A Brief History of the Nail Mill
In 1915, Dr. Harvey Bashore wrote a short History of West Fairview for their Centennial. In it, he mentions that there was a grist mill and a small dam made of hewn timbers of the Conodoguinet Creek, “when and who the grist mill was built is not known”. This same site later become known as the Harrisburg Nail Works, located near the current West Fairview Park.
Dr. Bashore along with other local historians credit Gabriel Heister, a cousin of the former Governor of Pennsylvania, with building the Fairview Rolling Mill in 1831. Gabriel Heister died in 1834 and the property was conveyed to Augustus Heister and Charles Bioren.
In 1842, Augustus Heister sold the 25-acre tract to Jarred Pratt. The mill burned in 1845 and was rebuilt by Pratt. In 1847, Pratt and son Christopher were assessed with a Rolling Mill, Bloomeries, Nail Factory, Forge, and Stove Mill.
By 1850, the nail factory was capitalized at nearly $43,000 and employed 125 men and annually produced more than 29,000 kegs of nails valued at $117,583.
In February 1854, Jarred Pratt & Son place the property for sale noting that they wish to retire from the iron business.
They described the property as follows:
A valuable property, called the Fairview Iron Works, together with a sufficient quantity of land, necessary building and embracing one of the most extensive Water Powers in the State.
The works are well arranged for manufacturing iron and nails, embracing two rolling mills, containing a sufficient number of puddling and heating furnaces, two nail factories, containing thirty-eight nail machines and necessary fixtures for preparing the iron.
A mill for sawing staves and heading for nail kegs. All the machinery of the works is driven by iron water wheels. A Cooper shop, Carpenter shop, Blacksmith shop, and a good office are connected with these works.
James McCormick purchased the mill in 1859 for $12,000, the Pratts having moved to Plymouth, Massachusetts. By 1860, it was turning out 60,000 kegs of nails. The plant eventually employed 400 workers. Mr. Daniel Drawbaugh, a local inventory of some renown, who lived at Milltown, near White Hill, Pa., patented many improvements for the machinery at the nail mill. By his genius, production increased greatly without the use of extra manpower.
The mill that was built by Mr. Pratt burned again in 1863. Mr. McCormick, who retained ownership of the mill, erected a new mill on the same site as the old one. The new mill was a large brick structure.
The expanded plant spurred growth to between 700 and 800 residents and may have been one of the largest nail mills in the United States.
At one point, the new mill had a narrow gauge rail line connecting the factory with the warehouse. William Porter handled the three-mule-power team that dragged the little cars between the buildings.
J. P. Wilbur was in charge of the mill office with Joseph and John Spong employed as clerks. Mr. Bryson was the Superintendent and was assisted by Fred Kilheffer, John Sheetz, and Iron Master, Hiram Dunbar, boss of the nail factory; Jacob A. Smith and Jacob H. Smith (father of Warren Smith) were in charge of the plate mill; George Shutt was in charge of the packers and Charles Watkins was the warehouseman.
The wooden kegs, once manufactured at the old mill, were manufactured by H. M. Rupley and Frank Martin who had a saw mill and keg factory near by. Reports also indicate the mill switched from waterpower for the machinery to steam power.
Following the Civil War, a German invention, the wire nail, doomed the future of the cut nails produced at West Fairview.
Production ceased in the 1890’s and the great mill was torn down by 1911. Today, you can visit the site. Follow the road leading from West Fairview’s park to the Conodoguinet Creek. Continue upstream several hundred yards. You will first notice a ripple in the water to the mill. Next you will see the brick arches and spillways to the mill.
You can still find some cut nails, and lots of slag, big clumps of metal that are by-products of the iron works. As you look toward the Susquehanna, you may see Mr. Porter directing his three-mule-team over the narrow gauge rail line, or hear the rush of the water over the dam, the clanks and clunks of the machinery.