The Ore of Montour
by Van Wagner 2007

The Industry

Danville is well known for its role in American Iron heritage.  The first T-rail made in America was rolled in Danville on Oct 8, 1845.  This was a significant feat as until that time, the Unites States was still dependant on important British Iron.  With Danville’s T-rail we truly became an independent nation.

Danville was a manufacturing center for many reasons.  The skilled workforce of iron workers was key. The central location on transportation arteries was essential as well.   Most importantly the natural ingredients for making iron were found here.  Danville has 2 iron ores, several beds of limestone, and nearby fuel sources.  The fuel sources were charcoal and anthracite coal.  Charcoal was made throughout the region by baking hardwood in earth cover mounds called hearths or pits.  As the demand for fuel became too great, local blast furnaces began converting to anthracite coal.  Most of this coal was shipped from the Wyoming valley about 40 miles northeast of Danville.

It was at the blast furnaces that iron ore was heated to about 2700 degrees F.  Limestone was added as a flux to collect impurities.  This flux would then float to the top of the liquid iron and could be drawn out and cooled.  This is where slag comes from.  It is hard to find a neighborhood in Danville that isn’t partially built upon slag dumps.

In anthracite furnaces, alternate layers of ore, coal and limestone were used. It required about three tons of ore to make a ton of pig iron. The furnaces were run continuously, being filled from the top as fast as the iron was drawn from the bottom. Casting was done twice a day. Each ton of pig iron required 3.25 tons of ore, 2.05 tons of coal and 1.59 tons of limestone.1
The first charcoal furnace was built by Eli Trego in 1837, near the crossing of the Reading railroad at Mill Street, Danville, and the first anthracite iron furnace in Montour county was built by Burt Patterson near the mouth of Roaring Creek, in Mayberry township, in 1839.1  Keep in mind that at the time there was no Montour County.  This area was part of Columbia County until May 3, 1850.1
The last furnace built in Montour county was the Chulasky furnace, on the line of Northumberland County, in 1846. Its capacity was 6,500 tons of soft gray forge iron per year. It was idle after 1893.1  It is unclear if the Chulasky Furnace continued using local ores from 1889-1893.  It is quite possible that it used imported ore as it was conveniently located on the canal as well as the railroad.1

The Ores
The discovery of iron ore in Columbia county dates back to 1822 by Robert Greene, a farm labored employed by Henry Young, of Hemlock township, while plowing a field near the end of Montour ridge, on the bank of Fishingcreek. He opened a drift and demonstrated the value of the vein. For twenty years the ore was mined and transported to the Esther and Penn furnaces, across the Susquehanna.1

The ores are of 2 varieties, a limestone /fossiliferous based ore called the “Danville ore” and a sandstone ore called the “block ore.”  The Danville ore was the most preferred as it was easier to mine, especially close to the outcrops where it had been naturally weathered, and because it had the highest iron content.9   The weathered form of this ore was often called “soft ore” as much of the calcium carbonate base had dissolved over millions of years leaving a naturally enriched iron ore.  Deeper in the ground, this ore was much harder and was often called “hard ore.” 8 It appears that the main factor determining the occurrence of hard verses soft ore was the location of the water table.  Under the water table the limestone ore remained almost unchanged, while above the water table much of the calcium carbonate was chemically broken down.3  The soft ore often contained 50-65% iron while the hard ore was between 25-40%. 8   The block ore varied in iron content but appeared to average around 30%.8  It varied in thickness with an average of 18-24 inches.8

The Danville ore occurred as several layers.  The number of layers varied in different locations but averaged three “splits.”  The bottom and top splits averaged 5-8 inches while the middle, often called the “buncombe” averaged 15-20 inches.  Between the beds there were 10-12 inches of slate and shale.8  This waste rock between the ore was removed and piled from floor to ceiling for roof support.  This was referred to as “gob.”4    This was an excellent roof support and results in very little modern day mine subsidence.4

There are occasional references and speculations of a third local ore called the “bird-eye” ore.  It is unclear exactly what this ore was and if it was found locally.  It was, however, mined to the West in Snyder County.  There is at least one mention of it outcropping near Chulasky but there is little evidence of major mining of this ore locally.8

How the ore was mined

Both ores were mined in various ways.  There were some surface works or pits in areas where the ores came near the surface.  This is called the “outcrop.”  However since most of the local ore is found underground, surface pits were not the norm.

