Monday, November 28, 2011

A Drive Back in Time


Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, 5AM, the sun wasn’t anywhere near the horizon.  AMB and I were packed up and leaving Glenshaw.  People were out already, visiting Walmarts and Target stores, lining up to get those early bird specials.  We had other things on our minds, we were going on a road trip to the past.

Our first stop, (after coffee) was to pick up our good friend Frank, who was coming along with us today.  By 6:30, we were heading east on Rt.22, watching the skyline slowly become visible.  Traffic was very light, most sensible people were at home sound asleep, the shoppers were clustered around the malls, and we basically had the road to ourselves.

Our first step into the past was back into the late 1900’s, a visit to an abandoned fast food joint.  At one time this was a hopping place, but today it was off to the side of a car dealers lot, empty and covered with signs promoting its great potential.  We didn’t see that potential ourselves, but we did see a geocache hidden near-by!

On the road again, we pointed our little blue time machine (AMB’s Honda Fit) towards the town of New Florence and a century earlier.  The sun had crossed over the horizon and as we came up Furnace Lane, we saw The Laurel Hill Furnace sitting beside the road.  We pulled over and took some pictures.

The Laurel Hill Furnace
(Pictures will enlarge when clicked)
Plant growth on the sides
Ann Marie inside the stack
AMB and I had been here earlier in the month.  The furnace is in great shape considering its age!  It was built in 1846 and it has been supported by iron rods placed through its stones to hold it together.  These along with the removal of trees and bushes have kept it in good shape.  Roots are a major destructor of these structures.  All four walls are whole and its four openings are complete.  The work arch, is open to the center and you can stand inside the bosh and look up the chimney.  You can also look between the bosh and the outer furnace, this is where an insulating layer of sand, clay and rubble was, used to insulate the heat of the furnace from its outer structure.

Pushing our time machine a bit further back, we drove another mile or two into the State Game Lands and into the years around 1819.  About ¾ of a mile away from our parking spot, we saw the large pile of stone that was all that remained of the Baldwin Furnace.  Situated below the dirt road going up the hill and a near-by stream it was hard to miss!
Hidden in the Gamelands
Nice solid wall against the hillside 
This furnace was in fair shape.  The back wall and a portion of the side wall, was falling in and the stones were far from tight.  You could see how they were slowly starting to feel the effects of gravity, the spaces between them getting larger and larger.  There was a wall made of rocks against the hillside.  I thought this was only a thin wall but when I climbed up behind it, I found out it was about a foot thick, nice and solid.  This furnace had only 2 openings but what we thought was interesting was how, even though the stonework was rough and “crude”, they had rounded out the two stones at the top of the openings.  We were wondering if this was done for a reason or just to make it look nicer.  It had obviously taken some time to do and of course, we all know that “time is money”!
Carved arches at the peaks of the openings
The backside
Baldwin Creek
The furnace sits beside Baldwin Creek.  Almost all of the furnaces we’ve visited have been near streams.  They provided an important part of the iron making process.  They turned water wheels which in turn operated bellows to increase the heat of the furnace.

This stream was especially nice, working its way over the rocks, making lots of waterfalls and filling the valley with the great, relaxing sound of splashing water.

It was during this time that we came up with a name for our days adventure.  The “Darn, I Lost the Satellites Again Tour”.  Frank was having problems with his GPS, it would take “forever” to find the satellites and then it would lose them almost immediately.  We ran through a bunch of different suggestions as to why this was happening.  My GPS, the same brand and model, was working fine.

