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Chapter I:  The Quiet Valley Comes Alive

 

Grandpa’s stories would start only after he was comfortably settled into his rocking chair. That’s when he would begin rubbing his thumb around an arthritic lump on the side of his index finger to the slow cadence of the rocker. The skin was stretched into a glassy smooth bump. He slowly rocked and rubbed as he recounted the story of how Patrick Graham and his wife Elizabeth McKee went into the frontier of northwestern Pennsylvania.

 

It was just after the American Revolution, in 1796, when they fit their two babies into saddle bags on the back of their pack horse and made their way through the wilderness to find a suitable place to build a cabin. Elizabeth was pregnant, so they had no time to waste in completing the little log house. Elizabeth gave birth to the first white child born in Jefferson Township, Butler County, PA. It was a boy and they named him Daniel. He was their third child.

 

Over the next seventeen years, Elizabeth and Patrick Graham had five additional children and had also moved to larger quarters. Their children grew up, married and had children of their own. One of the third-generation babies was the first-born of Daniel and was named Patrick in honor of his grandfather.

 

Patrick Graham

 

Patrick Graham was born in 1817 and grew up in Buffalo Township, Butler County. It’s at the extreme southern tip of the county and borders the Allegheny River. He was 5 feet 10 inches tall and favored his Scottish ancestors with a round face and broad nose; his dark hair was a contrast to his light-colored complexion.

 

Patrick grew up close to where the Pennsylvania Canal left the Allegheny River and headed eastward up the Kiskiminetas and Conemaugh Rivers to its terminus in Johnstown. During the construction of the Pennsylvania Canal in 1832, Patrick became employed as a timekeeper. He was only 15 years old. As the canal progressed up the Conemaugh Valley, Patrick migrated with the work.

 

While in Johnstown, Patrick became friends with a shopkeeper by the name of George S. King. King had come to Johnstown just a few years earlier. He was six feet tall and had a lean build; his full mustache hung down over his distinctive jowls. Patrick didn’t know it at that time, but King would have a major impact on Patrick’s life and on Johnstown itself.

 

The importance of the canal basin and the opportunities it presented attracted attention from people all over the state who were looking for ways to get ahead. George King was one of those young, bright, ambitious and very determined men. He lived in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania at the time, but he decided to move to Johnstown in 1833 and open a general store. He packed his wagon full of goods he was sure would sell, and headed for the valley. It didn’t take long before he was running a profitable store out of his own building at the Northeast corner of Morris and Main Streets.

 

After spending a few years, Patrick Graham also decided to stay in Johnstown. He worked as a tailor and for a decade, thought tailoring might be his life’s work. But when other opportunities arose to get involved in manufacturing, Patrick left Johnstown and took employment with the Brady’s Bend Iron Company, one of the earliest rolling mills in the country, located on the Allegheny River north of his childhood home in Butler County. The fascinating iron industry captured his interest and he rose to the important position of heater. Employment there however, was not always steady, so after several years, he moved back to the Conemaugh Valley when George King offered him the same position in a new Cambria Iron Mill. That move took place in 1854 when Patrick was 37 years old.

 

Henry Viering 

 

Another key character in my grandfather’s story was Henry Viering. He was about nine years old when he first met Patrick Graham in 1854. Henry had an unusually outgoing personality and a real gift for conversation. He was a strong young man and had blond hair and blue eyes typical of Germans from the state of Hesse. While attending school, Henry also worked part-time in the Cambria Iron Company as a water boy and frequently stopped at the hot furnace to deliver cool, fresh water to Patrick Graham. Consequently, Patrick became familiar with the entire Viering family.

 

However, I’m getting ahead of myself, so let’s go back 15 years to examine how the industrial development got started in the valley. What follows is the story of that early period just as it was told to me. Keep in mind; it was not until after the Revolutionary War that Americans began to build their own iron furnaces because the British forbade them from making their own iron before that.

 

King and Shoenberger

 

The first industrial operation in Conemaugh Valley was a one-man operation known as Cambria Forge. It was located at the upper end of Conemaugh Old Town near the Stonycreek River. A small dam was built across the stream to divert its flow to a water wheel that could, when engaged, automatically lift a heavy hammer. Everyone in the valley knew when the blacksmith was working his forge, because the large hammer sounded out each pounding thud. It was the first of many metallic sounds to echo through the hills.

 

During the early years that the Pennsylvania Canal was in operation, the small dam was improved to keep the water level high enough to flow down a feeder stream to the canal basin. When the canal ceased operations, the feeder stream was filled in and became Feeder Street.

