Archive for January 2018

Jack’s Mountain – The Rest of the Story

Inspired by what I had experienced and seen on Jack’s Mountain, I came home needing to put the pieces together.

From this vantage behind the engine house, one can see some of the railroad grades that were carved into Jacks’ Mountain to reach the ganister stone. Behind the ridge lies Mount Union on the valley floor. Photo from the Historic American Engineering Record, C. (1968) Harbison-Walker Refractories Company, Engine Repair House, 1968.

It starts with the quarry and what was extracted there….ganister. It is the prime ingredient for silica bricks that are used to build industrial furnaces. With the rapid expansion of the manufacturing economy from the late 1880’s onwards, these bricks were in high demand, especially by the iron and steel industries.

It starts with the quarry and what was extracted there….ganister. It is the prime ingredient for silica bricks that are used to build industrial furnaces. With the rapid expansion of the manufacturing economy from the late 1880’s onwards, these bricks were in high demand, especially by the iron and steel industries.

Long ago, the waters of the Juniata River cut right through Jack’s Mountain near present day Mount Union and exposed ganister deposits on both sides of the river. While there are plenty of other sources of ganister, none had the benefits of this location. The river, which exposed the ganister became an artery of commerce, first by barge and then as a natural water level course for the Pennsylvania Railroad. The railroad followed the river as it built a mainline across the state with the goal of linking Philadelphia to Pittsburgh…where the steel industry would become the biggest market for silica brick. In addition, the immediate region has abundant coal resources to power the ovens needed to bake the brick. This coal was already brought into Mount Union by the narrow-gauge East Broad Top railroad for interchange with the PRR.

With two railroads in Mount Union and a supply of ganister within close proximity, the W. H. Hawes Fire Brick Company built the first plant in here in 1899.  The plant was sold to the Harbison-Walker Refractories Company the following year and they opened a second plant in 1903. Combined, they created the largest refractory brick plant in the world.

The twin Harrison-Walker plants in the early 1950’s. In the lower left hand corner, one can see the dual-gauge rail spurs into the plant to bring in EBT coal and load standard gauge PRR boxcars. In the upper right, the industrial railroad heads towards the Juniata River and to Jack’s Mountain. Photo from the Bryan Donaldson collection

To reach the stone, Harbison-Walker built a 36” wide narrow-gauge railroad around 1912 that crossed the Juniata River on a long spindly bridge and climbed Jack’s Mountain. Small 0-4-0 dinkey steam locomotives went directly from the plant to the loading sites with 4-wheel wood and steel dump cars to be loaded by the quarry men. Each car could hold about three tones of stone, which was enough to make about 1000 bricks. With the two plants making approximately 300,000 bricks a day, the railroad must have been a very busy operation. The quarrymen initially rode the dump-cars to and from their jobs sites each day, where they would be responsible for filling their cars and when it was full, would place an individualized marker on it. This marker was removed at the unloader and the load would be credited to the worker…. piece work, that couldn’t be tougher.

This photo shows the Harrison-Walker engine house and two trains. On the hill is an inbound loaded train with at least ten 4-wheel dump cars in tow. Near the engine house, a train of empties waits to leave for the quarry. Photo from the Mount Union Historical Society collection

As the deposits near the river were played out, the railroad reached higher and soon needed to build an incline to climb the steep sides of Jack’s Mountain. The railroad delivered the cars to the base of the Big Incline, which moved empties up as loads came down. Within a few years, the Small Incline was built, located off the top of the first with a short landing between them. The Small Incline reached the mountain top and allowed relatively flat grades for new railroad construction and the use of adhesion locomotive power. While steam was used, internal combustion came relatively early to the railroad with the purchase of Brookville gas locomotives. These were the mainstay on the top while steam was used in the valley. The Brookville locomotives would have needed less servicing than steam and their lower weight would have eased getting them up the inclines.

