Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Builders and contractors in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries prized brownstone as one of the best and most versatile masonry materials in the United States. Whether used for curbing, windowsills,steps, lintels, stoops, foundations, and tombstones, or to grace the finest mansions as intricately carved statues or coping, brownstone filled the bill. Eminent American architects Henry Hobson Richardson, Frank Furness, and Louis Sullivan favored the unusually colored stone and in so doing produced some of the finest examples of Beaux Arts, Queen Anne, Neo-Gothic, Greek Revival, Eclectic, Italianate, and Romanesque buildings and structures of the Victorian period. Mansions, row houses, schools, banks, churches, post offices, and courthouses all benefited from the incorporation of brownstone. Its usebecame so widespread that the thirty-year period from 1875 to 1905 is often called the Brownstone Age. Its appeal and popularity were not lost on novelist and designer Edith Wharton, who wrote in The Age of Innocence (1920) that brownstone, with its “uniform hue, coated New York like a cold chocolate sauce.”

A band of Triassic sandstone snakes through the Appalachian Mountains from New England to the Carolinas along which brownstone quarries sprang to life wherever shallow outcroppings occurred to make it easily accessible. Pennsylvania claimed a fair share of this fine quality stone and the quarries to extract it, but only one brownstone became widely known throughout the Commonwealth and the states beyond. Two miles south of Hummelstown in Derry Township, Dauphin County, German settlers began what was to become Pennsylvania’s premiere brownstone endeavor that contributed greatly to the American building arts.

In 1800, John Berst built a handsome brownstone dwelling on his tract of land, Rapho, on the south side of the South Mountain. Adjacent to the house the Berst family laid out a stonewalled family cemetery and erected various outbuildings and dependencies with brownstone foundations. They primarily farmed the land but quarried stone for their own use, as well as for others as the need arose. In the 1850s, the Bersts provided brownstone for the enlargement of locks on the Union Canal and for bridges on the new Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, bringing brownstone to the attention of architects, engineers, and builders in nearby Harrisburg. The family’s emphasis on farming eventually shifted to quarrying, and in 1863 Daniel Wilt and Henry Brown of Harrisburg leased more land from John Berst’s grandson, David, for the sole purpose of quarrying stone.

Originally chartered as the Pennsylvania Brown Free Stone Company, the venture encountered a number of difficulties during its first three years until Louis Brown and brothers Jacob and Lewis Haehnlen, three Philadelphia entrepreneurs, purchased the business. Their first concern was finding an individual capable of supervising such an operation, and they turned to Allen Walton, brother-in-law to the Haehnlen brothers.

Born in Chester County to Quaker parents and raised in Philadelphia, Allen Walton had worked as a machinist. Before assuming duties at Hummelstown, he visited brownstone quarries at Newark, New Jersey, to learn as much as he could. During his superintendence of the pits, technical improvements served the company well, but the Panic of 1873 brought the company to its knees. Sold at sheriff’s sale in 1875, it was bought by Walton, and under his leadership and that of his sons, Allen K. and Robert J., the firm began to prosper. In 1891, Walton reorganized the company and chartered it as the Hummelstown Brownstone Company. During its most productive years, the company employed more than 600 workers, a considerable private business venture for the close of the nineteenth century.

Walton and his sons recognized the characteristics and quality of various brownstones differed greatly. A sandstone, brownstone is given its particular hues by the amount of iron oxides present. Elements such as feldspar, aluminum, or manganese give the stone a purple, pink, or bluish cast. The Hummelstown Brownstone Company numbered its five pits in the order in which they were opened. The adjacent first and third quarries yielded stone of a purplish hue known for its hardness, and sometimes called “purple brownstone” by workers. Because of its hardness, it was often used where strength was critical such as for sills, lintels, jambs, steps,and foundations. The stone quarried in pit number two was somewhat rosy-pink, while the stone excavated in quarry number five was slightly blue in color and the hardest of all. Because of its extreme hardness, this stone was seldom quarried and the resulting pit was so small that it was later obliterated by a housing development. The most popular stone came from quarry number four; its deep, rich, chocolate brown color was popular with architects, builders, and clients. Regardless of the fact that the company opened this pit late in its history, by 1888 it had become the largest of the five, measuring 1,300 feet long, 720 feet wide, and 200 feet deep.

