Exploring Forgotten History: Catoctin Furnace and the African American Cemetery Trail

Most travelers on U.S. 15 don’t even know Catoctin Furnace exists. A country road cuts off from the highway north bound from Frederick, MD, just as it passes the base of the Catoctin Mountains. If you take it, the road leads to the site of a major iron industry that provided cannonballs to the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War.

Thomas Johnson, later Maryland’s first governor, and his brothers, wealthy landowners who enslaved hundreds of Black and African American individuals, founded the furnace in 1774. In fact, the Johnsons forced many of these enslaved individuals to work for the furnace. The community that grew up around the furnace flourished during the late 1800s, until the furnace closed in 1903.

Now this historic iron-working village is a great daytrip destination to learn about this once vital industry. Several historic buildings, as well as the iron furnace itself, are either restored or stabilized. In addition, visitors can walk the African American Cemetery Interpretive Trail, which leads a scant half mile from the furnace to the cemetery. Along the way, you’ll learn about the history of the industry and community.

Saving History

In the 1970s, a major expansion of U.S. 15 threatened to demolish the village and its historic sites. However, the local community successfully fought to save Catoctin Furnace. Out of that effort, the Catoctin Furnace Historical Society sprang up. Appropriately, the Society committed to remembering and documenting the history of the furnace and the surrounding community.

Now, Catoctin Furnace tells the story of a typical community, reflecting the span of the American Industrial Revolution. Like many other iron companies, Catoctin Furnace first relied on enslaved labor and then on European immigrants to cast both pig iron and iron implements, including cast iron stoves.

Most of the exhibits and information boards invoke African American history. Firstly, the interpretive trail leads to a forgotten cemetery where enslaved individuals (hopefully) rest in peace. Secondly, the museum discusses the furnace owners’ use of enslaved individuals as labor for the furnace and associated industries. And finally, information boards, including at the ruins of Catoctin Manor, invite readers to imagine the life of someone enslaved by the manor’s residents.

African American Cemetery Interpretive Trail

The highway expansion revealed a forgotten African American cemetery; archeologists excavated 35 graves. Sadly, only fieldstones marked the graves. In fact, archeologists discovered that many of the people buried there endured craniostenosis, a condition in which the spinal cord is compressed because of heavy labor.

The half-mile interpretive trail connects the manor house and furnace to the cemetery, located on private property. At the cemetery you’ll encounter a touching marker, “The Return of Names.” This marker urges you to read the 271 names of those the furnace owners enslaved, lest they be forgotten. Along the way, the trail’s information boards discuss the village, how to recognize remnants of the iron industry and the cemetery itself.

Museum of the Iron Worker

Opened a few years ago in a restored 200-year-old iron-worker house, the Museum of the Iron Worker offers artifacts from the village. The museum also documents the evolution of the labor force from enslaved people to European immigrants by the mid-1800s, and relates other information about the iron industry, village life and the region’s history. Before the remains from the African American cemetery were reinterred, forensic archeologists recreated the facial features of a teenage boy and a woman. The museum features these two recreations, which allow you to “meet” these two people, a focal point of the exhibits.

I found the concealed clothing exhibit fascinating. Apparently, owners of one of the houses the society restored used discarded old clothing to “insulate” the attic. Now the clothing offers a rare insight into the clothing iron workers and their families would have worn.

Visiting the village is almost like stepping back in history. In keeping with its mission, the historical society is preserving several historic buildings within the village of Catoctin Furnace itself. Across from the museum, a restored double-log house serves as the society’s headquarters. In addition, the society is also working to preserve the house next to the museum. In fact, as you walk down the road — be careful as you do as vehicles speed by — you’ll notice that most of the existing homes are the old housing built for the iron workers.

Know Before You Go

Catoctin Furnace is located about an hour north of Washington DC and Baltimore, respectively. It’s about 15 minutes north of Frederick MD and 30 minutes south of Gettysburg PA. Your best bet for parking is in front of the furnace. You should follow the interpretive trail, which is well marked, to the Museum of the Iron Worker.

Getting there: 12610 Catoctin Furnace Rd, Thurmont MD
Hours: Summers hours are Wednesday – Sunday, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.; otherwise, Saturdays and Sundays, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.
Website: Catoctin Furnace Historical Society and Catoctin Mountain National Park

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