A Brookville locomotive preparing to leave the quarry with about 12 loaded cars. Photo from the Rich Wickette collection

While the dump cars moved on the inclines, the quarrymen had to walk due to safety concerns. The walk up and down the 800-foot change in elevation in all weather conditions must have been tiresome and treacherous. Around 1937, the quarrymen decided to change their pedestrian commute and used their skills to cut and lay a stone path on the mountain. This stone path, now referred to as the 1000 Steps, continued in use until the late 1950’s when the quarry was moved, making it un-necessary.

Two competitors of Harbison-Walker built plants in Mount Union within the following decade and together they produced a half a million bricks a day, allowed the town to tout itself as the “Largest Manufacturer of Silica Brick in the World”. All three of the plants required a great deal of fuel to keep their power plants and ovens hot. This fuel, coal, was conveniently brought in directly from the mines by the East Broad Top, which extended its rails to serve each company. Most extensions into the plants were 3-rail, for while the EBT brought in coal, the finished bricks were transported to market by the Pennsylvania Railroad in boxcars.

Suppling the brick works with coal was a steady and reliable source of revenue for the EBT for years, but in the early 1950’s each plant eventually converted to natural gas as it became a cheaper fuel source.  With the final conversion of the North American Refractories Company (NARCO) plant in 1954 to natural gas, the last nail in the coffin for EBT revenue was in place. Not able to find another steady buyer of its coal, the EBT was forced to abandon its operations within 2 years.

The Harbison-Walker railroad labored on until the mid-1950’s, but was shut down for a different reason. With the quarry on Jack’s Mountain becoming less profitable, the company opened up a new quarry on the south side of the Juniata River and used trucks to bring in the stone. This operation and the plant did not change significantly for the next several decades. However, In the 1970’s new methods of producing refractory bricks became available and the industry gradually changed. Harbison-Walker held on into the late 1980’s, but it’s competitor NARCO, produced bricks until 1990. The shuttered plants were not immediately torn down, but over time, any trace of all three companies have been obviated.

It’s ironic that the EBT was an early casualty of the changing silica brick based economy in Mount Union, but is the only related business to leave evidence of its existence. While I’ve been an admirer of the EBT for decades, I never fully grasped the role it played in the economy until I understood the silica brick industry.

It’s funny to think that the steps built by the ganister quarrymen led me to discover and complete this knowledge journey.

Map by Stephen Titchenel prepared for Tracks Around Mount Union by Frank Kyper

While I did find multiple historical sources on the web, the best source of information is a new book by Frank Kyper entitled Tracks Around Mount Union. He makes a compelling case that Mount Union is an under-recognized railroad town that hosted not only the PRR and EBT, but the Harbison-Walker industrial railroad as well as a 2-foot railroad that ran within the PRR’s main tie treatment plant. Not only does it cover the “narrow gauge capital of the east”, but by extension, the silica brick industry that was so important to Mount Union’s economy.

The Harbison-Walker Engine House on Jack’s Mountain that ignited my quest can be found here.

Jack’s Mountain – Up the 1000 Steps

I love the aha moment…. that spark in your brain that ignites when you make a connection between what seemed to be unrelated bits of information. They’re impossible to foresee and you never know when serendipity will pull them all together. What started as a hike to check out a view, ultimately led me to deeper understanding of the East Broad Top Railroad.

After visiting the East Broad Top Railroad in Orbisonia, I usually also spend some time in Altoona, about an hour away. My travel route normally takes me north out of Orbisonia to Mount Union and then west from there. On each drive, I’ve noted a parking lot full of hikers directly west of Mount Union and after the third time, decided to look into what was going on there. A quick web search determined that the hike is called 1000 Steps and climbs to the top of Jack’s Mountain. Always on the lookout for a beautiful view, there seemed to be a few scenic vantages that offered possibilities and to my surprise, there had been a narrow-gauge railroad that worked a quarry on top. My initial and brief web search didn’t turn up much information about the railroad, but I did learn that the quarry’s workers had built the original steps as a way to get from the valley to their worksite.