Every time he lost his satellites, we heard that same phrase over again. ;-)  (It seems that his batteries, while showing as being fully charges, just weren’t giving the unit enough power.  Once new batteries were put in it, the problems seemed to clear up!)
Modern power
Leaving the iron furnace and the early 1800’s, we moved back into the present as we passed the power plant located near New Florence.  It was big and also pretty impressive looking!  There is a lot more power pushed through this place than there was through the Baldwin Furnace!  We’ve come a long way

Next we pushed out time selector towards the 1930’s, back to when Mr. Rogers was just a child.  His maternal grandfather, Mr McFeely, owned a piece of land near-by.  On this property was Buttermilk Falls. When young Fred visited his grandfather, they would roam through the woods here, often ending up at the falls.  It was easy to see why he enjoyed this place once we visited it!
Buttermilk Falls
The showpiece is definitely the falls.  Crossing over a wide piece of rock 45 feet above the valley below, it cascades down across the ledges below.

Ruins near the falls
Old structures above the falls
Ann Marie and Frank exploring the ruins
It was nice to be walking in the same area that the Pittsburgh celebrity and hero of children and adults worldwide, had walked himself.  There were some ruins at the top of the falls, what exactly they were I don’t know.  They were covered with moss and grass and you could almost imagine mythical sprites hiding amongst them.  It was an enchanted type of place.  In a 1996 interview, Mr. Rogers told how he used to climb on the ruins and crawl behind the waterfall.

After getting our Fred Rogers fix, we took a hike into a nice steep valley, Stinson Hollow.  The trail went down, down and then a bit further down.  It really wasn’t “that” bad, but getting back up….well…
The slopes of Stinson Hollow
Back at the car, we headed back into the 1800’s again.  This time we were heading towards the Buena Vista Furnace, sitting near the Ghost Town Trail and Blacklick Creek.  We could see the furnace but couldn’t get to it because of the steep hillsides on either side of the trail.  At one time there was a rail line coming through here, known as the Blairsville Secondary, now instead of trains it is used mostly by bikes.  Walking along the top of the slope, we finally came to a spot we could easily (?) work our way down.  Once on the trail, we found a nice wide path down to the furnace.

The furnace was built back in 1847 and operated until 1856, a total of nine years.  It was extremely well built.  The stones were chiseled square and were expertly fitted together.  The corners are sharp and all angles meet in nice tight angles.  It looks as if it had been planned, not just put together with what was at hand.
7 years ago, it was still in the woods
Very nicely made triangular front opening 
Nice masonry, complete with sharp edges! 
Insides are now exposed
Back walls collapsing
One corner has crumbled and there are signs of disruption on the other faces, but if you look at some of the corners, they look as if you could cut yourself on their edges.  The front opening is in good shape, the other two openings are fairing a bit worse.  One was included in the crumbling corner, the top of its arch is just visible above the rubble.  The one on the opposite side is still standing and holding its shape, but some of the cover stones have fallen, exposing the rocks making the arch and the filler stones on the sides.  The trees that once surrounded it have been cleared away, it now sits in a wide, open field.
What an active iron furnace looked like
In the 9 years this operated, it employed 61 men and boys to run it.  These people lived near-by in houses that have since disappeared along with the supporting structures and the loading bridge that was once attached to its top.  You can’t help but wonder where all these people lived.  There are never any signs or ruins of buildings other than the furnaces.  Perhaps they knew that they wouldn’t last long and didn’t bother to make permanent structures.  I could imagine a community being settled here, the area around the furnace is a wide flat field.  There aren’t a lot of stones like there was around the Baldwin Furnace, approximately 10 miles to the south.

Moving closer towards present day, we headed into the late 1940’s.  We found an old iron coal tipple, slowly rusting away.  We parked about ¾ mile away from it and followed a grassy road into a shallow valley.  The one side was covered with no trespassing signs.  The other side sloped down to a nice small creek, winding its way in a twisty path through the hollow.  We came to a pipe gate that crossed the road and beyond that, we started into what used to be a mine of some type.  The ground was covered with chunks of coal and there were lots of mounds of dirt.  There were piles of rusting steel and we passed a large motor lying on its side.  Old rotten wood that once was a structure of some type was in a pile, slowly getting smaller and smaller as nature took back what was once taken from it.  Cresting a small hill and rounding a bend, we finally saw the top of the tipple.
Thompson #1
Once upon a time, it was called Thompson #1,  I imagine it is still called that to the few people that know it is here.  It is located near Mardis Run, a little north of the town of Armagh.  Of course, it wasn’t just to see the tipple that brought us here, there was a cache near-by.  This is one of the great things about geocaching, you never know where or what you might see….or learn!