To better understand the position of mines I will briefly explain the geology of Montour Ridge.  Most of our local rock beds were formed about between 300 and 400 million years ago from sediment.  The sediment from ancient oceans settled in vast flat beds.  Several of these beds were rich enough in iron to be considered ore.  About 270 million years ago the North American Continent was colliding with other crustal plates.  This collision caused the land to buckle creating the Appalachian mountains.  2

Picture a giant double-decker Oreo Cookie several miles wide.  The 2 cream filings would represent the iron ores.  Then imagine the cookie being squeezed together from the edges.  The end product would be an upside down U shaped ridge, called an anticline, similar to a rippled carpet or rug.  The ridge runs roughly south-west to North-East.  This is a rough, simplification of the rock layers in Montour Ridge.  What complicates the matter is that fact that over those 270 million years a lot of erosion and weathering has removed sections of the ridge.

In some cases the ore was naturally removed from ridge tops causing outcrops somewhere between the base and top of the ridge.  In other cases the ore is still completely intact up and over the ridge top.  The latter being the case for much of the Bloomsburg area.

For underground mining three methods were used.  Most common to the Danville area was the drift.  This would be a mine opening that drove horizontally into Montour ridge following the ore.  The main tunnel is the “gangway.”   From the gangway chutes would be driven up into the ore above the gangway.  Some drifts were located in ravines and gaps in the ridge, like Mahoning gap.  Here miners would find the side outcrop and drive into the ridge East or West following ore the entire way.  However due to the rarity of ideal gap locations, most drifts tunneled north or south into the base of the ridge through other rock beds until the ore was encountered.  The gangways would then be driven East and west.  The former was more desirable mainly because you would be mining ore from the start.  Another reason these were preferred was for safety.  Drifts that tunneled into other rock beds were more difficult to timber and support. 3

Another method of underground mining was the slope.  Slopes were typically found where the ores outcropped on the North and south sides of the ridge.  The slope would follow the ore bed down at whatever angle it descended into the earth.  In at least one local case, the Harding Slope in Frosty Valley, slopes were sunk through other rock beds until the encountered the ore beds (similar to rock tunnel drifts discussed previously).  It is not clear as to why some slopes were opened this way.  Perhaps this was done for surface land ownership reasons or to allow for the possibility to mine both ore beds from the same slope.  Slope mines required more capital in the way of equipment both for hoisting and for water pumping.

The most rare mine type locally was a shaft.  A shaft was a mine driven straight down into the earth until the ore was encountered.  Like the slope, this required a lot of investment capital for mine infrastructure.
Mines of each variety can be found all along the greater Montour Ridge.  The beds of ore extend from Bedford county to Lime Ridge, Pa.  Small mining communities are found throughout this mountain ridge examples include Buckhorn, Caseville, Mausdale, Chulasky, Winflied, New Berlin, Glen Iron, and Greenwood Furnace.  It was in the Danville area, however, that the majority of mining took place.8

In some cases the soft ore could be mined with no explosives, simply scraped and picked loose.8  In the deeper hard Danville ore and all of the Block ore, miners had to drill holes using a star bit rock drill driven by a sledge hammer.9  The drill holes were driven 3-4 feet deep.  They were then tamped with black powder.  Once detonated the ore would break loose and be loaded into mine buggies and pulled or pushed to the surface.8  In the mine called the “Monkey drift” each miner worked a breast about 24 feet wide.8  Breast miners averaged about 1 ton of ore per day.8  If you assume 1 ton is approximately 1 cubic yard, you can estimate the approximate drilling and blasting per day.4  In many of the local mines, the long-wall method of mining was used.  This was introduced my Mr. Daniel Edwards, former superintendent of the Montour Iron Company and later president of the Kingston Coal company.8   In long-wall mining all ore is removed as opposed to room and pillar mining where ore would be left in between breast to hold the roof.

