The Decline of Iron Smelting


Catoctin Furnace played a role in building the America for more than a century, but times change and iron smelting technology moved beyond what the furnace could do.

From making cannonballs that defended the Continental Army to making stoves that kept families warm in the winter, Catoctin Furnace in Frederick County, Maryland, had touched the lives of most Americans in ways they never imagined.

A New Furnace

Jacob Kunkel and his brother John ran the furnace until 1866 when Jacob sold his interest to John. John ran it until 1885.

He built “Deborah,” a 50-foot high anthracite coal and coke furnace about 140 feet south of Isabella, the other furnace on the site. It was a steam and water powered furnace with a daily capacity of 35 tons of pig iron. With Deborah and Isabella both producing coal, Catoctin Furnace’s annual output doubled to 1,200 tons a year.

Deborah was built it is believed in the site of the original furnace. Whereas, the previous two furnaces had been shorter rectangular structures, Deborah was cylindrical.

Building a Community

During the Kunkel years, Catoctin Furnace also became a community of grist mills, 80 houses for workers and a company store. The furnace employed 100 workers plus 300 woodchoppers and colliers. It included 11,000 acres. According to Frank Mentzer, the furnace hands at this time averaged about $3.72 a week because the work was not considered skilled work. (The Frederick News, April 1, 1972)

This was also a prosperous time for business. The ore banks were extended to accommodate the additional production.

The Catoctin Mountain Iron Company

When John Kunkel died in 1885, his children organized the Catoctin Iron Company. This only lasted until 1887 when the operation closed and went into receivership. The receivers operated the furnace for a year when Catoctin Mountain Iron Company was formed. The operation output 30 tons of pig iron a day and lasted until 1892 when the falling price of iron made it unprofitable.

The Blue Mountain Iron and Steel Company

The Blue Mountain Iron and Steel Company bought the operation in 1899 and began making pig iron the next year. The output was 40 tons a day and lasted until 1903.

Joseph Thropp bought the operation in 1906 for $51,135. He dismantled the iron works but continued the mining operations. The ore was shipped to his furnaces in Pennsylvania to be smelted.

Lancelot Jacques and a Mr. Hauver bought the property in 1923. He sold the property off in tracts.

President Herbert Hoover’s secretary Lawrence Richey bought one in 1929 and the president occasionally camped on the grounds until the land became a federal park during the Great Depression in 1937. The National Park Service turned over 4,500 acres to the Maryland Park System in 1954.

The furnace today

Not much remains today of Catoctin Furnace, but what there is can be seen near Cunningham Falls State Park south of Thurmont.

Of the three furnaces, only Isabella remains, but you can walk inside the casting shed and look at where the fires once burned.

The remnants of the ironmaster’s mansion sit nearby, though it no longer overlooks the furnace. Some of the stone walls and fireplaces remain to give visitors and idea of how large the mansion used to be.

You can also walk on a self-guided trail that will take you between slag heaps that are now covered over with dirt and grass.