After signing the log in the cache and exploring the structure a bit, we started back…unfortunately, the leader of the hike led us down a hill instead of up….and we had to retrace our steps.  It was getting towards the end of the day and those steps were starting to matter!  We were starting to tire out a bit and we still had another ¾ mile to go till we got to the car (time machine).  (That leader would have been me…“ Sorry Guys!”)

Once we were back in our vehicle, we turned it towards the Pittsburgh area, but we had one last bit of history to visit before we returned.

The town of Blairsville is situated along the Conemaugh River.  In 1889 the Johnstown Flood affected this community tremendously and later in 1936, the St. Patrick’s Day Flood came through reeking destruction.  The Army Corps of Engineers decided that a dam was needed to help control these waters and the Conemaugh Dam project was started in 1949.  As the waters rose behind the dam, many small communities were flooded out, slowly disappearing under the rising waters.  In Blairsville many streets had to be abandoned and the people relocated.  Near-by Rt.22 was relocated, passing near the town instead of going through it as it once had.  Needless to say, this project was not popular with a lot of the townsfolk.
Once bordered by houses
All that remains of the old Blairsville
We crossed the new bridge that spans the river, the old foundations of the previous bridge are situated right beside it.  At the far side, we turned into a section of old concrete road surface.  A narrow road led up river, the road was muddy and alongside of it were the remnants of houses and the community that once thrived here.  All that remains is flat pieces of land where the houses used to stand and an occasional set of steps leading up to.….nothing.
Frank finding the final cache of the day
After finding a cache hidden here, (surprise, surprise!) we turned all the dials on our time machine from the 40's towards the present day.  We stopped for a cup of coffee at the near-by Sheetz and then turned onto the newly reconstructed Rt. 22.  In about an hour, we were at Frank’s house and visiting with his wife and dog.  Another 45 minutes and we were back at my house petting my dog.

Our trip back into time took us through a couple centuries and happily back to the time we love best…the present.
 Hmmmmm, I wonder what this place will look like in another 100 years or so?

Sunday, November 13, 2011

A Couple More Furnaces added to the Life List

Once again,this Friday was an off day and on this one, I went with a friend, Ray, to the Forbes State Forest. Ray was going hunting for Deer or Turkey and I was going hunting for Iron Furnaces along  with a cache or two. Ray came over to the house around 6:30 and Red and I jumped into his car and we were off.

I wasn’t sure where Ray had in mind to go hunting, we were planning on going to “his” spot and then I’d take his car for a couple hours and then come back to pick him and his trophies up. Surprisingly enough, he drove right to one of the places I was thinking of going.

The Saturday before, Ann Marie and I started our Iron Furnace Tour in the very same spot.
We decided to pass on searching out the furnace because we had arrived about an hour before sunrise and didn’t feel comfortable hiking through the woods in a gameland, in the dark. We figured we’d do it another time. WELL, that other time was THIS DAY it seemed.

Ray suited up and went one way, Big Red and I headed in another way. We were about ¾ mile away from our goal. A trail went through the woods to with-in .2 mile away from the furnace. From there, we had to bushwack. There was a light covering of snow on the ground, but not enough to worry about.