 

Any transportation company that operated in the state of Pennsylvania and wanted to be taken seriously opened an office beside the canal basin. The American House Hotel was built beside the basin to accommodate passengers wanting to take a break from their arduous canal travel. Captain Thomas Young, having grown up near shipyards in New England, believed canal boats would be in great demand, so he moved to the valley and set up shop beside the basin. He was soon building and repairing canal boats in his boatyard.

 

*       *       *

 

Not everyone was investing in the canal system, however. In 1839, a group of private investors from Philadelphia was considering the feasibility of building a single-track railroad across the state. The faction that had preferred the railroad option to the canal spearheaded this group.

 

Activity in the Conemaugh Valley at that time became intense, with railroad surveyors measuring every foot of elevation, looking for a suitable path for the proposed railroad that promised to eventually cross the entire state. Accompanying those men were prospectors searching for the many minerals that the valley concealed. Their exploration uncovered rich veins of iron ore and bituminous coal in the Conemaugh Valley.

 

In the counties to the east, a dozen or more iron furnaces were already operating and producing what was collectively called Juniata Iron. Before the canal was built, most of it was shipped east by way of the Juniata River to the Susquehanna River and from there to markets in Philadelphia or Baltimore, but a portion of Juniata Iron was shipped west to Johnstown, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Louisville. Blacksmith forges were popping up around these villages to satisfy the many needs in the frontier. The pig iron was shipped west into Johnstown by horseback using the Frankstown Road, which crossed over the mountain and down a steep grade into the Conemaugh Valley. From there, the pig iron was floated (on flat boats during high water) down the Conemaugh River to Pittsburgh.

 

Some of the products forged by blacksmiths included tongs, wagon tires (rims on the wooden wheels), horse-shoes, knives, hatchets, axes, hoes, plows, spades, sickles, hammers, spikes, square-cut nails, hinges, chains, chisels, augers, anvils, vices, etc. None of the items required more than a few bars of pig iron.

 

Dr. Peter Shoenberger owned a forge near one of the Juniata blast furnaces and prepared raw pig iron for market. He had inherited the successful forge from his father. After the canal was completed, shipping the heavy pig iron became much easier and his business grew. With his profits, he began looking for additional investment opportunities and it was during that time that he met George King, the former merchant who had become an iron master.

 

When surveyors discovered iron ore in the hills around Johnstown, King sold his store and committed the proceeds to a new venture in iron production. In 1842, King partnered with David Stewart to build the first iron furnace in Cambria County[1]. Just one year later, Dr. Shoenberger became a financial partner by buying out David Stewart’s share of the partnership for $6,000.

The furnace was located west of Johnstown, three miles downstream on the Conemaugh River at one of its tributaries called Laurel Run. The small stream was used for waterpower and, because the furnace was close to the canal, pig iron[2] could easily be shipped to market. (Barring a drought, the river ran full, but not so much that it would cause flooding.)

 

Iron furnaces were usually named after the stream that supplied the necessary waterpower, but King named his iron furnace the “Cambria” after the county in which it was located. That name would soon become synonymous with leadership in iron-making.

 

Author’s note: For comparison, at that point in time Andrew Carnegie was seven years old, having been born in 1835 to Will and Margaret Carnegie, a working-class couple. His father, a weaver by trade, worked day and night just to make ends meet in Dunfermline, a suburb of Edinburgh, Scotland. My source of information for Carnegie throughout this story comes from his biographies, one by Joseph Frazier Wall, one by Peter Krass and one by David Nasaw.

 

Because of the success of Cambria Furnace, the new King-Shoenberger partnership held 10,000 acres of wooded wilderness in addition to the furnace itself. The partners then built two more furnaces in 1845. The three furnaces were separated by several miles so that enough trees were available to fuel each one with charcoal. Millcreek Furnace was a little over three miles southwest of Johnstown. In order to get to that furnace, men had to climb the steep switchback known as Millcreek Road on Yoder Hill, then cross the Westmont plateau to the furnace. The other furnace was called Benscreek because it was located near Bens Creek, three miles south of Johnstown.

 

The next expansion for the partners was the purchase of an existing iron furnace known as the “Blacklick Furnace.” It was built by John Bell in 1846 and was located in Indiana County, 12 miles northwest of Johnstown. Bell was a contractor who had built numerous other furnaces, but after trying to operate one of his own furnaces, John Bell found that being an iron master and operating an iron furnace were more difficult than building them. He sold out and became one of the first prospectors to join the California Gold rush of 1849.