Six months went by before I could make the hike and it came on the heels of a visit to the East Broad Top. Having spent a good part of the day in Orbisonia, I didn’t arrive at the 1000 Steps parking lot until 4:30 that afternoon. A quick check on my sun calculator showed that sunset would be soon…in less than 2 hours. Normally, I would hesitate to go somewhere new with so little light remaining, but I was feeling adventurous and thought I would play my luck. I packed some snacks, two flashlights, my camera gear and started up.

The dirt path out of the parking lot quickly brought me to the first stone step. Stopping to survey the hike ahead, a long path of stone steps leads the eye up the mountain. The steps are quite uniform, both in height and depth and solidly placed into the mountain side…. obviously done with considerable skill. Into the hike at about the 100th step, it struck me that this hiking trail is quite unlike any that I had experienced before. With each step, it enters my conscious that these stones have felt the presence of the quarrymen that walked up and down these steps on a daily basis. The steps came alive as I was walking back in history, to the 1950’s and beyond. Climbing higher, I came across a side trail that was cut into the mountain and filled a few small gullies. This was obviously a former railroad grade, the first of many more that can be seen. The mountainside is quite steep and it intrigued me that a railroad had crisscrossed it in so many places to reach stone that was obviously of value. There is plenty of stone visible on the surface with exposed gashes everywhere, but I had no idea of what I was looking at and what it all meant.

Someone had marked each 100th step with a permanent marker or paint. Not sure if this was meant to spur one on or be a cruel reminder on how many steps remained to be climbed, but by the time I reached step 600, my legs and cardio were really feeling the strain. To think that the quarrymen did this day-in and day-out before they even started their long and back-breaking work day was an eye-opener. Finally reached the last stone step, I looked down and it was marked 1037.

An earthen path, which was obviously another railroad grade went perpendicular to the steps. To the left, it extended slightly uphill and choose that direction as I was going to the top. A short walk on the grade led to a beautiful cut-stone building that is in remarkable shape. With a pit on the inside and cuts into the stone entrance measuring three feet apart, this had to be an engine house for the quarry railroad. I would have liked to study thus building better, but the sun was going down and wanted to be on the top for sunset, so moved on.

This former engine house is located about 700 feet up from the valley floor.

Inside the engine house built for narrow gauge locomotives.

The path hugged the hillside and offered several clear views into the valley below…one allowed me to watch a Norfolk Southern intermodal train pass through. A bit further on the trail stood a sign proclaiming “Mountaintop Quarry”. Seemingly at the top, based upon the great vantage, but later research would reveal that another quarry was a few more miles up the trail on the former roadbed. Nearby, was a piece of rail. It was light by railroad standards, maybe 40 lbs. per yard, presumably missed by the scrappers, but another piece of the puzzle.

While intrigued by what I had seen so far, I came to shoot the view and it was spectacular. Looking down at the Juniata River and Mapleton 800 feet below, the right of way of the former Pennsylvania Railroad mainline, now owned by the Norfolk Southern was the subject of my composition. The light was great and I just needed a train within the next 20 minutes or so before the light would give way to darkness. Luck was with me that day, as I didn’t have to wait more than five minutes before the sounds of a train working its way through the valley could be heard. The hills play tricks with one’s ears and I anxiously waited 7 to 8 minutes before the train appeared and entered Mapleton below.

A Norfolk Southern intermodal train passes eastbound through Mapleton, PA.


Several more trains came through after I shot the lead image.

I got my shot, but the view and light were so inspired that I stuck around to watch the last light leave the day. After photographing two more westbound trains, I packed up, took out my flashlight and retraced my steps back down. On the way, the stone engine house beckoned me to look around a bit more. Even in total darkness, this structure felt comforting and has the makings of a good place to spend an overnight on a winter hike. Making my way down the steps, several trains came through the valley and each one caused me to stop, turn off my flashlight, and absorb the familiar and comforting sounds before I continued.

The top step by flashlight.

With the historic former Pennsylvania Railroad mainline in the valley and an industrial narrow-gauge railroad on Jack’s Mountain, I got into my car determined to find out more about what was seen here.

To be continued…