By Mason Cooper and Bob Zimmerman © 1987
Issue: April, 1987
One of the earliest industries of the Shenandoah Valley, which has since disappeared, is iron production. Ore beds are located at various spots throughout the valley where operations were started nearby. These furnaces operated with charcoal technology. The last commercial furnace in the valley closed shortly before the First World War.
One such operation flourished along Stoney Creek which rises on the slope of Great North Mountain and flows eastward in the valley. At the town of Edinburg, Virginia, Stoney Creek flows into the Shenandoah River. Six miles west of Edinburg, Columbia Furnace was first established. Several miles further up the stream, Liberty Furnace was located. Both furnaces figured in the holdings of the Pennypacker family who were prominent in early valley iron operations. Columbia Furnace was originally constructed in 1803, with additional lands added until 1808. On October 10, 1808, the property was conveyed to another firm, the John Arthur & Company.
Liberty Furnace began operation much later in 1822, by Walter Newman who had married into the Pennypacker family. In 1842, due to failing health, he turned operations over to his son Benjamin Newman, who continued operations until 1874. One very interesting note: it has been documented that on August 4, 1865, President Andrew Johnson issued to B.P. Newman an executive clemency. The clemency was for supplying iron, from Liberty Furnace, that went into the reconditioning of the captured USS MERIMAC at Norfolk, which had been deliberately sunk by the Union forces, and was raised by the Confederates and converted into the Ironclad CCS VIRGINIA.
In 1874 both furnaces were sold to the Wissler family which continued operations until 1884. Control passed to the Columbia Liberty Iron Company, organized by a syndicate of Philadelphia interests. The Columbia Liberty Iron Company hauled a larger portion of its pig iron by wagon to the then Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in Edinburg. However, the wagon road was often impassable and the teamsters would often throw off the pigs of iron along the right of way to lighten the load. They were paid for how much they had when they left, not how much they ended up with. Due to losses the properties were never as profitable as expected. The Columbia Liberty Iron Co. was ordered to be sold by decree.
In 1891, the furnaces were purchased outright by Mr. H.H. Yard of Philadelphia. The name was changed to the Liberty Iron Company.
Mr. Yard instituted modern manufacturing processes at Liberty. Among the improvements was a narrow gauge railroad constructed from Edinburg to Liberty Furnace. The railroad never had its own name, but was generally known as Liberty Iron Company's railroad, or the "dinky" railroad. Mr. A.B. Clinedinst was hired as Superintendent of construction for the railroad. His salary was ten cents an hour. Each farmer was paid two hundred dollars a piece for a right of way across his property.
While construction was underway, an appeal to the purchase of the firm by Mr. Yard was made in U.S. District Court. The sale was nullified and the furnaces resold to the Pearson interests of Philadelphia. Thus began a difficult arrangement.
Mr. Yard owned the railroad, which now had halted construction about a half mile short of the furnace. The Pearsons owned Liberty Furnace and Columbia Furnace. Columbia Furnace never reopened. A receiver was appointed to run both properties by the Circuit Court of Shenandoah County. The area farmers realizing the asset of a railroad running through their properties pitched in and finished the railroad. The receiver then paid the farmers in goods from the company store. The transaction to transfer goods would be done on a receipt.
The railroad was awarded the postal contract and in addition to pig iron carried charcoal and bark for tanning. At Edinburg the railroad connected with the newly formed B & O line. A normal day's operation would find the railroad leaving Liberty Furnace early in the morning. Stops for freight and mail would be made at Columbia Furnace and at Lantz's Mill. Upon arrival in Edinburg, fireman Thomas Foltz would do double duty by helping to unload the cars. Engineer James Sine would deliver mail to the Post Office. The type of locomotive originally in service on the line is unknown. It was believed to be a small tank type engine. In the various photographs throughout this article, it is shown that there were four different locomotives. The train would leave Edinburg in the afternoon with flour, fertilizer, machinery for the furnace and merchandise for the company store.
In 1905 the combined properties were again sold, this time to northern and western interests. The company was reorganized as the Shenandoah Iron and Coal Company, which continued operations until 1907. The furnace then closed and the company was purchased by Joseph T. Jackson at a court sale.
Both furnaces had ceased operations, but Mr. Jackson was interested in transporting the large tracts of timber found on North Mountain. First step was the replacement of the early steam locomotive, with one suitable for lumbering. Mr. Jackson brought in a class A Shay, well known in lumbering circles. It may or may not have been Mr. Jackson's plan to extend the line over the mountain through Wolf's Gap. In any event, no such line was ever built.
