The Lost Iron Furnace

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Pouring over the historic maps that clutter my desk, I noticed a handwritten reference to a manmade monolithic structure that is supposed to lie 10 miles into what is considered to be one of the most remote areas of Pennsylvania. A place devoid of blacktop and where bear, elk and rattlesnakes abound. It’s hard to imagine civilization touching an area that few would think to venture into today; an area of steep mountains and even steeper ravines where one misstep would mean a fall to one’s death; but there it was in black and white a cryptic reference beckoning a would be explorer. It made me wonder, what could be there?

I was not in search of just any town, but four towns that were built in close proximity that became the center of the local coal and iron mining industries in this area of north central Pennsylvania during the mid 19th century. This prosperous community was built by immigrant miners and a unique personality whose life story left behind a legend of wealth, buried treasure and an English mansion that sat out of place atop the mountain in the wilds of Pennsylvania.

Reavelton lies a very distant ten miles into the remote mountains of north central Pennsylvania. The nearest town, Quigley’s Mills; itself just a speck on the map with Lock Haven twenty miles distant being perhaps the closest better known community. I say a distant ten miles because the last ten miles of my trip into this remote area will take another 45 minutes to travel; doubling the time it takes for me to travel the 50 miles from my home. Almost impassible, the trail that leads into this area is as rough and rugged as any that you’d expect to find in the American southwest. In the winter it is impossible to reach this area. Nobody comes here except an occasional hunter. The story of Reavelton has been left for me alone to piece together; to photograph the site and leave a record where one has yet to exist. I enjoy the challenge and solitude of such a place; one that is unspoiled.

I arrive in Beechcreek, originally named Quigley’s Mills two-hundred years ago. It’s a small country town with the atmosphere of Mayberry. Experience has taught me that the best place to learn history is from the older residents of an area, so I head to the corner diner for breakfast. It’s exactly as I expected, hitching post outside, wooden steps leading through the arched Victorian doorway, boarding house still standing next door. The door opens with a creak hitting the bell mounted atop. Old men in overalls and blue haired ladies pause momentarily from their conversations to look at the two strangers who have just entered. The silence is deafening, moments linger but conversations resume as we strategically take our seats nearest to a table with four old men. Black and white photographs of the old town line the walls; they’ll serve as a good ice breaker when I garner the nerve to speak to the gentlemen sitting across from us.

For the moment my observations are on the structure itself, worn wooden floor, tin ceiling, pickle barrel at the end of the dining counter, brass cash register and floor safe in the corner. Just one middle aged woman acting as hostess, waitress, cook and cashier; she takes our order and retires to the kitchen. One of the locals walks behind the counter, picks up the coffee pot and refills the patrons cups… ours included. You can hear the sizzle of the sausage as the smell of a home cooked country breakfast wafts from the kitchen, a true farmer’s breakfast.

Occasional glances are cast our way; maybe because we are strangers, maybe because of my snakeboots, fedora and sidearm. I wait for one of the older gentlemen to make eye contact, it doesn’t take long and it’s my opportunity to strike up a conversation. “Nice place you have here; Beechcreek.” Our conversation turns from small talk to history after I introduce us; setting them at ease. I find that most folks are happy to talk about themselves and to share what they know of their hometown and their great uncle Charlie who lived up the “holler” and worked the mines on the mountain. Our conversation allowed me to fill in some blank spaces in my notes and the folks were be eager to hear about what we would find.

The scenic beauty in this portion of the country is unparalleled; deciduous forests giving way to open meadows, peat bogs and beaver dams followed by lush and dark forests that block out nearly all light; canopied in heavy hemlocks of four foot diameters. The ravages of a wildfire that raged down the mountain in the 1890’s no longer apparent but skepticism extolled by the locals that anything at all would remain of the old towns and their frame dwellings. No one had seen any in a hundred years.

The mountain extends clear down to Beechcreek from its peak 10 miles away. I reach the point where the blacktop ends and turn onto a gravel road that quickly becomes nothing more than a rutted, dirt trail. A goat path as I like to call it. I drive along the narrow trail to an increasing elevation sometimes with cliffs along one side and sharp rocks protruding out of the ground with oil slicks about them, evidence of a misadventure of those less prepared. My companion, new to these explorations comments on the rugged remoteness that one would think no longer exists in our portion of the country. I’m looking ahead through the trees for tell tale signs of past habitation; 90 degree angles, tree lines, domestic vegetation, stone walls; nothing in sight for miles.