By following up the stream, we soon found it and took some shots of it. This was the Fountain Furnace. Located along Camp Run in Donegal Township it was built sometime before 1812. There are no records as to how long it remained in use. It is listed as originally being 32 feet high and 30 foot square at its base. Presently, there are 2 sides still intact, one of them having a triangular opening in it. There is a set back in the structure, a ledge that went around the furnace. Some furnaces have this feature, some don’t. I am guessing this is just a design feaature the builder chose to add.
The Fountain Furnace
(pictures will enlarge when clicked!)
The backside
The two other sides were just rubble. The area surrounding it was covered with the stones that once made these sides. A dirt road passed directly beside it and on the hillside above it was a cabin, someone’s vacation spot perhaps?

The stones inside the opening were the remains of the chimney caving in on itself. One of the long cross beams was cracked and I can only imagine it will break in a couple more decades.
Looking into the opening
A small section of wall remained beside it but it was only about a foot long and a foot high. It might have just been what kept the road from where it was.

Later in the morning, Red and I hiked up to the top of a ski area to find a cache. We located it and as I signed it, I looked at my watch and it was 11AM. That would be 11AM on 11/11/11. Cool!

I have to add, Red was an exceptionally good dog on this trip.  He didn't howl or eat anything he shouldn't!

The next day, AMB and I went over to Beaver Falls for a birthday dinner for her Mom. Lots of relatives were there from across the country including Jen, Emma and David, her nieces and nephew from Indiana. We got there early enough to take them on a search for a cache and also for an Iron Furnace.

We were about 20 miles away from the Neshannock Furnace (also known as the Powers Furnace, named after the owners) located in Lawrence County. We borrowed Ann Marie's brothers truck to make the journey and in about a half hour we were alongside Neshannock creek, looking for the remains. We had the co-ordinates in the GPS and knew we were with-in 200-300 feet. The road was fairly high above the stream here and there were houses situated on top of the slopes.  We pulled into a garage and asked the owner if he knew anything about the furnace.  He took me over to the edge of the hill and told me a couple stories about about him growing up here.  What we were looking for was right below us.  He showed us a ramp on the hillside that would take us down to them.  Within minutes we had found what we were looking for.

This furnace was built back in 1850 and operated for about 12 years. Most of the stones used to make it were gone. We saw walls in neighbor’s yards that were probably made from them. We also saw a large pile of squared stones in a field across the road from the garage, looking a lot like the style of stones used in furnace construction.

Possibly stones from the furnace?
We found 2 sets of structures. The first was a set of 3 pedestals. About 5 or 6 foot square and about 4 or 5 foot high. They were spaced about 4 or 5 foot apart. Could they be some sort of loading platform or perhaps a bridge structure? They seemed to be the only ones there. I didn’t see any other rocks or remains near them. They were about the same height as the dirt road that crossed along the bottom of the hillside.
David moving in for a closer look
A short bit further upstream was the 2nd set of ruins. Closest to the hillside was a structure of squared off stones about 10-12 feet high. It was about 4 or 5 feet thick, shaped like a triangle. It was probably the back end of the furnace or part of the bridge leading to its top.
Emma on her throne
Behind it we found a pile of rubble that used to be the furnace. David and I found the opening of where the chimney used to be. All the cut stones which made it up were gone, only the field stone used as insulation between the chimney and the outside stone remained. Some large trees were growing out of the rubble, some of which must have been at least 50 years old.
The chimney hole
After crawling around on the stones for awhile we headed back up to the garage where we talked with the owners of the property for awhile. He told us a bit about some of the local history and we gave him a sheet of paper with some info about the furnace. Nice people!
David doing some rock climbing
The girls heading back towards the car
We hit the road and were back home in about 25 minutes. Unfortunately, we got there about an hour later than we planned….oooops

Late we went to diner with Ann Maries family.  What a great bunch of people, lots of funny stories and lots of good natured joking around.  This was something I never experienced in my small family.
The Balzer Clan
We were back home by 9:30 and I was asleep by 10:30.  Another fine day in the life…

One last thing, I found out on Friday night that I won second place in the 2011 Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh photo contest for my picture of the sun coming up over the horizon on October 9th!
2nd place, not bad!
I think there were only 2 photos entered...;-)
I figure that vast amounts of money will soon be rolling in!!!