The Waltons also understood the strength and durability of brownstone differed greatly. In 1912, Heinrich Ries noted the crushing strength of Hummelstown’s brownstone at 14,750 pounds per square inch, exceeding sixteen other sandstones on his list. Only brownstone quarried in New York at Medina and Warsaw ranked higher. One fact is certain, though: the consistent hardness and durability of Hummelstown’s brownstone made it among the best. Although noted for its impermeability, Hummelstown brownstone is not as hard and durable as granite and most marbles, but it possesses a distinct advantage. Its lines of cleavage are not as pronounced as they are in most stones and, as a result, it can be carved or worked freely in any direction, making it extremely popular with masons and sculptors who called it a “free stone.”

The outstanding durability and coloration of Hummelstown brownstone made it a preferred building material during the second half of the nineteenth century. Prominent Philadelphia architects endorsed the product, including Furness, who used it boldly in his eclectic masterpiece, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; George Hewitt, who clad the lower stories of the Philadelphia Bourse with it; and Addison Hutton, who used it in buildings on the campus of Lehigh University in Bethlehem and the Pennsylvania State Lunatic Hospital, renamed Harrisburg State Hospital in 1921. John A. Dempwolf, of York, a talented southcentral Pennsylvania architect, selected it for buildings at Gettysburg College, the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, and in York and surrounding communities.

Similar to all sandstones, brownstone is somewhat porous and can absorb considerable amounts of water, forcing the company to suspend quarrying during the winter months because freezing temperatures rendered it brittle, and apt to crack easily. Walton’s earliest improvements included flooring and enclosing the sawmill to prevent temperatures from dipping below the freezing point, which had hampered the sawing process. To supply the mill with saw blocks through the winter, company workers excavated huge pits, which they lined with straw. They then lowered saw blocks into these pits and covered them with thick layers of manure, straw, and dirt to insulate them. During the coldest months, they also stripped the quarries of usable scrap, as long as the weather permitted.

As spring approached, the quarries sprang to life and laborers scrambled to extract as much stone as possible. Local men, newly arrived immigrants, and African Americans provided most of the work force in the quarries. This polyglot assembly posed difficulty in communication for the company, which designated non-English-speaking, eastern European workers as “Hungarian” and assigned each a number.

Whenever possible, workers excavated the stone without blasting, which tended to fracture it. If natural fissures were present, quarrymen inserted long, steel bars into them to pry the stone loose. Using Ingersol Rock Drills, laborers drilled stone lacking fissures with a series of holes into which they inserted small steel wedges called feathers, after which they drove steel bars into the holes with sledges to force the rock apart. Should blasting be necessary, workers drilled holes and lightly charged them with black powder, which they ignited to loosen the rock. Large rocks were then hoisted to scabbling banks and roughly squared with an adz-shaped tool or a thick, heavy hammer called a scabbling hammer. Workers hauled the resulting rough monoliths, called saw blocks, to the sawmill for further processing. During its peak years of production, quarry number four presented an especially awesome sight. The company carved rail lines into the walls of the quarry on which it ran flatbed cars to transport the stone to the sawmill. Gigantic steam-powered cranes with huge booms hoisted cut rock from one level to another.

Unlike most quarrying operations, the Hummelstown Brownstone Company processed the stone that it quarried. Its sawmill, measuring 52 feet wide and 165 feet long, housed twelve enormous saw frames. The saw block was placed on a bed and rolled under the frame of the saw that contained a number of soft iron blades. As the saw moved back and forth in its slowly deepening groove, sharp sand and water were fed into the saw kerf, cutting the stone and cooling the blade. The resulting shapes could be used for steps, sills, lintels, and jambs, or they were sent on to the stonecutters’ shed where they were transformed into columns on huge lathes or sculpted into wonderful shapes by the hands of skilled stonecutters. The stonecutter often worked from a plaster model that gave him a good idea as to the finished line of the object. The Hummelstown Area Historical Society owns one of the models used to fashion griffins adorning the entrance of Wilkes-Barre City Hall.