In my preplanning I used what is now referred to as remote sensing with Google Earth that showed me that I should be approaching the peak of the mountain where an open field existed. As we cleared a two foot deep mud bog in the trail we entered upon the clearing. I immediately spotted an enormous apple tree on my right and a line of conifers that were too evenly spaced for natures handiwork; most likely the efforts of the forest service after the fire. I said, “we’re here” to the astonishment of my companion. His less skilled eye had not taken in the same sights and he was amazed that without ever having been here before that I was able to put us on location in our first attempt at discovering the towns; others would have driven right by. I pulled from the trail into an area of golden rod and stepped from the truck. On my left fifteen feet into the woods was a stone wall. I walked in the opposite direction toward a patch of lilies an unmistakable domestic planting that I knew would have been around a home. I could see across the road a hole in the ground, probably a well.

Further into the field, there it was, the partially filled foundation of John Reaville’s English styled mansion. I had read that the General, as Reaville was called by his men, divided his time between the construction of the village and the opening of the coal mines. It was recorded that he erected good dwellings for the miners and a grand mansion for himself. It was of English style, large and handsomely finished; the center hall with a winding staircase and mahogany rail and balusters; the rooms large and warmed by deep fireplaces with big chimneys and carved mantels. A wide porch graced the front and it was positioned on an angle facing down the lane so that the Reaville’s might see approaching company. A hitching post was placed at the head of the walk just off of the porch. Out in the yard a white picket fence fronted by lilies, and ivy. A spring house sat off to the right of the lane where the well water was piped into from across Reavelton road.

The very atmosphere of the place was one of comfort, convenience and luxury; or as luxurious as one could get in 1853 with no interior bathrooms, running water nor electricity. It serves to remind me that we take a lot for granted today. Little wonder that it was a curiosity to dwellers of other valleys and attracted many visitors. It appeared out of place in this wilderness. When the Potters, the Ashfields, the Silvars and their friends from New York or Boston came, the mansion was a place of revelry and banquets, and the specially built wine vault in the cellar, always well stocked with the best English liquors and French wines, was most popular.

As I crossed into the field the apple tree once again caught my eye. Over 30 inches in diameter, I can’t recall ever seeing one larger. It was growing right in the center of a second, small “L” shaped foundation. Old to be sure, I figured it must have begun growing shortly after the forest fire. As I headed to the clearing, ruffled grouse flushed from a thorny bush with bright orange berries generally planted as landscaping and just beyond was a large cellar hole consisting of an earthen berm and collapsed foundation stones. I was certain that I had discovered the foundation of John Reaville’s mansion. Over grown and almost completely hidden from view in the tall ferns, I imagined how it must have appeared 150 years ago; the fence along the road, white columns, black bear posed on the front porch; a prank that the General liked to play on guests; I being the most recent. Stone outcroppings were found behind the house; maybe the location of the cave where John hung his venison; another foundation across the road from the house. I sat on a stump as my companion continued his search for relics that would confirm our discovery.

A bit of respite allowed me to reflect upon my surroundings. Pennsylvania history is full of colorful characters; John Reaville not the least among them but his accomplishments in the coal and iron mining industries are as secluded as the town that bears his name in the mountains above Quigley’s Mills along with three others; Rock Cabin, Peacock and Eagleton; each an outgrowth of Reavelton and John Reaville’s efforts while working for the Ashfield Coal Company.

Written records are scarce in my search for information on these ghost towns. They have become true ghosts; only a footnote in history, only a small notation on an historic map; its name no longer mentioned by those living in the area, it has simply ceased to exist.

It’s an incredible feeling when you discover a new place and to know that perhaps for the first time in over 150 years that someone has taken an interest in and resurrected the name of the town and its people that were all but forgotten. The story of Reavilton is the story of John Reaville a singular hard working individual whose legacy left behind stories of these towns that dot our countryside. The towns are the story of families and their struggle as pioneers on a frontier; of the businesses that they built by the sweat of their brow and of other pioneers who later joined in the prosperity creating and building the town upon their vision of a brighter future.

Reavilton is unique in that it was founded in 1853 and almost completely gone by 1878 along with its sisters Rock Cabin, Peacock and Eagleton. It’s a case study in boom to bust industrialization and the influences that spawned the towns, their industry and those that swept it from the forest. It’s a study in legacy and legend that allowed it to be footnoted and not entirely lost to history as homesteads and smaller hamlets might be. While not as old as the sites that we study in classical archaeology the community of Reavilton is old for Pennsylvania and it nevertheless has a complex story to tell about the people who lived here, how they lived and the legacy that they left behind.

