrawing up the Elizabeth River. Al-though the relative fighting capacity of the two ships was not conclusively determined by the battle, it was a strategic victory for the Monitor, as the ships of the Federal fleet were protected from further attack by the Merrimac. Furthermore, the battle showed the superiority of ironclad ships over the wooden ships used up to that time.

The people of Catoctin Furnace were deeply impressed by the results of this Civil War battle and rightfully so, for the plates of the Monitor were made from the iron produced at the Catoctin Iron Works.

During the Civil War, work at the furnace was never interrupted, even when the Union Army marched through Catoctin on its way to Gettysburg. For days after the Battle of Gettysburg, many tired soldiers from both sides wandered back through the countryside and were fed and comforted by the citizens of Catoctin. Some were even offered jobs at the furnace.

Following the war, a new industry a paint mill was established at Catoctin. This brought an influx of people to the village and a number of new homes were built in the area. By this time Kunkel had over 440 men on his payroll.

To transport supplies to the furnace and pig-iron to Thurmont for shipment via the Western Maryland Railway, six and eight teams of mules would haul sturdy wagons over the dirt roads. In snowy and rainy weather the weight of the wagons made traveling very difficult. The need for a smoother and faster means of transportation necessitated the building of a railroad.

In 1886 the Monocacy Valley Railroad was organized by L. R. Waesche of Mechanicstown and Dr. Steiner Schley of Frederick. Work was begun immediately and the four mile road connecting the Catoctin Furnace with the Western Maryland Railway at Mechanics-town was completed the same year. The teams of mules continued to be the source of power until 1898 when a steam locomotive was purchased. The engine took over the hauling to and from the West-ern Maryland Railway at Mechanicstown and was also used in moving the standard gage cars about at the furnace.

Around 1900 there was great activity at the Catoctin Iron Works and the Monocacy Valley Railroad purchased a narrow gage engine to haul the cars that delivered the ore to the washers at the upper level. Here the ore was washed and then moved by the standard gage engine to the stock house. At one time there were fourteen sidings at the Furnace to handle the raw materials and the finished products. This expansion necessitated the construction of a third siding by the Western Maryland Railway at Thurmont in order to handle the large volume of business there.

As an indication of the large volume of business handled by the Monocacy Valley Railroad, a copy of the Catoctin Clarion, dated June 7, 1900, revealed that in May of that year the Western Mary-land delivered to the Monocacy Valley, 91 cars of coke, 23 cars of limestone, 1 car load of coal, 1 car of rails and two cars of sup-plies. In turn Monocacy Valley delivered to the Western Mary-land, 128 cars of pig-iron produced at Catoctin.

In June 1905, tragedy struck Catoctin. A flat car loaded with workers was being hauled up the line and as a result of an error in signals, a fast train crashed into it. Almost every family suffered the loss of a father, a son or a brother.

On April 20, 1898, in a letter to Mr. Frank Hesson, Agent for the Western Maryland Railway at Thurmont, Steiner Schley clearly indicated that a move was being considered to place the Catoctin Iron Works into the hands of receivership. He requested information concerning how much iron, ore, wood, rails, and posts were shipped from Thurmont from January 1, 1897 to April 20, 1898. Mr. Schley's letters, reproduced here in their original form indicated that this information was not available from the books at the Furnace and he needed them to show that it would benefit the stockholders to close out.

This letter, found by the author in the ruins of the old Western Maryland station when it was being demolished in 1967, is proof that business conditions were not what they seemed to be. Work was slowing down at the Furnace. Other plants of this nature were being established near the great industrial centers where operating costs were cheaper and transportation problems fewer. The paint mill closed and many of the village men found work on the Western Maryland Railroad.


Catoctin House as it appeared around 1900

Finally by 1907, the Catoctin Iron Works went into the hands of receivership and was sold, this time to a Pennsylvanian, Mr. Thropp, who soon closed it completely. The end had finally come. All of the machinery was moved to his other plant near Pittsburgh.

On December 7, 1907, the Frederick Railroad Company was chartered under the laws of Maryland. Among the railroads absorbed by the Frederick Railroad Company were the Monocacy Valley Railroad, and the Washington, Frederick and Gettysburg Railroad. The Monocacy Valley as a corporation went out of existence and the operation of the Monocacy Valley as a separate segment ceased.


Catoctin Furnace as it looks today

In 1923 the furnace property was sold on a mortgage to Launcelot Jacques, a descendant of the first owner, and his partner Stanley Hauver. The tenants of the houses on the property were given the option to buy their homes and today, many of them are still owned by the third and fourth generations.

Several years later some of the furnace acreage was sold, a portion of which was purchased by Lawrence Richey, then secretary to President Herbert R. Hoover. A camp was built on the site and a cabin was erected for the President. President Hoover spent many week-ends here, but disliked the publicity which he received every time he came to Catoctin. Since he was unable to close the country road which led to the Richey camp, he withdrew to Rapidan, near Madison, Virginia, where he spent his weekend outings.


Sandy Hole, a favorite spot for picnics, fishing and swimming

In the early part of the 1930's, the Federal Government purchased 5,000 acres of the mountain land including Catoctin House, for the purpose of establishing the Catoctin Recreation Demonstration Area. Catoctin House had been vacant for many years prior to this and was badly in need of repair. Many citizens were led to believe that the National Park Service would restore the old Thomas Johnson home as a memorial to Maryland's first governor, but this has never materialized. The beautiful boxwood which lines the walk at Catoctin House was removed. Some of it was re-planted at the White House and some at the Lincoln Memorial. The old house itself was found to be in such bad condition that nothing was ever done to preserve it. Today all that remains of this historic site is the old stone walls which can hardly be seen from the road for the thick undergrowth that has grown up around it. Nature has almost obliterated all trace of its former activity and the important part it must have played in the development and progress of the once famous Catoctin Iron Works.

Chapter Index | Chapter 4: The Tanning Industry

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