Under the Walton family’s leadership, the company stratified its work force by both skill and salary. Water boys and stable hands held the lowest-paying jobs, subordinate only to the unskilled laborers who worked in the deep pits. Operators of saws, lathes, and similar machinery faired better. The highest paid and most influential workers were the skilled stonecutters from the ranks of immigrant Scots, English, Welsh, Germans, and Italians — and the only group that ever tried to unionize. The constant influx of cheap labor arriving in the United States, however, doomed the stonecutters’ attempt. Many itinerant stonecutters traveled from area to area, and from state to state, in search of the best jobs at the highest wages.

Frequent accidents in the enormous pits kept the company doctor busy mending injured laborers. The company experienced its worst accident in December 1887 when, after considerable rainfall, the north rim of quarry number one broke free and caused a landslide, killing three employees, John Bricker, John Montpiere, and “Hungarian Number 64.”

Many workers lived in the company town of Waltonville, similar to many industrial towns throughout the United States during the Industrial Revolution. Located near the pits, Waltonville, just southeast of Hummelstown, claimed a company store, post office, dwellings, and a boarding house that accommodated a number of the itinerant workers and visitors. Buoyed by the company’s prosperity, Waltonville boasted three stores, four butcher shops, and two bakeries by 1888. Although many Protestants worshiped in churches in Hummelstown and nearby communities, Roman Catholics lacked a house of worship until the Diocese of Harrisburg established St. Lucy’s Chapel in Waltonville.

Transporting the stone was problematic. In the early years, teamsters hauled the stone over the steep grade of the South Mountain to the sawmill in Hummelstown. Wagon breakdowns, muddy roads, and sick mules and horses conspired to make the arduous journey even more difficult. The Union Canal was the primary artery from Hummelstown to other points, but low water levels and lack of docks plagued transportation and delivery, not infrequently thwarting a sale. The completion of the Reading Railroad improved things greatly.

In 1885, Allen Walton built a standard gauge railroad, the Brownstone and Middletown Railroad, that connected the pits to the tracks of the Reading Railroad at the east end of the community. At this time the sawmill was relocated from Hummelstown to the quarries making the entire process more efficient by centralizing quarrying and dressing operations. The increased production was noted by The Hummelstown Sun, a weekly newspaper. On June 26, 1885, the Sun announced the company shipped sixty carloads of stone weekly; by July 15, 1887, the newspaper reported the number had climbed to forty carloads a day. In addition to hauling stone, the railroad ran passenger cars to transport workers and visitors.

The Waltons marketed their brownstone for a myriad of purposes and projects. For utilitarian purposes, it served well as a foundation material. Both the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, erected in 1876, and the Blair Building in Huntingdon, built in 1889, were set on solid beds of brownstone. Masons gouged the brownstone facing of the Pennsylvania Academy to give it a muscular, sinewy appearance, while the cant of the Blair Building’s foundation gave it a mass that more than compensates for the height of the building. Cutters also shaped sills, lintels, steps, and jambs in brownstone. The lintels of the Edwin A. Rowley House on Millionaires Row (Fourth Street) in Williamsport, designed by Eber Culver (1824–1911), are as unusual as they are graceful in their execution.

In addition to public, commercial, and residential buildings, structures such as bridges were often built of brownstone. One of the oldest railroad bridges in the country, located in Hummelstown, was built entirely of the stone. In 1889, the building of the People’s Bridge — now known as the Walnut Street Bridge — to span the Susquehanna River and link Harrisburg, via City Island, with Wormleysburg was interrupted by catastrophic flooding that also devastated Johnstown in Cambria County to the west. The builder scrambled to acquire material to complete the job and used Hummelstown brownstone for the piers for the section from Harrisburg to City Island. The destruction of bridges in the Commonwealth by flooding in 1889 was so great that as late as 1900 the Hummelstown Brownstone Company employed forty stonecutters — out of one hundred — to work exclusively at dressing bridge stones.

As a trim material and decorative element, brownstone proved to be way. Baked portraits in brick at each corner repeat the color of the red brick walls.

Brownstone trim gave buildings and structures a distinctive appearance, but the most spectacular use of it was as a primary building material — attested to a plethora of churches throughout the Keystone State. These magnificent buildings include the Presbyterian Church in Brookville, Jefferson County, Calvary Presbyterian Church in Indiana, Indiana County, United Church of Christ, Hummelstown, St. Ann’s used for private residences of the nineteenth century.