Monday, November 7, 2011

A Ramble Through Westmoreland County

Rambling through Westmoreland County
Me, inside a furnace

Another beautiful weekend, comfortable temperatures, clear skies, the leaves right near the end of their change and I had a list of iron furnaces that Ann Marie and I hadn’t seen before. It was time for another “road trip”.

This time we were heading east into Westmoreland County, into the Laurel Mountains, near Latrobe, home to the horse farms of the rich and famous.

My list of furnaces comprised of 6 old stacks, in a line about 5 to 10 miles apart from each other in a NNE direction. Most of these were near roads and should be fairly easy to locate. We started out in the south end of the map, near Donegal and worked our way up to Sewart, (end of the Laurel Highlands Trail) in the north.

As is so often the case for us, we left in what some people consider the middle of the night. It was around 5 when we left, the sky full of stars and most of the neighbors houses dark and quiet. Crossing the Highland Park Bridge, we could just barely see the hilltops against the sky. By the time we got off the turnpike in Donegal, the sky was getting brighter in the east.

Our first furnace was on private property and would involve a ½ mile hike through the woods and along the edge of a field. We drove about ¾ mile into a State Gameland and saw the hunters sitting in their trucks, waiting for sunrise. We parked and got out of the Jeep and considered our options. HMMMMM, do we really want to walk though an area full of hunters early in the morning, and to start this hike while it was still dark? We decided to continue the tour without this furnace. (The Fountain Furnace) We can always come back and do it another time. We looked at the sky for a bit though the narrow opening above the dirt road and then turned the car around and returned to solid roads.

The sun came up as we approached our next stop, in Linn Run State Park. There were a couple caches here we had to find. The first was a pretty easy one beside Linn Run of all places.
Linn Run
(pics will enlarge when clicked)
Hiking on to our next cache took us past some nice ruins. I know nothing about these stones, when it was built, if it was done by the state or possibly the CCC, why it doesn’t have a roof any more or what happened to all the stones that fell from the walls? Lots of questions here…
AMB going in the front (?) door
Looking out the side
I am led to believe that it once was a park building since it has a cement floor. There is also no plumbing at all, or any evidence of room dividers. It looks like a large one room building.
Side view from inside
Looking in from the front
We continued our hike through the fall foliage and soon came to what was drawing us. An ammo box, what else? We also saw some nice big flat rocks in the stream, I’m sure this place is packed in the summer months!

We left the park and moved into horse territory. We passed big stables and even bigger houses. There was real estate stretching out for miles. It was home to the Mellon’s and their compatriots. Some how we missed our road and seeing a police car heading toward us, I flagged him down to ask for directions. Telling him we were looking for an iron furnace, he told us he had just been there, but it was on private property. Telling us he would “look the other way”, he told us to go past a “Do Not Enter” sign and where to turn to get to it. We had passed the road by because of the sign, thinking it was a driveway.

The policeman was a really nice guy, more than happy to help out and I think…to have someone to BS with early on a Saturday morning. He helped us out in a couple ways and it was nice meeting him.

Naturally, as soon as we turned into this private road, we ran into a couple cars coming the opposite direction. They paid us no mind so we continued on, it was more a private community than anything. Lots of nice houses spaced far away from each other. A small dirt road, nicely kept led us to a covered bridge. This was built by the Mellon’s in the 60’s. Not much further past that was the California Furnace.

This was originally built in 1850 or 1853. Built beside Rolling Rock Run it was the last iron furnace built in Westmoreland County. It didn’t last very long. In the early 1960’s, it had been reduced to a 15 foot high pile of rubble. The Mellon’s (once again) rebuilt the furnace in 1966 and restored it to its original appearance. There is some nice stonework visible beside it in the run that took the water back to the near-by stream.

