By Scott Bowen, LFC Class of 2015
Leadership Frederick County selects a group of individuals each year to participate in a nine-month program exploring local issues, leadership development, and greater connectivity with all of that Frederick County offers. And, as we all know, the best way to start learning about Frederick County is to examine its past. We went to many sites on History Day but the Catoctin Furnace and its exposed framing and simple layout was especially appealing to me, an architect.
After driving around the City of Frederick we stopped at the Catoctin Furnace in Thurmont Maryland. The furnaces were used to produce pig iron, which was used to manufacture tools, wheels, cannons and cannonballs. The first furnace was built in 1776 and provided ammunition used in the Battle of Yorktown during the revolutionary war. Three furnaces were built in Thurmont and used for pig iron production from 1776 until 1903. Johnson, Isabella, and Deborah were the names given to each furnace. The remaining furnace, Isabella, was built in 1856. Deborah, the third and last furnace, was blown out in 1903. Isabella is the only one that remains becoming an historical example of early American industrial architecture.
Industrial architecture is typically designed with function in mind and the Catoctin Furnace, or Isabella, is no different. At one end of the structure is the furnace; a massive masonry chimney to capture and retain the heat required to produce pig iron. The rest of the building provides open space for the casting operation. The casting shed framing is simple but elegant with its modified mortise and tenon joinery. This joinery reflects on the utility nature of this structure much like modern wood trusses used today. An open cupola runs the length of the shed. This open cupola allowed the heat coming from the furnace to escape. Since the casting shed has one open side it would naturally draw air from that side and create a convective loop through the space. This would have an added benefit of generating air movement for the people working in the shed.
While I am certain at the time this structure was considered architecturally insignificant, today it tells a story of manufacturing, use of local materials, older construction techniques, and history of the people. Its use of natural stone, wood timber framing, and wood shingles and simple layout makes it a structure with timeless elegance. The Catoctin Furnace is a great example of industrial architectural history in the Frederick, Maryland.
When not participating with Leadership Frederick County, Scott Bowen owns a small architecture firm in Myersville, MD. Visit their website and accompanying blog which also discusses various architectural topics.