Although builders used brownstone widely in Pennsylvania, it did make inroads into other states from Watertown, New York, south to Tampa, Florida, and as far west as Chicago and St. Louis. The Barbour County Courthouse in Philippi, West Virginia, is perhaps the finest example of the stone used for a governmental building, and a collection of Queen Anne style – row houses on West Franklin Street in Richmond, Virginia, shows how elegant a row house can be. John D. Rockefeller favored it for his Standard Oil Building in Cleveland, Ohio. Many buildings constructed of Hummelstown brownstone are increasingly being identified as worthy of listing in the National Register of Historic Places, and many are contained in districts designated as historic by the federal program.

In 1905, the Waltons attempted to diversify by using the byproduct of stone tailings, or scrap, and erected a sand-lime brick plant. The production of sand-lime bricks began in Potsdam, Germany, about 1820 and had been introduced to the United States in 1855. Sand-lime bricks differ considerably from clay bricks in that they are made by bonding sand (in this case made from the crushed brownstone) and lime under tremendous pressure and heat. The availability of limestone several miles away in the Lebanon Valley — that once helped build and sustain the region’s earlier iron industry — made such a product a natural choice for the Waltons. When the plant was completed in October, it burned to the ground after its first full day of production. The Waltons marshaled their resources and their second brick plant began production in February 1907. Unfortunately for the Walton family and its employees, the bricks never became popular. Allen K. Walton used much of his personal funds to support the venture, but inconsistent quality, limited choice of color, and the high cost of production brought production to an end in 1927.

In 1910, just five years after launching their experiment in the production of bricks, the Waltons saw brownstone sales begin to sag. To halt the decline, they engaged J. Horace McFarland of the Mount Pleasant Press in Harrisburg to print a handsome 48-page advertising booklet that described the company’s quarrying operations and touted the quality and versatility of the stone. The booklet featured superb photographs of the pits taken by McFarland, an accomplished photographer, as well as numerous images of buildings built wholly or partly of the stone. The booklet also listed more than 400 structures that contained Hummelstown brownstone.

Despite their valiant efforts, the Waltons could not stave off the final blow. In addition to closing the brick plant, they also halted quarrying operations in 1927. The sawmill and the stonecutters’ shed remained in operation for only two more years. The company limped along, basically reclaiming quarried stone in the yard and around the pits. The Wall Street Crash of 1929, which began Tuesday, October 29, delivered the coups de grace, and the business officially closed two months after “Black Tuesday,” in December 1929. Although transportation of passengers and goods had ceased earlier, the Brownstone and Middletown Railroad held on a bit longer, as much equipment and stock remained to be sold.

A number of factors rang the pro-verbial death knell for the Hummelstown Brownstone Company, but two are most apparent. Most telling was the fact that the consumer — architect, builder, client — began preferring stone lighter in color. Almost equally damaging was the fact that urban skylines were going up, and brownstone was not among the best materials for high-rise construction. The North American Telephone Company Building at Sansom and Broad Streets in Philadelphia is one of the few examples of a Hummelstown brownstone skyscraper.

Erected in 1911, its twenty-one stories made it the tallest building in the city at the time.

Today, little survives of the Hummelstown Brownstone Company to indicate the scope and scale of its operation. Ruins of the second brick plant are all that remain of buildings and structures. Woods have reclaimed the area surrounding the quarries. A residential development covers many of the one thousand acres originally owned by the company. Few residents, much less the public, possess any concept as to what the nearly 4,364,000 cubic yards of stone extracted from the pits created — or understand the contribution that brownstone made to building America. To record the impact of the long-vanished company on American architecture, engineering, and building, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) recommended the site to the U.S. Department of the Interior for placement on the National Register of Historic Places. The Interior Department added the quarries of the Hummelstown Brownstone Company to the National Register in 2003. In 2005, the PHMC installed a state historical marker at the site to commemorate Hummelstown brownstone’s importance to literally helping build the Commonwealth and the nation, block by block.


