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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.

Return To The East Broad Top

They say you can’t go back. But, who ever said that wasn’t thinking as a photographer.

Going back to a place or subject that you have previously visited is the best way to look differently and add depth to your project.

In the initial visit, you see and interpret your subject in broad strokes, to borrow a painting term. More often than we realize, what we see is based upon our preconceived notions of what we think is there. In our mind, we have already composed and taken these shots. These pre-conceived images can be thought of as the compulsories; the obvious ones. We all take them, and probably need to in order to get them out of our system. Once we get past these obvious ones, then we can really explore the subject deeper on our own terms.

So, when Matthew Malkiewicz asked me if I would be interested in going back to the East Broad Top shop complex as part of a small photo event he was organizing, I didn’t hesitate to say yes! While I’ve been there a handful of times within the past few years, each visit allows me to see something that I previously didn’t.

Keeping the Water On at Horseshoe Curve

Back in the days of steam power, hard working boilers needed a constant and ready supply of water. Water tanks were located along the right of way where the railroad determined they would be needed and convenient. One such water tank was actually located on Horseshoe Curve, adjacent to the long-gone Kittanning Point station on the east end of the curve. That tank is just one component of a large system that fed water to thirsty locomotives climbing the East Slope. However, the tank itself needed a steady supply of water and it was delivered from a holding reservoir that I recently visited.

Gravity is the most efficient way to move water and the Pennsylvania Railroad built a dam and reservoir system on the east slope of the Alleghany Ridge to supply tanks on that side of the mountain. A dam was constructed near the Portage Railroad Historical site which diverted water to a holding reservoir near where the present MG Tower stands, a distance of about 5 miles. This reservoir is located about 150 yards off the roadbed and was built around 1906. From it, water flowed down grade about 2 miles into the tank at Kittanning Point.

On the east end of Horseshoe Curve stood a coaling and water station for servicing locomotives heading both directions on the mountain. The water spouts split both sets of tracks and can be turned to serve either. The overhead structure with what appears to be water spouts are actually coal chutes. In the distance is the Kittanning Point Station built to allow tourists to visit Horseshoe Curve. Photo from the collection of William “Bill” E. Burket

PRR Kittanning Point Holding Reservoir Drawing (1906)

A Look Back at the Curve

Atop Kittanning Point, one can take in the beauty of the Alleghany Mountains and envision the physical challenges this land presented to early travel and commerce across Pennsylvania.

From my vantage, I can see Logan Valley in the distance, the last relatively flat geographical feature the Pennsylvania Railroad could follow on its journey west from Harrisburg. With the easy terrain behind, the railroad now faced the Alleghany Front, rising 1000 vertical feet above the valley. These steep mountains had been a barrier for centuries as there are no natural water gaps through them, forcing the Indians to find a path that climbed over the mountains. Before me, there is an opening into the Front with a gradual climb that the Indians had established as a trail, which started in the Logan valley and passed through here. The railroad surveyors liked it as well and decided that this is where the railroad would begin its ascent of the Alleghenies. Before starting on what would be the most difficult construction of the line, the railroad established a base of operations at the foot of the hill. That would be the company town of Altoona, which now fills a good part of the far valley before me.

A diesel exhaust plume rises over Wikes Curve, a tell-tale sign that a train is making the assault on ‘the mountain’, the name giving this division by the railroaders that operate it. The train is three miles away and the foliage is thick, but I can easily follow its journey up the valley as the white diesel smoke reaches way above the treetops. The train disappears for a few minutes behind a hill and then reappears at a Millers Curve, about a mile closer to me. Headlights are now clearly visible and the exhaust plume seems to rise even higher from the protesting locomotives. A long line of freight cars follows and a second set of blueish white plumes round the curve indicating that rear pushers are straining against the weight of the train. Hidden once again by foliage, the train is not seen, but the intensifying rumble tells me it’s position as it grinds uphill. One last major curve, Scotch Run, changes the train’s direction and it is now making a final run towards Kittanning Point. It will travel another mile and a half before it gets close enough for me to make out the locomotive and car features, and by that time will fill the valley with thunder.

The Lingering Image

I’ve learned over the years not to pass up a potential image. That ‘thing’ that caught your eye will reside in your imagination like an unsolved mystery for a long time. Your eye saw something and the mind needs to resolve any doubt about whether you missed a great image. More often than not, that seen image doesn’t pan out, but if you don’t go back, you won’t know. Going back in the moment is ideal, but sometimes it takes longer.

The lead image above lingered in my mind a long time after I ‘saw’ it.

This story starts in the exploration of the Coles Station Water Tank that I wrote about here. When I finished photographing the tank, I packed up and set off on my journey home. Cruising east on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, my mind wandered through the day’s exploration and photography. Then it hit me…that image that I saw, but didn’t make! It was getting dark, I was tired, and knew that going back was not going to work out that evening. But the image lingered and I vowed to return.

The Coles Station Water Tank

The East Broad Top Railroad has been a treasury of industrial heritage as well as a wonderful photographic subject to me for years. While officially abandoned in 1956, a good portion of its infrastructure exists and I’m constantly surprised as I learn more about the railroad. Not long ago, Matthew Malkiewicz clued me in on a water tank still standing on the line and I put it on my list to explore and photograph.

From my research, I knew that the Coles Station water tank is located within thick woods so I wanted to seek it out during the winter months, when the leaves are down and the light is soft and diffused. A free weekend gifted me the time and off I went in search of the tank. Driving west beyond Orbisonia, I was surprised at just how much of the railroad was not only visible, but also seemingly ready to host a train. The rails were left in place when the line was abandoned 60 years ago and for the most part, have remained untouched. Seeing rail laid 36” apart through the hollows and mountains of Pennsylvania made me nostalgic for what I had missed but also made me grateful for what remained.

Left Behind in Elizabeth – The Singer Manufacturing Company, Part 1

This past November, my daughter and I found ourselves in Elizabeth, NJ searching for a soccer field, and I quickly discovered that although it’s just a few miles from my suburban home of 18 years, I knew almost nothing about the area. Passing through streets along the waterfront, I saw beautiful 19th and 20th century factory buildings that had signs of past glory, but were now generations removed from their original purpose. One such building caught my attention due to its immense size and architectural style, which intrigued me enough to seek its past once I got home.

It didn’t take much searching on the web to uncover that the building that peaked my interest was once the Singer complex, formally called the Elizabethport Works of the Singer Manufacturing Company. Having outgrown its New York City facility due to the success of their patented sewing machines, Singer sought a suitable site to start a new factory and found it across the harbor in Elizabeth. Ideally situated on the water and adjacent to the Central Railroad of New Jersey mainline, construction started in 1873 on the first buildings.