 

The partnership was now able to reliably produce 4,000 tons per year with a maximum capacity of over 6,000 tons. The cost of production was about $15 a ton, plus an equal amount to ship the pig iron to the Pittsburgh market.

 

Pittsburgh was a raw water-front town filled with travelers, river men, shops, blacksmiths, cotton mills and glass factories. It was also the place where passengers and freight made the transition from the Pennsylvania Canal to the Ohio River before going deeper into the frontier. This jumping off point was the traveler’s last best chance to purchase a critical item or have a repair made before traveling further.

 

There was no raw pig iron being made in Pittsburgh at the time, but it was one of the important markets for the product. Furnaces in Western Pennsylvania and Ohio supplied that product to the foundries and blacksmiths in Pittsburgh so that many of the products mentioned previously could be produced.

 

Early in the 1850’s, The Mount Vernon Furnace (sometimes referred to as The Johnstown Furnace) was owned and operated by Rhey Matthews and Co. When that company ceased operation, the property was acquired by King and Shoenberger. It was located just below the covered wooden aqueduct where the canal crossed the Little Conemaugh River and entered the town. The competition between that furnace and King’s was indicative of how difficult the iron business could be. Most furnaces lasted only a decade before the nearby supply of iron ore or trees was exhausted (it took one acre of trees to supply one furnace each day).

 

King was paying a small army of lumbermen to keep his furnaces supplied. They not only cut down the trees, they also had to cut them to a length of about four feet, and then split them so that each piece was six to ten inches in diameter. Then the pieces had to be stacked on end leaning one against the other.

 

The first level of logs would grow ever wider until they covered a circle of about 12 feet in diameter. A second level was started before the first was finished, and, when completed, the whole pile looked like a wooden igloo. It was then ready to be set on fire. The careful stacking lent itself to quickly becoming a massive blaze, only to then be smothered with shovels full of dirt.

 

An experienced collier tended to the smoldering, smoking heap for hours until the entire stack had turned into an almost pure carbon. But he had to be careful to stop the smoldering process at the proper time so that the wood was not completely consumed. At the correct time, the collier would pull the pile apart and quench it with water. What was left was a carbon product better known as charcoal, which was required for the blast furnaces.

 

Production and employment at each of the five King-Shoenberger furnaces were typical of all sandstone, pyramid-shaped iron furnaces in the country during that period. Except, that is, for the continuing expansion of pig iron production capacity from their collective enterprise and the vast holdings that King and Shoenberger were acquiring. The two men then purchased a seven-acre plot with an option to buy a remaining sixty-acre parcel, located downstream from their Mt. Vernon Furnace along the Conemaugh River.

 

This furnace was located across the Little Conemaugh River from the village of Johnstown, as the locals were now calling the cluster of houses between the rivers, instead of its more cumbersome legal name “Conemaugh Old Town”. The name “Johns” was an Anglicized derivation of the founder's last name, Schantz. Joseph Schantz had the foresight to record the town’s layout on a plat map and expected that it would become the county seat. More importantly, all the ingredients necessary for the first integrated iron mill existed in Johnstown as in no other place in the world.

 

King had acquired vast iron ore deposits on Benshoff and Prospect Hills above Johnstown and also exercised his option to purchase the flat 60 acre parcel beside the Conemaugh River. Just west across the river on Yoder Hill was a virtually unlimited supply of coal that he hoped might someday be used to fuel the many furnaces.

 

King had heard that a new fuel was being developed that could be used in the blast furnace. The George’s Creek Coal and Iron Company was using coal instead of charcoal to fuel their blast furnace. The furnace was located just 50 miles to the south of Johnstown, across the state line in Maryland. King wanted to travel there to see how it worked.

 

After loading a wagon with a couple tons of his own coal—chunks of “black diamonds”, he called them—King headed for the little village of Lonaconing, Maryland to learn more about the new fuel process. His team of four horses labored to pull the wagon-load up the long hill to Salix and Beaverdale, while King anxiously anticipated the more dangerous trip down the steep eastern side of the mountain. When the brake blocks began to smoke, King thought about the possibility of jumping. Fortunately, the undulations of the road slowed the wagon. After safely reaching Raystown, he decided to stay the night at Frazier Inn and then proceed on his journey the next morning.

 

That evening John Frazier, the proprietor, joined King for dinner. Their conversation rambled from iron-making to how the inn was built from beautiful limestone blocks. George King was particularly interested in knowing where the limestone was quarried, for limestone was a critical element needed to smelt iron ore. The conversation turned inevitably, as the local men at the bar knew it would, to how Frazier’s father had been a confidant, interpreter and guide for George Washington, and how his mother, Jane Bell Frazier, had been kidnapped by the Indians, but escaped and found her way back to Fort Cumberland from the Ohio territory.