John Reaville immigrated from Nottingham, England to America in about 1843 settling in New York and although a coal miner by occupation purchased with most of his savings a sixty-acre farm near Amagansett, Long Island to try his hand at farming. Tired of this endeavor Reaville traveled westward through Pennsylvania to an area where new coal mines were being opened by the Potter and Ashfield Company. Reaville was a tough, hard-working sort of man. He came to seek his fortune, and fell in with the Potter and Ashfield Company. They had a legal problem with one of their eastern mines that amounted to this: If left unattended, the mine could be claimed by someone else. John Reaville was soon on his way to Schuylkill county into the anthracite coal region of Pennsylvania where he was required to take up residence inside of the mine that the Potter & Ashfield company had been working illegally and one which the sheriff was trying to foreclose upon if they ever left it unattended for even a day. Reaville lived in near isolation for approximately 8 months inside the mine after which Potter and Ashfileld owned it by adverse possession thus saving them $1,500,000 a handsome sum at that time. As his reward for his service John Reaville was named Superintendant of Mines in the Tangascootac region above Beechcreek, was given a blank check and told to open the coal fields in the mountains in the in the Spring of 1852 where bituminous coal had recently been discovered.

The mines were well under way by 1854, the openings had been driven in well and coal was being brought out encouragingly. Scores of miners, mostly foreigners of that occupation, many with families, were domiciled in the long rows of houses on the property.

Reavilton covered approximately 3600 acres. If we include its sister towns this expands to about ten square miles. Revelton named his town after himself though originally as Reavilville. Peacock was named for the color of the coal, which had a brightly colored sheen to it. Rock Cabin got its name for obvious reasons, and Eagleton after the Bald Eagle area named for the Seneca Indian Chief. Four towns, hundreds of homes, stores, school, coal and iron mines, railroad, sawmill and a monolithic structure; a tremendous iron furnace were built in just a few years.

It was in Eagleton that the first coal mine strike in Pennsylvania occurred, and John Reaville was the man who handled it. Reaville was known to be a tough boss. In 1856, the operation was at the height of profit, and the men banded together to demand more money and better treatment. They went on strike, carrying weapons and threatening to become violent. John Reaville sent a trusted employee into Lock Haven to bring back Sheriff John W. Smith, who returned with a group of twenty armed men. Smith calmed things down and broke the strike in about three days.

Reavilton provided a centralized work place for the early settlers of this region; coal was in great demand and the mountainous region had plenty of it. Reaville’s workforce consisted mostly of English, Scotch and German immigrants. Additional towns sprang up in adjoining areas of natural resources because it meant steady work; albeit hard and the opportunity to earn wages and support a family. Several drifts were opened and the miners climbed into the earth daily by way of four foot tunnels to extract the black rock that was sought by the railroads, manufacturing and iron industry. It was yet to be used for home heating except by the affluent in the large cities. In the country wood was plentiful and cheap and coal was a commodity.

I walked the ground drawing its features on my sketch pad; first the “L” shaped foundation of the mansion, the spring house, well, privy and stables. Then down the trail to the powder house, mine office, miners homes and the mines themselves that are visible today as collapsed audits where you can stand and sight along the ground following large sink holes of the collapsed coal mines themselves. I cautioned my companion not to walk upon the ground between the sink holes that might give way at any moment.

Numerous shafts had been dug all heading in a north-south orientation. I paused to imagine the men with blackened faces digging under the ground, setting powder charges, clearing the mine before the explosion blew loose a few tons of coal and then reentering the shaft, shoring its roof with wooden timbers and shoveling the coal into carts that were then drawn out of the earth by horses up the hillside to narrow gauge rail cars where it would be hauled down the mountain to Lock Haven and loaded onto barges waiting in the recently completed Pennsylvania Canal to be shipped to points further east. I wondered of the dangers; of the mine collapses and of the families that lived here.

Child labor laws were nonexistent at this time; I imagined eight, nine and ten year old boys dripping wet from mine seepage with blackened skin that wouldn’t come clean and sullen eyes peering from the mines; forced labor whose lives didn’t matter while John Reaville was sitting in his English mansion eating oysters and sipping fine wine; the extremes of life.

This I know of Reaville for in the corner of the stone foundation that once supported his extravagant home we found the glass shards of wine and bitters bottles, flow blue china, oyster shells and ceramic pipes. Though nothing is left of the framing, it was two story affair with expansive front porch. We see expensive brick and cut stone littering the ground. There I discovered shards of pottery, the unmistakable green glass of fine French wine bottles and more oyster shells; apparently he was fond of them; an expensive delicacy so far from the ocean.

