Catoctin Furnace Historical Society
Catoctin Furnace Historical Society, Inc.
12320 Auburn Road
Thurmont , MD , 21788
US
Phone: 301-271-2306
Email: ecomer@eacarchaeology.com

Catoctin Furnace History

Catoctin Furnace

Maryland

An Historic 18th Century Iron Furnace and Village at the Foot of Maryland’s Beautiful Catoctin Mountains.

 

Catoctin Furnace is today a quiet and peaceful village nestled at the base of the Catoctin Mountains in northern Frederick County, Maryland.  But, for 125 years, until 1903, the site was a thriving iron-making community, a microcosm of American industrial growth. 


Setting the stage for Catoctin’s development, the end of the French and Indian War prompted a push westward from the seaboard for the opening of new lands and resources by wealthy entrepreneurs and investors, especially professional men and planters from the Tidewater area. 


Two of these men, James and Thomas Johnson, brothers, figure prominently in the development of Catoctin Furnace.  In 1768, James, an ironmaster who had built and operated Green Spring Furnace in present-day Washington County, and Thomas, an attorney from Annapolis and later the first governor of Maryland, were part of a group of men who petitioned the royal government for a tract in northern Frederick County, land which showed promise for successful iron production. 


James Johnson moved to the Catoctin area in 1774 and began construction of the furnace complex.  Two years later, in 1776, the stack went into blast.  In addition to pig iron, it turned out a variety of useful tools and household items, including the popular ten plate stove.  Toward the end of the American Revolution, an order for bombshells for ten inch mortars was placed with the Furnace, and evidence strongly supports the belief that at least a portion of these shells was used during the battle of Yorktown.


Two other Johnson brothers, Roger and Baker, both attorneys, also were involved in Frederick County iron enterprises.  In 1803, Baker Johnson became the sole owner of Catoctin Furnace.  Shortly thereafter, he built a mansion, “Auburn,” still visible just west of Route 15 at the southern end of the village. 


Baker died in 1811 and the furnace was purchased by Willoughby and Thomas Mayberry for 12,500 pounds current money.  The Mayberry brothers used the wartime prosperity to make improvements to the property including new worker houses, a second blacksmith shop and the construction of Vallonne Manor House on a nearby farm.  By 1819 the Mayberry operation was bankrupt  and in 1820 John Brien, a wealthy Irish immigrant ironmaster bought Catoctin Furnace.  John and his wife, Harriet, subsequently purchased “Auburn,” where Harriet died in 1827.  As a memorial to his wife, and for the use of the iron workers, John built Harriet Chapel, which continues to this day as a self-supporting part of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland.  Following Brien’s death in 1834, the operation went through a turbulent period due to uncertain management and national economic policies.  John Baker Kunkel became owner in 1858.  Under his management, Catoctin Furnace flourished as a self-contained iron-making community.  In addition to 11,350 acres of land, Kunkel owned 80 houses for workers, a saw mill, grist mill, company store, farms, an ore railroad and three furnace stacks, including an anthracite coke stack with an annual production of 9,000 tons of pig iron.  After Kunkel’s death, the furnace once again fell prey to misfortune, finally ceasing to operate in 1903.  Ore was hauled from the mines to a Pennsylvania furnace until 1912. 


Catoctin Furnace began as a family owned and operated business.  First black slaves and later European immigrants were among the labor force, relying on the iron plantation for jobs and the necessities of life.  The growth of large corporations which could produce iron more efficiently with improved technology, markets, and transport facilities ultimately doomed this rural industrial complex.  Company houses eventually were bought by families who had been employed in the furnace operation.


The village today is a part of the compact “company town” with a furnace stack and the ruins of the ironmaster’s mansion at the northern end.  In addition to “Auburn,” James Johnson’s “Springfield” is located southwest on Route 15.  The Catoctin Furnace Historical Society, Inc. has restored an early nineteenth century double log house which is used as a museum and interpretive center.  A portion of the furnace land is now located in the Cunningham Falls State Park.              

The Catoctin Furnace Historical Society, Inc. has a copy of the Upper Mine Branch Ledger from 1899 to 1901 at the Collier’s Log House.  The Ledger lists each person by name, days worked, pay rate, and total wages paid.  It subtracts merchandise at the company store, rent paid, and wood purchased.   At the end of the month, many received no pay.  The names will be familiar to all village families as well as many in the Thurmont area. If you are interested in seeing the ledger, please attend a monthly meeting or contact Elizabeth at ecomer@catoctinfurnace.org or 410-243-2626.