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    Catocin Furnace sign used for title

    Sometimes you stumble on fascinating road trips. We stumbled on one between the Antietam and Gettysburg Battlefields. The hour drive between the two battlefields passes through Catoctin Mountain Park in Maryland, a federal recreation area managed by the National Park Service.

    The map shows it is really two parks: the federal one on the north and contiguous Cunningham Falls State Park to the south. Further research yielded a reason the park is not so well-known; it's where they "hide" Camp David. Of course, Camp David can't be visited, but the curious can drive by the side road that leads to the president's retreat. While you won't be able to see Camp David you will be able to learn some interesting history on conservation and how cut-over forest and unproductive farm land ended up as a park. You'll learn there are lots of other parks around the country that share the same history.  

    The state park on the south provides the historical basis of the park: Catoctin Iron Furnace. Iron furnaces are an interesting part of American industrial history; they are scattered across the Mid-Atlantic States and many have their own engaging histories. Catoctin Furnace is one of those. It dates back to the American Revolution and contributed iron to that war. The furnace was fueled by charcoal and the timber to make the charcoal came from the forests on Catoctin Mountain. So forest history is part of the park's background.

    Catocin Furnace
    Catoctin Iron Furnace.

    The "Isabella" furnace, the second of three furnaces constructed at the site still stands and is in a well-maintained area with a trail that identifies interesting remnants of the old charcoal iron furnace community.  Near the furnace, portions of the old village that supported the furnace remain, and provide engaging background on how the iron-making community lived. Some local history claims that cannonballs used at Yorktown in the Revolutionary War were produced here, and that iron from the furnace was used to produce plates that were used on the USS Monitor in the Civil War. Both claims are unlikely, but the furnace was producing iron during both time periods, so the claims are in the realms of possibility.  That Catoctin Furnace's iron was used in the Revolution is well-established, but probably not in those cannonballs.  

    Remains of ironmasters mansion at Catocin Furnace
    Remains of the Ironmasters Mansion.

    The Catoctin Furnace trail invites visitors to "step back in time on this ¼ mile self-guided interpretative trail and catch a glimpse of the iron industry in Frederick County."  The trail includes the foundation of the ironmasters house and there is just enough left to show how impressive the manor must have been.  The ironmasters manor overlooked the furnace and the massive size indicated how important his positon was. In the nearby village, furnace laborers lived in single room houses (some of which still remain).  There is a slag pile (looking like very black rocks), as expected at an iron furnace (the by-products had to go somewhere).  Remains of the raceway and dam that supplied water to the waterwheel that powered the bellows for the furnace are along the trail. The trail includes two interesting bridges, Bowstring Arch Bridge that crosses Little Hunting Creek (built in 1872 and later moved to the trail), and a larger one that crosses the nearby US highway and leads into the state park.

    Truss bridge at Catocin Furnace
    Bowstring Arch Bridge along the trail; this is an
    early truss bridge that was moved to the site.

    There are interpretative signs related to the Civil War on the site. The furnace never stopped production during the Civil War and federal troops marched by the furnace on the way to Gettysburg and "according to local tradition, lost and disoriented soldiers from both sides making their way south after the Battle of Gettysburg were offered jobs here because of the chronic labor shortage."

    Catoctin Mountain Park is north of the state park and furnace. It is administered by the National Park Service. It is not a national park, but is run like one. It probably only exists because of Camp David. During the Great Depression one of the conservation/relief efforts was called the Land Utilization Program. Unproductive farmland that was not doing much more than causing soil erosion was purchased by the federal government and the farmers were moved to more productive farms. These lands were developed into conservation projects and eventually most were transferred to state ownership. Many of the projects became state parks and were first managed as recreational demonstration areas. This was Catoctin Recreational Demonstration Area under the program. President Roosevelt needed a place to spend parts of hot summers close to Washington, DC and chose a Camp Shangri-La in the recreational area. This became Camp David under President Eisenhower. The visitor center contains information on this part of New Deal history.

    The visitor center also contains history on the iron industry in the area and its impact on the surrounding forest.  Other displays center on the rural community that once existed here and other local industries (like moonshining and sawmilling). The park is full of hiking trails and high vistas. But some of the shorter trails relate to the themes in the visitor center. The Charcoal Trail illustrates the impact of the charcoal production industry on the forest and includes many of the sites a visitor would have seen on the forest in the nineteenth century. This trail has old charcoal hearths (charcoal production sites), stacks of billets (wood used in charcoal production), a collier hut (small shelters built by charcoal makers who had to live in the woods), and a replica of a wooden sled that was used to transport wood to the hearths.

    Wood sled at Catocin Furnace Wood used at Catocin Furnace Colliers hut at Catocin Furnace
    Wooden sled used to haul wood from the forest to the hearth. Small billets, four feet in length, would be cut and stacked in the forest to be later transported to the hearths. The wood would be transported to the hearth and unloaded from both sides so the collier could make a carefully arranged wood pile (called a charcoal pit) to be converted into charcoal. The frame of a collier's hut. The collier (charcoalmaker) would construct a temporary shelter in the forest near the charcoal pits so he would maintain a 24/7 watch over them. This frame would be covered with leaves and soil to provide protection against the elements.

    The Blue Blazes Whiskey Trail is 0.6 miles long and follows the Blue Blazes Run. Many stills operated in the area. This trail leads to an infamous one, of commercial size, that operated during the 1920s Prohibition Era. Farmers needed a cheap way to get their grain to market, and transporting whiskey was much easier than transporting the heavy grain.  Unlike the small stills a farmer might use, the Blue Blazes Whiskey Still was so large that it supplied Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC. There is information along the trail on raids that took place at local stills (including one that cost a deputy sheriff his life). A second trail leads to a water-powered sawmill. Visitors can get up close and see the mill mechanisms and logs about to be sawn. This is a park that provides some wonderful opportunities to explore a beautiful forest while learning about some local forest history. 

    Still at Catocin Furnace Sawmill at Catocin Furnace
    The still at the end of Blue Blazer Whiskey Trail. The sawmill was water-powered. The gears and other mechanisms of the sawmill show some fascinating engineering.

    The visitor center does an excellent job of tying the forest history together with the New Deal programs (like the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps) that established the park. It is the place to start a tour of the park as it puts much of this history into context.

    Visitor Center at Catocin Furnace
    A typical display in the visitor center that shows the charcoal making process

    Like Camp David that is hidden in the park, the park itself is a hidden jewel. We discovered it while traversing between Antietam and Gettysburg. It's a wonderful way to break up the trip between the two battlefields.


    Authors: Thomas J. Straka is a forestry professor at Clemson University in South Carolina. His wife, Patricia, is a consulting forester. Both have a keen interest in history.


    For more information:

    Catoctin Furnace History

    Cunningham Falls State Park – Catoctin Furnace

    National Park Service - Catoctin Mountain Park  

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    Public Disclosure-- Please Read
    I recently learned of a FTC law requiring web sites to let their readers know if any of the stories are "sponsored" or compensated.  American Roads and Global Highways' feature writers are professional travel writers. As such we are frequently invited on press trips, also called fam trips. Most of the articles here are results of these trips. On these trips most of our lodging, dining, admissions fees and often plane fare are covered by the city or firm hosting the trip. It is an opportunity to visit places we might not otherwise be able to visit and bring you a great story. However, no one tells us what to write about those places. All opinions are 100% those of the author of that feature column.  

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