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.


  1. Matthew Malkiewicz

    I had no idea about any of this!

    I’ve been to Mount Union a thousand times, with boots on the ground as far west on West Pennsylvania Ave to find the former location of the EBT railway station. Don’t ask why, but I never ventured down into the former PRR yard, where to the south the EBT supplied the two Harbison-Walker refractories. And I would have never believed that Mount Union was host to a second narrow gauge railroad, including its own engine house. I have seen the two bridge piers in the Juniata River, but never questioned what they were from.

    What are the odds that, during my next visit to the East Broad Top, I will park at the EBT railway station and hike west, looking for evidence of the EBT 3-rail track, remains of the refractories, engine house, and conveyors? I’d say quite good!

    Thank you for the enlightenment Eric…

    1. Eric Williams

      I thought I knew the story of Mount Union and what caused the demise of the EBT… but I didn’t know either it turned out. Digging into it was enlightening for sure! We tend to get hooked on the equipment, infrastructure and romance of the golden era of steam and forget that it existed for economic reasons.

      Franks book really goes into depth on the railroads of Mount Union and I would highly recommend that you get it as an aid in your exploration. If you find any evidence, please share it!

  2. Matthew Malkiewicz

    I still have questions, for this is such an amazing eye opener to me; given the amount of time I have spent at the East Broad Top since it’s 2011 closure.

    Here’s just one: what percentage of the total coal brought into Mount Union from Robertsdale went to the Harbison-Walker refractories as opposed to the quantity transferred to standard gauge hoppers and hauled out by the PRR? I’m sure tucked away in the EBT’s archives are the numbers, it would be fun to crunch them.

    From all the vintage photos I’ve seen of the EBT operation in Mount Union, I have not seen the 0-6-0 switchers moving hoppers at the refractories. I assume the coal came out of the washers, dumped back into narrow gauge cars, and pushed with the standard gauge locomotives to Harbison-Walker, but again never saw a single photograph of it. Eric have you?

    I hope you continue researching this topic, and somehow somewhere you are able to interview a former worker of H-W, or at least a relative who can share their stories (hint hint)…


    1. Eric Williams

      In the early days, the EBT coal went straight to the brick plants to be unloaded from their own narrow-gauge cars. I believe that after the coal washer was built, all EBT coal was routed through it for washing and sorting. With the EBT always short of coal cars, the preference was to load coal into standard-gauge PRR cars that the EBT switcher would deliver.

      Not only did Harbison-Walker receive coal, but so did the General Refractories Co and North American (NARCO). All three of these plants had dual-gauge rail that the EBT worked.

      With Harbison-Walker having the mineral rights on Jack’s Mountain, the other two companies had to bring in their own ganister and both did via the EBT. General Refractories got theirs from a quarry on the Shade Gap Branch, while NARCO had their very own branch to serve their quarry. The Carsens book, East Broad Top to the Mines and Back, covers the Narco Branch well, but it never meant anything until now!

      The brick plants were the economic life-line for the company between the coal and ganister traffic. Once these plants shut down, the EBT couldn’t replace these steady customers for their coal was just too un-economical. I would be very interested to see the actual numbers for on-line/interchange coal per year.

      I just went through my small collection of EBT books and don’t see a single photo of a delivery or pick-up at the plants, which is unbelievable. Now that I know what I’m looking at, I recognize the plants in the distance, but it seems that no one bothered to photograph the coal deliveries or the outgoing boxcars. I suppose it’s not that different today…most photographers concentrate on the mainline and you rarely see the local making a set-out.


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