So what is this place? The Woodbury Clay Co. Project, built as a one-man (that's me!) class project for the Digital Humanities program at the University of Pittsburgh—Greensburg, is a website devoted to exploring the history of the clay mining industry in central Pennsylvania, as seen through an unusual historical snapshot. What we have here is a collection of 118 pieces of Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR) paperwork, dating mostly from 1931, '33 and '37, from the Woodbury Clay Co. (formerly the Woodbury Land Co.) of Oreminea—a former mining town 5 miles down the valley from Williamsburg, in rural Blair Co., PA. These documents make for a rare and valuable resource for enthusiasts of railroad and industrial history, as they're all the sort of ephemera that rarely survives—tissue-paper freight bills and receipts from individual railroad shipments. In the era long before computerized systems, countless thousands of these forms were hurriedly typed up and forwarded every day to thousands of points across the Pennsylvania Railroad system to record and bill for every movement of freight. Upon proper payment, filing and so on, they were totally disposable. It remains a mystery why these were saved, and by whom, but they managed to survive the intervening 80+ years only to wind up scattered among an enormous heap of old railroad books and magazines on a flea market table in Hollidaysburg, PA, where I discovered them in the spring of 2017.
This site aims not only to present these historic documents to the public, but to explore the interactions of the clay-mining industry with the wide variety of businesses, industries and manufacturing concerns across the region who appear therein. The Woodbury Clay Co. papers record the journeys of 144 individual railroad cars to and from Oreminea, representing a total of 49 different suppliers and customers, plus two brokers of clay who shipped from the Woodbury Clay Co. Twenty-one different businesses are seen shipping supplies into Oreminea—not only machinery and mining supplies for the company, but also general goods, clothing and foodstuffs for the town's inhabitants, down to individual boxes of shoes! It's easy to forget nowadays, but before America was crisscrossed by highways, the railroad was often the only lifeline into rural communities and company towns like Oreminea, and truly everything arrived and left by rail.
Outbound shipments from town, however, were all in the form of boxcars (well, mostly boxcars) loaded with pure, raw fire clay. So, let's back up: what's that? While the mountains of central PA are quiet now, much of the surrounding region was alive with industrial activity through the Depression and wartime years, not only with lumbering and coal mining but with a number of smaller industries, including the mining of "fire clay": a silica-rich mineral clay that can be baked into extremely temperature-resistant bricks, called "refractory brick", which are used to line kilns and blast furnaces. (A plant that manufactures these bricks is known simply as a "refractory".) The fire-clay mines of Blair and Huntington counties chiefly fed the refractory, porcelain and steel industries of Pittsburgh and the surrounding manufacturing region. Very little legacy survives of this industry today, making this collection all the more valuable as a record of local history as well. Shipments are recorded to a total of 28 different steel mills and manufacturing plants across the eastern US and Canada.
So what do we have to offer here at the Woodbury Clay Co. project so far? All 115 freight bills and receipts are now viewable and tabulated, and can be explored from the main Carload Table. (Astute readers will notice the discrepancy between that number and the first one at the top of the page—there's three pieces of paper that don't quite fit in with the rest. They'll be here soon.) A history of the Woodbury Clay Co. itself and the town of Oreminea is slated to be written over on its own page. There's a long way to go in exploring and recording the other 51 companies that appear here, almost all of which are defunct and many of which are very nearly lost to history, but whatever information we've got so far can be seen over on the List of Shippers and Customers. The centerpiece of the project, besides the core Carload Table, is the interactive Map, where all those shippers and customers are plotted out, and you can get a sense of where all these freight cars traveled to and from!
For the model railroading crowd, the chance to see the exact breakdown of rolling stock that served a specific industry in a specific place in a specific era is a rare treat for prototype modelers. Check out the Freight Cars page for rolling stock information by class. There should be a lot more statistical information here, pending access to some 1930s editions of the O.R.E.R. Since this whole website's been built from scratch during the Coronavirus Apocalypse Shutdown of 2020, I haven't been able to visit where those can be found, so stay tuned as we ride out the collapse of modern American society! Modeling information on the PRR fleet of the 1930s is in the works for later on down the road. Additionally, for the PRR diehards and ops-session model railroaders out there, a reference of the various PRR forms that appear in the collection is included up in the Glossary.
To learn more about the work that went into producing this website, i.e. for Digital Humanities purposes, skip to the end and click on About.