Speaking with the gentlemen at the diner, I learned that the house was known to have a wine cellar and cave at the rear of the property where meat was hung for aging to produce the best flavor. The Reaville’s had the finest of everything and once entertained a Princess of Spain. While two-hundred feet away the miners lived in small 3-4 room houses built upon pilings, eking out a meager living; dying at a young age. Life was hard for these folks and work was dangerous. As we talked I learned that John enjoyed alcohol and tobacco. When he came to town, drinks were on him at the tavern and he was the life of the party. This was confirmed through the amounts of amber glass marked as bitters procured from the backyard privy along with beautiful shards of expensive pottery and other glassware and more clay tobacco tavern pipes.

Privy excavations are at the top of my list in use to determine the lifestyle of the past occupants of a home; the Reavilton mansion would be no different. A privy usually lies to the rear of a home and downwind. This one displayed evidence of prior digging as the dirt was mounded around its sides mixed with broken glass leaving nothing in context. Fortunately we already knew the age. As I sifted through the dirt it became apparent that bottle hunters had been there some time before as evidenced by the 1970′s Pepsi can recovered at approximately 4 feet deep. Nevertheless they were remiss in their search for only bottles that remained intact after 125 years while I was interested in all else that remained. Glass was scattered across the ground. More broken pottery and glass soon began to emerge and was roughly classified according to the type of glass and color or decoration as we removed it from the hole in the ground. Several iron relics also came to light. Our recoveries allowed us to reconstruct entire pieces of china; two flow blue meat platters with matching dinner plate, white glazed serving dish, tea pot, bitters bottles, delft creamer, earthenware jug, chamber pot, oil lamp globes, clay pipes that were smoked by John himself. It was a veritable bonanza of broken pottery that would provide satisfaction well into the Winter as we cleaned, conserved and reconstructed the life and social atmosphere that existed in Reavilton a hundred years before I was even born. Ever so slowly we coaxed life back into the Reaville’s. They were once again the center of attention; the life of the party.

Back in town industry was expanding, an iron mine was opened on a hillside just above the Tangascootac creek. A furnace was built in the forest along with a water powered sawmill, houses and a school. I was convinced that the monolithic structure referenced on my map had to be an iron furnace so we set in search of it through the forest. Our trail became impassible; 3 foot deep ruts filled with water caused us to abandon our vehicle and proceed on foot. My 1872 map of the area identified a stream as “furnace run”. One thing that I’ve learned is that place names generally coincide with history; so we headed in that direction hiking through the brush and dense undergrowth until coming upon a well worn trail. The hemlock canopy hung heavily overhead causing the forest to appear as if it were dusk. I had no idea of how far the furnace might be or even if it yet existed; often the stones from structures are repurposed in later years. We followed under the canopy of massive hemlocks for a distance to where the valley deepened and the trees nearly blocked out all light. I edged toward a steep incline and standing upon the precipice in order to view the valley I looked up to behold a massive stone structure some 45 feet in height and 30 feet square on the opposite hillside; like an ancient pyramid standing in a rift valley with sunlight streaming down upon it as if heaven sent. The illusion created a remarkable experience as if I alone was meant to find the structure. I prompted my companion to the edge of the cliff but in all its glory he could not see the furnace as it lies camouflaged among the hemlocks, itself having turned green in color. In a few moments he came to understand what my excitement was about.

The furnace stands over 45 feet tall and nearly an equal measure in length and breadth of fitted stone construction held together with iron crossties and wood supports. Four arches, one on each side lead into areas where the molten iron flowed into molds for ingots and hollow wares. A pipe work for air from the bellows is evident. It is a traditional top mount furnace.

We scrambled down the steep hillside and crossing the stream were dwarfed by the huge stone structure as the sunlight broke through the foliage shining down upon the furnace; a sight to behold. Several other foundations lay scattered among the woodlands in support of the smelting operation.

Iron ore, of a good quality exists in the Tangascootac region and in 1857 the Tangascootac Coal Company; the true name of the operation at Reavilton erected a furnace and manufactured iron, but a suspension of operations ensued soon after, as was the case with coal mining, yet sufficient was done to demonstrate the fact that an abundance of ore existed, from which could be made a good quality of iron. I was able to locate remnants of a stockpile of coke and also of limestone adjacent the furnace that were used to produce sufficient heat to smelt the iron. Iron melts at about 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit therefore the furnace had to remain in blast 24 hours a day lest it cool down and 2-3 tons of coke would be required to restore it back to temperature. By the middle of the nineteenth century the trend was to use coke instead of charcoal, hot blast instead of cold, steam for power instead of waterwheels and steel shell, fire brick lined stacks instead of stone.