Travel Tips

Although many buildings and structures built of or ornamented with Hummelstown brownstone are no longer extant — the sandstone is durable but not impervious to deterioration — Pennsylvania communities claim quite a few stellar examples. Visit cities and towns largely built during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and you’re bound to discover some of the most unusual uses of this world-acclaimed brownstone that was quarried in Dauphin County from 1865 to the late 1920s.

Most of the larger edifices built of Hummelstown brownstone included public buildings, such as churches, courthouses, banks, schools, and hospitals. In Jim Thorpe, the Carbon County Courthouse is a stunning example that anchors historic Broadway, renowned as Millionaire’s Row for the number of affluent families who lived along the historic thoroughfare, today a popular destination for travelers. Several other counties possess courthouses also built of or decorated with Hummelstown brownstone, among them Columbia County (Bloomsburg) and Cameron County (Emporium).

Architects selected brownstone for their ecclesiastical buildings, many of which stand not only as testimony to the congregation’s sizeable coffers, but also as a cherished community landmark. These buildings include Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church in Allentown, St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Carlisle, Salem Lutheran Church in Lebanon, Methodist Episcopal Church in Millersburg, Congregational Church in Shamokin, Zion’s Reformed Church in Spring Grove, and the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Williamsport. Other religious buildings in Pennsylvania are the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg and the Brua Memorial Chapel on the nearby campus of Gettysburg College, now an arts center.

Because they wanted their banking houses to convey impressiveness and permanence, a number of financial institutions directed that their buildings be faced with brownstone, including the Central Trust Company, Altoona, County National Bank, Clearfield, First National Bank, Delta, People’s Bank, Hanover, Juniata Valley National Bank, Mifflintown, First National Bank, Minersville, and the Union Bank, Huntingdon. Contractors clad hotels in Hummelstown brownstone and among those that still stand (even though they may no longer accommodate travelers) are Pottsville’s Park Hotel and York’s Colonial Hotel.

Perhaps the most exuberant use of the unusually colored sandstone was in residential commissions. Architects and building contractors often specified Hummelstown brownstone for commodious houses they designed and built for wealthy clients. Several outstanding Vicftorian era residences recall for today’s passersby the sheer extravagance of the Gilded Age. These opulent houses, some of which remain private residences, grace numerous communities in the Keystone State, such as dwellings originally built for Governor Daniel F. Hastings and Colonel W. F. Reynolds, both in Bellefonte, James Thomas in Catasauqua, C. H. Notter in DuBois, Adolph Kurtze in Erie, William Rodearmel in Harrisburg, C. A. Godcharles in Milton, E. C. Powell in Ridgway, and T. S. Clarke in Williamsport.

The search for Hummelstown brownstone — a veritable building block of both state and nation — is a perfect reason to explore the Keystone State’s historic communities and discover the history and heritage of a particular locale.


For Further Reading

Hopkins, Thomas C. The Building Materials of Pennsylvania: Brownstones. State College, Pa.: Pennsylvania State College, 1896.

Maas, John. The Gingerbread Age. New York: Rinehart and Company, 1957.

Merrill, George P. Stones for Building and Decorating. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1903.

Ries, Heinrich. Building Stones and Clay Products: A Handbook for Architects. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1912.

Stone, Ralph W. Building Stones of Pennsylvania. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Bureau of Publications, 1932.

Thomas, George E., Jeffrey A. Cohen, and Michael J. Lewis. Frank Furness: The Complete Works. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1996.


Ben F. Olena, a resident of Forksville, Sullivan County, grew up in Hershey, Dauphin County, just several miles from the quarries of the Hummelstown Brownstone Company, and received his bachelor’s degree in industrial arts education from Millersville University in 1958. An intensive study of Hummelstown’s brownstone industry gave him a topic for a master’s thesis in 1965. Since the mid-1960s, he has doggedly pursued his interest in the industry, which has taken him to communities throughout the Commonwealth, as well as into neighboring states, photographing and recording buildings and structures constructed wholly or partly of brownstone quarried at Hummelstown. He prepared the nomination, processed by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s Bureau for Historic Preservation, which entered, in 2003, the Hummelstown Brownstone Company site to the National Register of Historic Places, administered by the U.S. Department of the Interior.