Technology and Culture 41.4 (2000) 798-799
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Making Iron on the Bald Eagle: Roland Curtin's Ironworks and Workers' Community
Making Iron on the Bald Eagle: Roland Curtin's Ironworks and Workers' Community. By Gerald G. Eggert. University Park, Pa.: Penn State University Press, 1999. Pp. xvi+189; illustrations, figures, tables, appendixes, notes/references, bibliography, index. $22.50.
In Making Iron on the Bald Eagle Gerald G. Eggert has written about a deceptively simple topic: one family-owned and operated ironworks in central Pennsylvania, from its beginnings in 1810 through its demise in 1922. The story is seldom simple, however. True, there is little exceptional about the Curtin Ironworks, but that is part of the charm of Eggert's book. Built by an Irish immigrant in 1810, the forge and furnace thrived and suffered at various times. Eggert traces the ironworks' beginnings, growth, and operation, and as much of the business history as his sources allow. In the end, the sources are both the strength and weakness of the book. They include an impressive array of local manuscripts, among them papers and notebooks [End Page 798] of the furnace owners and some of the worker families. These are supplemented by interviews, federal documents, and the Curtin Ironworks Papers, held at nearby Pennsylvania State University. The problem is that the records, particularly those of the ironworks, have significant gaps, leaving the reader wishing for more information than they can yield.
Nonetheless, Eggert writes an interesting story. It is most interesting where it concerns those periods for which the records are most complete, particularly the late nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth. During this era of the age of steel, the Curtin works' owners tried to find a niche market for their charcoal iron. With investors from Philadelphia, and a market in Pittsburgh, for a time the furnace was again in blast. This section and the epilogue, which traces the development of the site into a historic park, are the book's most absorbing.
While Eggert describes the Curtin Ironworks as being of a type "common to the Juniata Iron district," he never substantiates this claim. A clearer delineation of the Juniata district would have helped place the Curtin works in context; so would more detail on how goods were transported to market. There are references to the Pennsylvania canal system, but its effect on the works is difficult to gauge. While Eggert mentions iron being shipped to Philadelphia, Harrisburg, and Baltimore, I would have liked to know how much went where. Similarly, while he mentions the coming of the railroad, he pays little attention to how it affected business at the ironworks, if at all. Additional maps would have helped place canals and railroads into focus.
Although Making Iron on the Bald Eagle is filled with interesting information about the ironworks and its employees, there is little new material here. Eggert frequently shifts from the 1820s to the 1850s within a single paragraph, as if there were little difference between these decades, something I found disconcerting. Perhaps he had so much trivial material available that he lost sight of the need to place the Curtin Ironworks in a larger context. It should be noted, however, that the aim of Pennsylvania State University Press's Keystone Books is to shed light on Pennsylvania's local history, surely a laudable cause and a niche that this book fills admirably.
Dr. Robb is an independent scholar who lives in Pittsburgh.
* Permission to reprint a review published here may be obtained only from the reviewer.