Before the Iron Range, there was iron Waynesboro

Hello to all the new readers who heard me on MPR this morning. Ahhh, who am I kidding? Hello, old readers.

We’ve been talking about the way that mining affects communities, for better and worse. Here on the Iron Range it’s not hard to see the impact of mining, both in the changed landscape and the economic pockmarks in parts of the region. But it’s also worth noting that these communities and their many positive attributes wouldn’t be here at all if it weren’t for the iron that was mined. The nation would not have had access to the resources it needed to grow before and after WWII, or win the war itself.

That’s nice and all, but the times keep changing.

I read with interest a Terry Burger story about a piece of history in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania:”19th century iron forges bred skilled workers for 20th century industries.” The story explains the iron mining industry that existed in southeastern Pennsylvania in the 1800s; operations that fueled much of the iron and steelmaking that took place at the onset of the industrial revolution. And while much of the area’s history runs parallel to things you read about Range history, at least we’ve never been burned down by the Confederates. (Not yet, anyway).

The ore near Waynesboro was different than the richer ore found here in northern Minnesota, but closer to the surface. The operations were much more physically demanding as well, as detailed in the Burger story:

An iron furnace in those times required a lot of people because they involved a lot more than just people to run the furnace.

“They had their crew at the furnace but they also had people to cut timber and others to make charcoal to fire the furnaces. And they had farms to feed their workers,” he said, adding that by the end of the century, large swaths of the state had been entirely stripped of trees to make charcoal for the furnaces.

“They also had men who took care of the horses and mules. Mont Alto had about 90 of those. The horses were for the supervisors and owners and the mules were used to carry the heavy pig iron over the road to the nearest railroad spur so they could get their goods to market,” he said.

One of the dilemmas faced by the furnace owners was that their facilities needed to be near a stream, because a water wheel was used to power the furnace, mainly the bellows that cranked up the temperature of the charcoal fire so it would melt the ore. Streams were not often close to railroad stations.

“Many of the furnaces worked on what was called the ‘plantation system,'” said Buckey. “The furnaces usually provided a small log cabin for the employees and their families. They were paid in script, which was basically money printed by the company. It was negotiable at the company store for food and a few other items, but usually nowhere else.”

The furnace employee cabins made up whole neighborhoods or villages.

“They’re mostly gone now,” said Buckey. “There might be a few here and there, but you would have to look inside the houses. A few of the old log cabins might have had more modern homes built right around them. Wiestling Hall, the oldest building on the Penn State Mont Alto campus, has an old cabin inside it. It’s now the student union.”

Of course, we know why this industry is gone now:

By the turn of the century, iron furnaces were done, for the most part. The culprits are many.

There was better iron ore and better access to railroads to the west, around Pittsburgh and beyond. The Mesabi Range in northern Minnesota, one of the largest iron ore deposits in the world, was discovered (and is still being tapped today) and the market for southern Pennsylvania iron rusted away.

The story goes on to explain that the decline of iron mining in southeastern Pennsylvania later provided the skilled workforce necessary to run different kinds of industry that would flourish in the 20th century, with steel fed by the Iron Range. In other words, mines that go through inevitable decline aren’t inherently bad; but you’ve got to account for it in your planning. In the case of Waynesboro, I think they got lucky because of the eastern industrial expansion of the early 20th century. And now they join much of the Rust Belt in a quest for a new 21st century purpose.

Perhaps the lesson here is that mining does have a cyclical pattern to it, despite the improved technologies and better management now. The most important thing is that people always outlive mines. Maybe not individual people, but people generally. Those that are educated or trained to survive the loss of a mine will be fine.

Are we?

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.