Looking up from the wheel pit
Walls of the wheel pit and the sluice
How an Iron Furnace works
It is in great shape, but then again, it is only a mere 45 years old now
The California Furnace
We next stopped along Laurel Summit Road. We have been on this road MANY, MANY times. There are a lot of great trails that intersect this road, including The Laurel Highlands Trail! Today’s cache took us on a trail we hadn’t been on before. A short ½ mile walk brought us to a nice grouping of rocks and cliffs. The cache was hidden nicely in one of the niches and it took awhile until Ann Marie spied it. The hike in the woods was nice, we needed some time in the open air. The dog was tiring us out, you can only take so much barking…

Back at the car, we decided to get some lunch. We stopped at Walat’s, a “biker friendly” bar in-between Summit Road and the Laurel Highlands Trail parking area. I’ve passed it many times, but never stopped in. We WILL be back, they had very good food in there!

On the road again, we stopped at the bottom of the mountain at the Washington Furnace. We had to stop and ask the owner for permission to visit it. I talked with an elderly lady who was happy to allow us to visit. She even told us to park in her driveway and about a bridge on her property that would get us across the stream to the ruins.

The furnace was built sometime between 1809 and 1812, it was abandoned in 1826. Twenty two years later, in 1848 it was rebuilt and operated until 1854. Presently, there are only 2 walls remaining and the corner between them is in the process of falling apart. The sides facing the stream (Furnace Run) is basically rubble. The firebrick of the chimney is still intact but it is filled to with-in to 3 or 4 feet from its top. There is lots of slag littering the ground around the site. There was suppose to be a large salamander near by but we didn’t see it, we might have looked right at it and not noticed it. ( A salamander is a mass of solidified material, largely metallic, left in a blast-furnace hearth.)
Looking down into the Washington Furnace chimney from the top
The power of roots!
The next furnace on our list was The Valley Furnace, also known as The Hillview Furnace. This mass of stone was right beside the road in a farmer’s field. There was barbed wire around it to keep the cattle in so we only looked at it from the road. It was built in 1850 and was in fairly good shape. It’s base 36 feet across making it one of the largest we’ve seen.  There are lots of trees and bushes growing on it, so in time, it will be crumbling further.
The Valley (or Hillview) Furnace
Time was getting late so we skipped the Ross Furnace and headed to the Laurel Hill Furnace. Situated on Baldwin Creek , it was built back in 1846. It is in very good shape, it has 4 arched openings and is held together with iron tie rods, 4 in each direction. Along with the trimming of trees and bushes, these have kept the walls together. There was a deep wheel pit on this furnace, 35 feet deep and a 4 foot high tunnel leading back to the stream, a ¼ mile away. This was because there isn’t much of a slope to the stream and this added additional water pressure to turn the wheel to power the bellows. We didn’t see the tunnel much as I would have liked to. The wheel pit was filled in. Perhaps the next time I’m here I’ll search out the end of the tunnel.
The Laurel hill Furnace
2 of the iron rods holding it together
Inside one of the arches
Looking up the chimney
Missing firebricks in the chimney
Our last furnace was going to be the Baldwin Furnace, named after the stream it is located on.  This is located very close to the Laurel Hill Furnace.  We got all our co-ordinates off of a web site and all were correct except for this one.  The directions they gave and the co-ordinates were different.  We looked around a bit and since it was getting late, we put this one on hold also for another day.

(The next day, I found a geocache listed that was hidden near the furnace. Using those co-ordinates instead of the ones we were using, it turns out the furnace was about a half mile in the opposite direction of where we were looking. )

We packed up the dog and headed north to Rt.22 and home. Another hour and change and we were home again. Ready for a shower and a good rest. The day was good, 3 caches, a short hike (1+ mile), a great lunch and 4 furnaces, and of course, a couple more memories.  No complaints here!
Our route, as well as I can remember it...