This furnace allows us to see a transition in the technology of the day. Coke was being used however a waterwheel driving a mechanical bellows was yet in operation. Firebrick was used in part but yet with a stone stack surrounded with a sandy clay between the stack and the stone furnace itself. In the early years, the blast was powered by water turning a wheel which in turn either worked a bellows (early furnaces) or pushed pistons in and out of tubes to create the blast of air. I believe that the Reavilton furnace used tube pistons because of the long flat foundations to the right of the furnace just above furnace run. When the use of bellows was discontinued around 1820, two pairs of wooden tubes were used. Each pair consisted of one tube inside another with suitable leather gaskets. As the inner tube of one pair was descending and sucking in air, the inner tube of the other pair was ascending and compressing the air. By means of leather valves the flow of air to a storage tank was regulated. The combination of air being blown into the coke embers created the extreme temperatures necessary to melt the iron ore.

Although actual operations at a blast furnace probably required fifteen to twenty men around the clock, other jobs connected with the furnace, such as cutting wood, hauling the coke and limestone, raising food for the employees and the horses, hauling ore and pig iron, increased the number of workers to between sixty and eighty.

Hard liquor was in great demand by the workmen. It was almost as necessary as food or so it seems. Because most furnaces were built far from towns, adjacent to raw materials and water power, there was little or no opportunity for recreation; and as a result men resorted to drinking as a way to pass their leisure time.

The furnace was built beside a hill having a flat area at the same elevation as the top of the furnace. Materials were taken to this bench for charging into the furnace. A bridge between the top of the stack and the “bench” was used for this purpose. My instinct told me to look under where the bridge would have been to locate samples of the fuel that was being used to fire the furnace. Sure enough, I found the coke and limestone that I was looking for. My companion located a cow bell on the ground nearby although I speculate that it was actually used on a horse or mule that hauled the raw resources.

Just above the furnace we located the ruins of three buildings; most probably bunk houses for the shift workers required to work the furnace ’round the clock. Down a trail toward Tangascootac Creek the audit of the iron mine is located atop the hill with its collapsed shaft running downhill toward the trail. Further downstream were the remains of a water powered sawmill. The area is strewn with iron, slag and cinders. Round pieces of iron reminiscent of meteorites can be found in the area.

Across the valley from whence we came and upon the hill we discovered the foundation of the Iron Masters House. A much larger home than those of the workers yet smaller than General Reaville’s. It was comprised most likely of 6-7 rooms with front and rear doors, glass paned windows and a springhouse to the rear of the home. The iron master was in complete control of the furnace and second only to John Reaville himself. While I have yet to discover the specifics of this individual he no doubt arrived from Europe with expertise in furnace operation.

John Reaville and his wife lived happily and alone in their mansion until he died of heart disease, manifested in a gouty and dropsical condition, on the twenty-second day of August, 1876, at the age of seventy-one and was buried with Masonic Rites.

One year later, less seven days, his wife, Elishaba, aged sixty-seven and a half years, died in the state hospital at Danville, never the same woman after the death of her husband. A white marble shaft, eight and a half feet high, stands by their graves in Highland cemetery at Lock Haven.

After their deaths, the rumor began that Reaville had buried bags of money in the basement of his mansion, under the dirt floor.

Some time afterward a man appeared at the Reaville mansion. It was speculated that he was a hospital employee to whom Mrs. Reaville had divulged her husband’s secret. He stayed in the house alone for days and curious woodsmen passing were chased from the premises. A sullen reply repelled their salutations. Then the man was never seen again. Visitors to the place later found the cellar floor dug up, the wine vault demolished and the foundation stones in many places removed. That the old general had gold hidden when he died his wife naturally enough knew.

The railroad was torn up and the hundreds of buildings left to fall into ruin and decay. Forest fires later consumed all traces of them and today nothing but a few foundation stones and green areas mark where the village once stood and even they are few.

The abandoned furnace which John Reaville built and for which he burned a thousand tons of charcoal needlessly is the only structure of the hundreds erected standing today in the valley which is fast being reclaimed to its original wildness. The moss covered, stone walls on the bank of Furnace run, look not unlike the tower and ruins of an old English castle, now collapsing itself.