Numerous ancillary industries had sprung up around the iron furnaces which continued operation. At a ridge called Three Mile Mountain, charcoal pits continued operation. The charcoal was shipped out to other valley furnaces still in operation. Another industry dependent on the railroad was bark peeling. Red Oak and Black Oak trees were peeled of their bark which was shipped out for use in tanneries. The rest of the tree was cut for ties or firewood. The bark was transported by the railroad to Edinburg where it was put into ricks 30 feet wide, 200 feet long, and 15 feet high. The ricks had a cone shaped roof to shed water.
Operations of the Shenandoah Iron & Coal Company's railroad continued without incident until March 2, 1911. On that morning the train left Liberty Furnace as usual and was crossing over Stony Creek when a span of the trestle gave way. The Shay overturned killing engineer James Sine, and injuring fireman Tom Foltz. The cause was traced to decayed bridge timbers. In a matter of days, both the locomotive and the bridge were repaired. Thomas Foltz was promoted to engineer and Seward Sine became fireman.
The railroad continued operations, but the arrival of hard surfaced roads to the area began to erode the railroad's traffic. Around 1917, the narrow gauge railroad ceased operation. The tracks remained in place until 1934 when they were taken up for scrap by the depot agent Gene Stoneburner. The farmers bought back their right of way for 25 dollars a piece. Disposition of the engines is unknown, supposedly all but the Shay were scrapped at Liberty Furnace, and the Shay was purchased by a man from Pittsburgh. By this time the rails had been taken up, so it could not be moved by rail. The highway department would not allow it to be moved on the road because of weight restrictions. But, one day the Shay was gone, taken out under the cover of darkness in the middle of the night.
What evidence remains today of the railroad? At Edinburg some roadbed can be seen in the vicinity of the wye, but all structures are gone, and just recently Southern Railway has dismantled their spur. In the area around Interstate 81, the roadbed has been destroyed; much of that area had been altered during construction.
On the west side of Interstate 81 the roadbed can again be seen, and Joe Miller tells us that where the railroad crossed 685, there was a trestle. Route 685 was lower at this point than it is today. Joe frequently played on the trestle as a kid, and would hide underneath as the train would pass overhead.
Between 685 and Lantz Mills, the roadbed is virtually gone, as this is farm land, and it appears that through the years the roadbed has been reclaimed by farmers. On the west side of Lantz Mills the roadbed can again be seen, and traced the entire length to Liberty Furnace. Between 679 and 682, the railroad traveled on the side of the ridge, gradually descending until it meets route 675. Stone support walls can be seen along this area to hold the roadbed along the hillside. Once it crossed over 675, it paralleled 675, gradually working its way toward Stony Run.
Before entering the area of Columbia Furnace, the roadbed crossed back over 675 again. At Columbia Furnace there was the second trestle on the line, and it appears to have been a relatively long trestle, negotiating the high ridge to the right, and eventually crossing Stony Run and 675. Immediately prior to the trestle, there might have been a siding. An engineering survey of the railroad shows a siding in red, possibly indicating that one was there or was planned for the future.
Between Columbia Furnace and Helsely's Store, the railroad is on the opposite side of Stony Run. It was at this trestle behind Hensely's Store that the fatal accident occurred. As can be seen from the photo, this was a large trestle. From the trestle until the roadbed crossed over 717, the roadbed follows 675, 717, at times right beside the highway. Once it crossed 717, the roadbed made a steady climb, crossing over Vann Trestle, and negotiating some steep terrain with an "S" turn which included a 28 degree turn, the sharpest on the railroad. The roadbed continues along the ridge, crossing back over 717, and into an area that required some extensive excavation work, as the roadbed goes through some deep cuts. It was in this area that we found a surprise. Under all the leaves, we noticed an unusual looking piece of wood, which turned out to be one of the railroad ties, which still had two spikes in it. Not exactly discovering the Titantic, but we got a thrill out of it. The railroad continued around the knoll and again crossed 717, traveled a bit and crossed over Laurel Run into the furnace area. There is some stonework there at Laurel Run where the railroad crossed.
The above article was printed in "High Iron", Winchester Chapter, National Railway Historical Society. It gave the following sources for text: Northern Virginia Daily, May 11, 1972; Shenandoah Herald, January 21, 1982; "A History of Shenandoah County" by John D. Wayland, 1927, Shenandoah Publishing House, Strasburg, VA. Any additional information or corrections to errors would be appreciated and may be submitted to:
Robert T. Reed, Historian
Winchester Chapter, NRHS
Rt. 1, Box 144
Winchester, VA 22601