Exploring Four Iron Furnaces of West Virginia and Pennsylvania

In September, a journey into the heart of northern West Virginia and southwest Pennsylvania revealed the remnants of four pivotal iron furnaces, each bearing testimony to a bygone industrial era.

In September, a journey into the heart of northern West Virginia and southwest Pennsylvania revealed the remnants of four pivotal iron furnaces, each bearing testimony to a bygone industrial era.

The Peter Tarr Furnace, erected in 1794, stands as the pioneering iron furnace west of the Allegheny Mountains. Initiated by Grant on land once belonging to the American pioneer James Campbell near Kings Creek, its ownership eventually transitioned to Peter Tarr and James Rankin in 1801. With its 20-foot stack and eight-foot wide bosh, this furnace, fueled by charcoal and augmented by a cold air blast generated from a blowing engine, boasted a production capacity of two tons of pig iron daily.

The metal forged here found its primary purpose in household goods such as utensils, skillets, and kettles. During the War of 1812, its iron played a strategic role, contributing to the cannonballs employed by Commodore Oliver H. Perry at the famed 1813 Battle of Lake Erie. Operations at this furnace concluded in 1840.

Wharton Furnace in Fayette County, Pennsylvania, was established between 1837 and 1839 by U.S. Representative Andrew Stewart. This furnace featured a 31-foot stack and a 33-foot wide bosh. Harnessing charcoal and a steam engine-driven air blast, its iron was primarily dispatched to foundries in Pittsburgh. Here, a fusion of applications awaited: some transformed it into wrought iron products, while others repurposed it for cannonballs. Despite its capabilities, by 1873, it cast its last.

Its geographical disadvantage, devoid of nearby rail connectivity, placed it in the economic shadow of furnaces nearer to the booming steel mills in Pittsburgh. The emergence of industrialist Andrew Carnegie in the 1870s further marginalized such operations. Carnegie’s Pittsburgh-based blast furnaces, well-connected to resources through railroads and strategically positioned near the Great Lakes, spearheaded a new era. The revolutionary Bessemer process, which Carnegie adopted, transformed cast iron into a higher-grade product: steel.

The Old Valley or Douglas Furnace, located in Preston County, West Virginia, was founded in 1837. It was briefly overseen by Andrew Ochiltree and James Caldwell before its operations soon shifted to William Douglass. By 1840, transportation challenges and financial constraints silenced its fires, echoing the fate of its neighboring furnace, Greenville.

The Virginia Furnace, steered by Harrison Hagans and constructed by mason Levi Kennett, embarked on its journey in the fall of 1854. With its impressive 30-foot stack, six-foot trunnel, and 34-foot wide bosh, it championed a production rate of 25 tons of forge-grade pig iron weekly. However, the economic turmoil of 1873 heralded its decline, and by 1880, it stood as the last charcoal iron furnace to cease operations in Preston County.

This furnace belonged to a broader landscape of iron production, with roots tracing back to 1798 in Monongalia County. By 1850, this county alone housed six furnaces, accompanied by several others scattered across northern West Virginia. Yet, the onset of the Civil War signaled an industry in retreat, grappling with dwindling timber and iron ore reserves and an antiquated transportation infrastructure.

Although the 1853 advent of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad momentarily rekindled this furnace’s vigor, the meteoric rise of Pittsburgh’s advanced furnaces marked an irreversible shift. As these technologically superior giants dominated the landscape, the venerable furnaces of West Virginia and Pennsylvania gradually receded into history.

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