 

After the French and Indian War, the Fraziers moved to what was then called Raystown, where General Forbes had built Fort Bedford. Today the town is called Bedford, but a branch of the Juniata River still bears the name Raystown.

 

King and Frazier had a pleasant conversation over large bowls of beef stew smothered with dark and pungent wine gravy. A couple of shots of Old Overholt whiskey made King eager to retire to his room. He slept straight through till dawn when he resumed his trip.

 

By midmorning King arrived at the gigantic Lonaconing Iron Furnace, which was more than twice the size of his largest furnace. After introducing himself and explaining why he was there, he complimented the management on its enterprise. King spent four days in Maryland watching the process of turning raw coal into “coal cake”. This new fuel was produced by baking the sulfur and phosphorus out of the coal, not too dissimilar to the process of making charcoal from wood. The coal was set on fire, then starved of oxygen, so it would just smolder and smoke for several days. The coal would then be quenched with water to put the fire out. What was left was called coal cake.

 

While he was waiting for the coal to be converted into cake, King took the time to ride up to the base of Savage Mountain. There he had the opportunity to visit the first rolling mill in the country to have produced a solid iron rail. That mill was the destination of most of the pig iron produced in the area. The owner graciously gave him a tour of the mill and explained how it operated.

 

The iron master of the Lonaconing Furnace confirmed that the coal King had brought could indeed be converted to coal cake, and that it was, in fact, even better suited than the coal Lonaconing had been using. When King learned that his bituminous coal could be used for smelting iron ore, his ambitious dream of building the first integrated iron complex in the nation was conceived. King pictured his coal coming directly out of a portal that opened onto his flat 60-acre river bottom. That would eliminate the need to travel further and further away from the furnace to obtain trees for charcoal. He knew he could also use his coal to fire boilers that would power many steam engines that the large complex he was planning would require.

 

On the trip back to Johnstown, King kept visualizing his planned mills and how he would go about building them. The time he had taken to determine that his coal reserves could be used as fuel for his blast furnaces was well spent. The term “coal cake” quickly became just “coke” for short.

 

Ironically, the Lonaconing Iron Furnace ceased operation in 1855, when the iron ore seam they were using played out. That company then decided to concentrate exclusively on mining coal. Smelting iron ore was a tough business indeed.

 

 Now that King had verified that the numerous veins of coal contained in their vast property holdings were perfect for converting to coke, he and Shoenberger committed to building four new steam-powered, coke-fueled blast furnaces at one location. His revolutionary plan was to build them side-by-side on the level river bottom site near their Mt. Vernon Furnace in the Conemaugh River valley and to fuel them all with coke.

 

King estimated that his iron ore and coal reserves could last at least seventy-five years, and that by combining the output from his old charcoal furnaces with the new coke-fueled ones, he could produce enough pig iron to supply a rolling mill. He planned to build all of the new facilities at one site. This would eliminate the requirement and associated costs of transporting the raw pig iron to others who would produce the finished products. King’s genius was integrating the entire process from mining the raw materials to making the pig iron and transforming it into a finished product. But, just what would the final product be? They needed to identify a product that required the huge tonnage that he envisioned producing.

 

Shoenberger thought the product should be iron kettles for the sugar industry in the newly purchased Louisiana territory. Because there was an infant, but growing railroad industry, King believed the product should be rails. That product, however, would require building a rolling mill in addition to the facilities he had already planned. King’s rails would be made of 100% iron as opposed to iron strips attached to wood stringers which were still being used. He first had to convince his partner, Shoenberger, that rails would be a better end-product than iron pots.

 

Another reason they wanted to produce a finished product was that they were unable to sell their pig iron to finishers for full market value. Up till then, King and Shoenberger shipped their pig iron to the Pittsburgh market. There, the many fabricators controlled the market price for pig iron because they turned the raw iron into finished products. Some of them claimed that Cambria iron was too hard for their work and that they preferred the softer Juniata Valley iron. Therefore, they would only buy Cambria iron if a discount was offered, sometimes as high as 12%.

 

Once King and Shoenberger reached agreement on the finished product, King began to develop iron ore and coal mines that would open directly onto the flat 60-acres of river bottom. The hills surrounding Johnstown contained some of the highest-grade iron ore found up to that time (51% pure) and just across the Conemaugh River were multiple seams[1] of bituminous coal perfectly suited for converting to coke. Further, they had acquired thick seams of limestone in Blair County which was also needed for the smelting process.