Pay varied in the mines but an average of $1 per day was approximately what miners earned for breast work.  Gangway miners produced less tonnage per day but were still paid a similar rate.8  The gangway had to continue advancing to allow for breast advancement.  Because the gangways needed to be wide for mules, gangway miners were removing waste rock in addition to ore.  From 1875-1889 there are records of furnaces paying between $1.37-$2.50 per ton for various ores.8  This would serve as an approximation for what independent mines could sell their ore for.  Land owners on the other hands made considerable royalties when ore was mined beneath their land.  Royalties ranged from $0.25-$0.50 per ton (2240 lbs).8  Chulasky furnace, for example, produced 6500 tons of iron per year.1  That would require about 21,125 tons of ore.1  If royalties were paid to a land owner for that ore at $0.50 per ton it would equate to around $10,000.  Consider that this would be during a time when many Americans made less than $1 per day.

Mine timbers, or props, were used mainly in the soft Danville ore as the roof was less stable.  In the block ore and hard Danville ore few props were used as the gob was sufficient to hold the roof.8 and 6  In the larger company mines props were provided by the company while in smaller independent mines, miners had to provide their own props.9  The gangways were made 7-10 feet wide and 5-7 feet  high to allow room for mules to pull mine buggies.8  However the breast and chutes ranged 2-5 feet depending on how much ore (or how many splits) were mines.  If only the “buncome” of the Danville ore was mined, the area was only big enough for a miner to square his shoulders to drill and pick.8  Occasionally miners could measure logs to cut props using the distance between their elbow and finger tips.9

Locally, all mines appear to have closed permanently by 1889.  The most significant cause was the discovery of the Mesabi iron ore range around the Great Lakes region in 1887.   These ores were far superior to local ores.  The ore there being about 60% iron.7

The Miners

While men and boys of various ethnic groups worked underground in the Danville area, it was the Welsh Americans who played the largest role.4  The welsh immigrants had an advantage in that they often had mining experience in Wales that could be directly applied to local mines.

The life of a miner and his family was far from luxurious.   Miners were only paid when the mines were in production.  In addition most miners were paid by the tonnage they produced.  A rough estimate for income would be 1 dollar per day throughout much of the 1800’s.  Most miners worked long hours in dangerous conditions.  Miners long took a heavy toll on the lungs of men and boys as they breathed in tiny pieces of silicate dust.  Sandstone in particular is very similar to glass.  You can imagine what the glass-like dust did to human lungs.  Other dangers included roof falls, explosive accidents, equipment entanglement, mule accidents, and falling down steep mine workings.4  In one rare case a miner was killed underground when lightning struck the mine opening and followed the iron rail into the mine.4 There was no danger from explosive gas, such as methane found in coal mines, since there is no such gas found in iron ore deposits. 3

Miners used oil burning lamps and candles for elimination.  Some miners wore lamps on their hats while others used hand lamps or spikes driven into mine timbers on which a lamp or candle could be hung.5

In Frosty Valley the company would run a train out to the mining homes on Saturday night to bring families into Danville for shopping.  Most would then catch the return train while some stayed late in town to visit the taverns.  They would then have to walk home.4

It is hard to estimate exactly how much ore was mined over approximately 50 years in the Danville area.  Danville had over 2 dozen blast furnaces at it’s peak.10  It is safe to say that tens of thousands of tons of ore were consumed per year and surely much of that was mined locally.

When the mines closed in 1889 many miners moved to the coal region and continued working underground.  Others remained in the area and walked into Danville each day to work in the mills and factories.4

Although none of these miners are living today, they left behind a legacy of hard work, resourcefulness, and perseverance through hardships.  Were it not for the hard work and innovations of Danville iron Ore miners, there never would have been a Danville iron industry.  Danville would be a small farming village on the banks of the Susquehanna River.

1  The Morning Press, a Bloomsburg newspaper USE IS FOUND FOR LIFELESS IRON ORE ABUNDANT HERE February 22, 1938

2 USGS.  United States Geological survey.  Birth of Appalachian Mountains.

3  Van Wagner from personal underground mining experience and research.

4  Larry Mordan.  Danville Historian

5 Montgomery House Museum.  Danville PA

6 Danville’s Iron Past by David Newberry December 1951 Commonwealth magazine

7 The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. Copyright © 2001-05 Columbia University Press

8 Trans. of Am. Inst. of Mining Engineers V20 "Notes on the Iron ores of Danville PA..." 1892; H. H. Stoek, pgs 368-385.

9 Cy Kelly, grandson of Danville Iron Ore miner

10  Sis Hause  Danville historian

Click here to read an interview of Danville Ore Miner gradson, Cy Kelly