Often, folks will ask me the question for which this post is named. As I was thinking about what to write for this edition, favorite sites came into my mind. These sites are neat to visit because they have their own identity and represent different episodes of our Earth and history. Not placed in any order, here we go!
Let’s start by traveling south of U.S. Rte. 15 out of Gettysburg. After bypassing all of the neat history there (and geology), we cross over the Mason-Dixon Line into Maryland. Travel past Thurmont and if you can hold off the temptation of stopping at Mountaingate Restaurant for a bite to eat, wait, until your return trip home. Just a short piece down Rte. 15 you will see a sign at the next exit for Catoctin Furnace. With the many times I traveled this route, I was amazed when I finally got there 2 years just how close it sits to the highway. In fact, before getting to the exit, you will travel under a footbridge that looks slightly out of place. The footbridge is there to allow people parking at the Catoctin Mountain Park Visitors Center an opportunity to walk to the furnace site.
Catoctin Furnace has quite a history. A historical marker at the furnace reads, “Catoctin Furnace: An important iron furnace during the Revolutionary owned by Governor Thomas Johnson and his brothers. Furnished 100 tons of shells used at Yorktown.” A local hematite iron deposit was discovered in the 1770’s by Thomas Johnson, Jr., who later became governor of Maryland. One historical account names James and Thomas Johnson as the builders, another account mentions Thomas Baker and Roger Johnson and a later account mentions a Baker Johnson as a later owner. The first furnace sitting here was the Johnson Furnace which was a cold-blast operation working from about 1776 to 1795 and then was idle until 1803.
The furnace was in operation again from 1803 until 1811 with substantial improvements. Early production consisted of household implements, tools and cast iron stoves. The works were purchased by John Brien in 1831 and modernized. The Johnson Furnace operated until it was shut down and dismantled in 1890. The site of the Johnson Furnace was probably in about the middle of the retaining wall behind the existing stack.
Another owner built the Isabella (also referred to as the Catoctin) Furnace in 1856. The Isabella Furnace was supplied with a steam-powered hot-blast mechanism. The Isabella Furnace was a rather advancement design for a charcoal furnace. IT might have been designed to use anthracite coal or coke, but neither were available. The Isabella stack is what remains today.
In the late 1880’s, when the furnace was at its peak, the complex consisted of 80 houses for workers, a saw mill, a grist mill, company store, farms, an ore railroad, and the stacks. A magnetite mine on a hill to the southwest supplied the iron ore for the Isabella Furnace. The furnace closed in 1903, but the magnetite mine continued operating until 1912, supplying ore to a Pennsylvania furnace.
Today, the complex shows the wear and tear of historical structures, but one can get a great idea how a furnace operated, the required materials and facilities needed to produce iron products. Walk the trail, which is a self-guided trail and see the walls of the ironmaster’s house; the pond and race that supplied the water to turn the waterwheel, slag piles and ruins of other buildings. A brochure is available for download at http://www/dnr.statre.md.us/publiclands/cunninghamhistory.html,
Ok, let’s shift gears and head into a different region, up north to the world-famous anthracite coal region. Every time I travel into that region and see the miles of coal dumps and abandoned pits, it amazes me just how much history there is. Some of the best anthracite coal ever known came out of this region and thousands of articles and books have been penned telling the stories about miners, companies, the good and the bad of the industry and its future. If you find your way to Hegins, SchulykillCounty and follow Pa. Rte. 25 west toward Shamokin, you will continuously pass old mines and large coal dumps. After going over the mountain and dropping down toward Shamokin, turn left onto Bear Valley Road. Follow Bear Valley Road to its dead end (or at least as far as you can travel without getting stuck). Watch for signs that the road is no longer maintained and travel at your own risk., O My!!!
From where you park the car, walk up the “road a short distance to where you are on flat ground. There is a large, tall dump pile on your right and the terrain seems to drop off to the left. There is a well developed trail, mostly worn by 4-wheelers, that leads down the hill. Follow this trail for about 300 yards and suddenly you will find yourself in a long abandoned coal pit. In front of you is a mound that looks like a whaleback. In fact, that is this nick named for the location. The whaleback is composed of rock that has been pushed up in to an arch shape fold known to geologists as an anticline. Take your eyes to the left end of the whaleback and notice where it disappears into the high vertical wall. Look at the rock above the whaleback, the rock there is folded downwards into a structure known as a syncline. Wait, we aren’t quite done yet. Look at the far wall of the pit. It appears as if it is curved and smooth. That wall is actually one-half of an anticline coming down beside the whale back.
You think that is confusing, it is? This is one of the best examples of folding of rocks in the United States. Visualizing the forces that formed these folds and the stress and pressure involved is overwhelming. These features are clear cut proof of the mountain-building processes that formed the Appalachian Mountains when Africa and North America came together about 340 million years ago.
Look closer at the rock and you may spot some petrified wood and fern fossils in the shale. The rock formed during the Pennsylvanian Period tells us the story of a time when this area was an “Everglades” environment with abundant vegetation and slowly forming what would become the famous coal region. The coal was originally bituminous but with the continental collision the coal was metamorphosed into anthracite. You can see some of the coal veins on the wall containing the syncline.
It is recommended not to walk on the whaleback. The rock is slippery and gets more dangerous when wet. Also, there is a lot of loose rock on the surface that could give way when you step on it. Enjoy this great location but use caution.