With the end of hunting season and the fall of the leaves, I embarked on a journey through state forests and wildlife management areas near my home to uncover the remnants of old pig iron furnaces.
My journey to explore the remnants of old pig iron furnaces was a blend of historical inquiry and physical exploration, set against the backdrop of the picturesque landscapes of Appalachia.
Beginning after the fall hunting season, when the forests became quieter and safer for exploration, I set out from my home. The journey took me through several state forests and wildlife management areas and the landscape, with its rolling hills and dense woodlands, was now bare from the falling leaves.
As I traveled, I was constantly aware of the deep historical significance of the region. The Hanging Rock Iron Region, once bustling with industrial activity, now lay quiet. I navigated through rural roads and trails, often consulting old maps and historical records to locate the furnaces.
The iron region, encompassing southern Ohio, northeastern Kentucky, and western West Virginia, was home to significant iron production from 1818 to 1916. This iron, known for its resistance to corrosion, was crucial in various applications: Civil War weaponry, the construction of the Monitor and Merrimac ships, and everyday items like pots, kettles, and tools, as well as in wagon wheel manufacturing. By 1875, southeastern Ohio was the leading producer of pig iron in the United States.
The production of each ton of iron required 190 bushels of charcoal, three tons of iron ore, and 300 pounds of limestone. These ingredients were combined in the furnace, where they were heated until the iron melted. The process also produced a glassy waste called slag. However, various challenges like mismanagement, high costs, and sulfur-rich ore led to lower yields and the eventual decline of this industry. Despite predictions of a long-lasting supply, the last primitive blast furnace in this region ceased operations in 1916.
One of the furnaces I explored was the Sandy Furnace in Boyd County, Kentucky. Constructed in 1853 by Young, Foster & Company, it featured a 32-foot high stack and a bosh of 10½ feet in width. Despite its short-lived operation of only a year, it produced 1,000 tons of iron, which was then transported for shipment along the Big Sandy River.
The furnace is located behind a residence on an active cattle farm, and I was thankful for the landowner’s permission.
In southern Ohio, the Center Furnace presented a different narrative. Its remains, reduced to a solitary sandstone rock in the center of an intersection. The furnace, estabilshed in 1836, had a 40-foot stack and a 9½ feet wide bosh, capable of producing 16 tons of iron daily. Managed by Nannie Kelly Wright from 1903, she was recognized as the first and only female Iron Furnace Master in the United States. As the iron industry waned, the area shifted to limestone mining, leading to the establishment of the Superior Portland Cement Company.
Visiting the Buckhorn Furnace was a familiar experience, having photographed it many times before. However, stepping inside the structure for the first time added a new dimension to my understanding of its history and construction. Built in 1833, it stood with a 38-foot stack and a 10-foot wide bosh. It operated on charcoal, with a steam-engine-driven hot air blast, producing 15 tons of iron daily. The furnace’s last operation was in 1899.
Further north, hidden in a valley and surrounded by towering trees and brush, lay the Washington Furnace. Built in 1853, it had a 34-foot stack and an 11-foot wide bosh, producing 17 tons of iron daily.
The journey concluded down a long dirt road and across several streams at the Richland Furnace, established in 1854. It boasted a 40-foot stack and a 13-foot wide bosh, using charcoal and steam power for its hot blast system.
Throughout this expedition, I was constantly reminded of the transitory nature of industry and the enduring resilience of nature. What was once a landscape almost completely barren of trees and scarred by decades of mineral mining has recovered remarkably well. The journey was not just about finding the physical remnants of the furnaces, but also about connecting with the history they represented – a history of human endeavor, adaptation, and eventual return to nature.