 

The Johnstown area also contained large formations of sandstone, which King quarried for use as furnace and building foundations. They also discovered clay suitable for making building bricks. More importantly, they also found a special type of clay that was ideal for making nozzles, used for pouring as well as for blasting air into the molten metal, and firebricks, required for lining the blast furnaces. To produce all the items and equipment required for what they were planning, they also built a refractory, a machine shop, a large iron foundry and even a brass foundry.

 

Meanwhile, in 1850, the railroad investors from Philadelphia started construction of their single-track railroad from Pittsburgh to Johnstown and from Harrisburg to Hollidaysburg. In order to connect these two sections of railroad over the Allegheny front, it was necessary at first and for several years, to use the old Allegheny Portage (Canal) Railroad. This new mode of transportation had to overcome the same mountain with which the canal had so much trouble.

 

To eliminate the need to use the APRR and connect the separated segments, the railroad engineers chose to start the ascent over the Allegheny Front at the Conemaugh Valley, just as the canal had, but they kept their tracks at a continuous grade rather than using inclines. To accomplish this, they had to drill the “Gallitzin Tunnel” through the summit. On the eastern side of the mountain, the tracks descended along the side of the hill until they reached a deep ravine. In an ingenious alternative solution to building a long bridge across the mouth, the engineers followed the edge of the hill on both sides of the ravine. They then used fill to create a curved embankment to bridge the ravine. This solution also had the advantage of allowing the road bed to climb at the proper grade. Remarkably, the finished “Horseshoe Curve” is still in use today.

 

Before a train attempted to go over the mountain, it would stop at the railroad yards on either side, where extra steam engines would be added to the front as well as pusher engines to the rear. All of these efforts in concert finally allowed trains to traverse the mountain.

 

With the completion of the railroad across the state, the trip took as little as eight hours and the cost of freight was reduced to approximately $9 to $18 per ton. Canal use began to decline because of the speed and lower price of the railroad. In just 20 years, the transition from horse to rail had improved transportation by over 1,000 percent.

 

Simultaneously, the state made major improvements to the canal in an attempt to keep it competitive with the railroad. As part of that effort, construction of the Conemaugh Dam was completed in 1853 to supply additional water to the canal during times of drought. The dam could also be used to hold back some of the water during the spring flooding season. It was built across the South Fork branch of the Little Conemaugh River. William E. Morris, the principal engineer for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, designed the dam and the construction contract was awarded to James K. Morehead and H.B. Packer. It was officially named the Western Reservoir. It was superbly designed and built to accommodate the largest amount of rain that could possibly result from the freak storms for which the area had always been known. It was believed to be the world’s largest earthen dam, trapping 20 million tons of water. It was located approximately 18 miles upstream from Johnstown or about 10 miles as the crow flies.

 

On each end of the dam, waste waterways were built through bedrock to prevent erosion. The main spillway was for the normal discharge of water; the second spillway was for the discharge of excess water that fell during heavy downpours.

 

Through the bottom of the dam was a stone culvert that contained five cast-iron pipelines, each three feet in diameter and comprised of interlocking sections to span over 100 feet from a control tower inside the reservoir to the face of the breast. Discharge through these pipes was controlled by valves which were opened or closed from the wooden tower.

 

 Even with the improved water supply, canal use declined over the next decade and railroad use increased until the canal finally just fell into total disuse. However, when King’s new integrated mills with the coke-fueled blast furnaces began operating, the canal was still in business and coexisted with the more efficient railroad. The single-track Pennsylvania Railroad was located just across the Conemaugh River, and the Pennsylvania Canal ran right through the iron mill’s property.

 

King, a true capitalist, had the vision and he and Shoenberger had some of the money required to start the new enterprise which was founded in 1852 and named the Cambria Iron Company. They had all the material assets required for King’s vision to become a reality: iron ore, coal, limestone, clay, land and transportation. King poured all of their assets into the new company, but soon found that his operation was still under-capitalized. The one item they needed more of was a catalyst to make the business a total success: an enormous amount of money. He would therefore have to find others who were willing to invest in the risky iron-making business and in a company so bold it promised to produce everything from start to finish.

 

The primary product of the company was iron rails, which promised to last much longer than the older, but proven, wooden stringer rails.

 

 

[1] Various seams of coal are still exposed on the steep hillsides around Johnstown.

 

[2] For those who want to know more about Cambria County see Appendix II

 

[3] For those who want to know more about Pig Iron see Appendix I

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