Musselman Vesta Hot Blast Furnace Office Building Restoration
Without question, it was the development of the Iron Industry-employing anthracite coal as fuel- that propelled the United States into a world power for many centuries; the vast iron and steel industry was born. The Iron Industry flourished in Lancaster County from the 1840s to the 1920s. The abundance of raw materials; iron ore, coal, and limestone, the courage of local business to risk investing in a new technology, the use of the Susquehanna River/Susquehanna Canal Tidewater and the Pennsylvania railroad made Lancaster County the “Pittsburgh of the East.” The eight “hot blast” anthracite coal fired blast furnaces along the Susquehanna River between Marietta and Columbia quenched the call for “pig iron.” The ever-expanding United States railroad system needed rail before and after the Civil War. The iron furnaces were maxed out trying to keep the iron flowing.
The Musselman Vesta Furnace was built in 1867 by Henry Musselman and Henry Watts of Marietta, PA. This furnace was the last of eight hot blast furnaces that lined the Susquehanna River flood basin between Marietta and Columbia. These furnaces use the newest “hot blast” technology brought to the United States from the nation of Wales. Using the exhausts gases of the furnace to heat fire brick lined stoves, the temperatures at the bosh of the furnaces could be raised. The Musselman Vesta Iron Furnace sits within the Chickies National Historic Places. This area was designated Historic recognition for the architectural, archaeological, and historic structures. The area covered 600 acres from the east end of Marietta to the Point Rock Tunnel along the Susquehanna River. Also included are the iron master’s homes along Route 441 and north to Route 23. Mrs. Margaret Landis wrote the proposals. She also wrote the proposals for the downtown of Marietta Historic Places designation. Mrs. Landis has been a great benefit to the community and the Vesta. She now serves as one of the historians for the Musselman/Vesta Iron Furnace Center.
Located at the east end of Marietta, on the Lancaster County Park and Recreation property, the Musselman/Vesta Office Building sat empty and neglected for many years after the furnace went out of blast in 1931. The building served as a residence and storage for a local business. After this building was abandoned. Windows and roof began to decay. The building became the home of pigeons and rodents.
In 2003, members of Rivertownes PA USA saw the opportunity to restore this historic structure. The aim was to use this structure as an educational center to tell the story of the iron industry in Lancaster County. With the permission of the Lancaster County Parks and Recreation, the restoration project started. Through Lancaster County grants, the Eater Foundation and donations from community individuals, the project took flight.
Under the leadership of Mrs. Margaret Landis and Mr. Leonard (Lenny) Droege, the restoration started. Mr. Leonard Droege has been the driving force behind the restoration project. Spending many hours supervising, conducting analysis of the paint, building, and structural features of the building, Lenny has made sure that all the restoration was as close to the original as possible. The Hammel Associates Architects, LLC were contacted to draw the mechanical, electrical, and building specifications.
The following are the restoration steps that were followed:
1. The slate roof was removed. The north dormer had fallen through the roof and was lying in the attic of the building. The south dormer was shored up until the window could be restored. The slate roof was replaced with a metal roof. The roofing material was recycled from another community project. At the replacing of the new slate roof, the metal panels were returned.
2. Once the roof was stabilized, the process of cleaning out the building started. Dressed in haz-mat suits, members filled 2 dumpsters of pigeon droppings, dead animals and debris.
3. The thirteen windows were covered with plywood. The plywood was painted to assimilate the panes of the windows. The plywood windows remained until the new frames and cornices were constructed.
4. The furnace office building sits in a flood plain. Over the years the basement and first floor have been flooded. The basement was cleaned out. Moisture barriers were installed, and a new gravel floor was laid down. The floor has now been bricked.
5. The flooring on the first floor was completely removed. A local couple had moved to a farm outside Marietta. In their renovation of the farm a small barn was to be torn down. The barn was built at the same time of the Musselman Vesta Furnace. Through their donation, the office building had new flooring on the first and second floors.
6. The interior horse hair plaster walls were removed. Before their removal, a paint color analysis was done. The wall color was retained on the new plaster walls. With the walls down to the studs, new electrical and lighting wiring and internet/video connections were installed. The HVAC ductwork was completed at this time.
7. The original doors were removed, taken apart and restored.
8. The window parts were found. There were enough parts found that new ones could be made by local restoration carpenters. During the paint analysis work, it was found that the wood had been grained by artisans at the construction of the building. Upon the installation of the window frames, doors and wainscoting, a local artist was contracted to wood grain the interior features. Old glass was found, cut to fit the panes and installed. Looking out the windows reminds us of the movement of glass over the years. The exterior shutters were made with period wood by a local carpenter. The hardware was fashioned after the original hinges, window pane locks, and sliding bolts.
9. The south dormer was restored and the north dormer was constructed to match. A new slate roof was installed. New gutters and downspouts were attached to the eaves. Exterior lighting was installed in the roof soffits.
10. The front door had a small roof providing shelter for the entrance. There were two cast brackets that supported this roof. The brackets had disappeared. A local gunsmith, using pictures of the original brackets, carved duplicate brackets that were used to make the molds for casting of new brackets. These brackets were powder coated and installed.
11. The building was of stone construction with a stucco finish. Over the years, the stucco had worn, cracked and fallen off in many locations. A contractor was brought in to refinish the exterior stucco work.
12. New HVAC was added to the building to provide heat and air conditioning for year-round use.
The four room (two up and two down) Musselman Vesta is now used as an educational center. The stories of the anthracite furnaces, the Pennsylvania Canal and Railroad, the operation of the “hot blast” furnaces are explored by visitors. A HO scale diorama of the furnace complex has been constructed using the Sanborn Insurance Map.
In the fall of 2018, the Dr. June Evans, Henry Clay Furnace Exhibit was dedicated. The exhibit contains many of the artifacts that were found at the furnace in 1988-1994. The excavation grids, Sanborn Insurance Map and photos document the Millersville University field schools. The exhibit is housed in a cabinet from the Marietta Billmeyer Jewelry Store.
Many people come through the doors marvel at the industry that lined the river less than a century ago. School classes, Boy Scout troops, local community organizations and home-school students have visited the Musselman Vesta Furnace Iron Center as part of their Pennsylvania and local history curriculum. The Iron Center is located along the new Lancaster County Northwest River Trail that connects Columbia and Bainbridge. Many bikers and walkers drop by to discover the wonders of iron furnaces belching smoke, find out why “pig iron” is called that, view the interactive HO scale diorama that depicts the Vesta Furnace during the 1920s, and tour the industrial ruins that made Lancaster County push the United States forward in the Industrial Revolution. Rivertownes PA USA is in the process of writing a docent guide and student handbook as part of the education program with a mini-grant from the Susquehanna Riverlands Mini-Grant Program. The newly restored Musselman Vesta Iron Furnace Center is open to the public seasonally.