An early spring visit to the Roaring Run area of the Newcastle Ranger District in Virginia’s George Washington-Jefferson National Forest lifts off the winter blahs. Leaf buds are swelling on some of the trees, and yellow fringe trims witch hazel branches.
On the soft, moist forest floor, perennial plants are beginning their regrowth for the new season. Delicate bluets are making an appearance, along with bloodroot and windflower. Glossy leaves of galax and partridge berry leaves poke out of last fall’s leaves and bright green moss sport tiny fruiting bodies on hair-like stems.
It hasn’t always been so lovely here. Just past the entrance to the hiking trails to the falls and Hoop Hole is Roaring Run Furnace, built in 1838. It’s a hulking stone pyramid that reflects a little-known facet of Virginia history.
The United States’ iron industry began in 1609, when the Jamestown colonists first mined iron ore. Between 1619 and 1622, Virginia settlers built the first iron furnace in the colonies, a charcoal furnace near the James River just south of what is now Richmond.
An Indian raid soon destroyed that furnace, and it wasn’t until 1714 that iron production was reestablished with the building of a furnace near the Rappahannock River. The enterprise continued to spread westward, crossing the Blue Ridge in the latter part of the 18th century.
Forest Service Archaeologist Mike Barber says Virginia was a major producer of iron in the 19th century, with most of the state’s 75 iron furnaces located across the Ridge and Valley province. Most of the stone furnaces are still standing, and 10 of those are within the George Washington-Jefferson National Forest. They are listed on the Virginia Landmarks Register, and will eventually be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Iron was needed for cooking pots, barrel hoops, horseshoes, nails, tools, plows, rifles, and cannonballs. Barber says that most of the Virginia furnaces shut down in the 1840s, when richer sources of ore were found in states to the north and west. They were fired up again during the Civil War years, however, because iron from northern furnaces was unavailable to the southern states. After the war, most shut down for good, but a few continued to operate until the early 1900s.
The furnace structures varied — rounded or square pyramids with two to four side openings — but each was constructed of huge limestone blocks, mined at local quarries, with fire brick lining the chimney. The furnace was usually built on the side of a hill, with a wooden bridge house running from the hill to the top of the stack, so that the charcoal, limestone, and iron ore could be carried through the bridge house and dumped into the furnace. A stream normally provided the power to turn a turn a water wheel, which drove the bellows.
Barber says a furnace was surrounded by the facilities — barracks, kitchens, storehouses, barns — needed to support up to 100 workers (in the days before and during the Civil War, half of those were slaves), and 100 animals.
For the cold-blast process, the furnace was first filled with charcoal and lit from the top. Over several days, the fire burned down to the openings, and the furnace was refilled with charcoal. Then the fire was allowed to burn back up to the top, and a blast of cold air from the bellows brought the temperature up to the ore-smelting temperature of 2300-2500ºF.
As the charcoal settled, the furnace was continuously filled with layers of charcoal, ore, and limestone. As the iron or and limestone melted, the limestone served as a flux, cleaning impurities from the ore and forming slag, which floated to the surface of the molten iron.
During blast, the furnaces operated day and night in 12-hour shifts for three or four months, stopping only for maintenance and repairs. The iron and slag were usually tapped twice daily. The molten iron flowed into a casting bed made of sand. A main trench (the sow) in the sand allowed the iron to flow into numerous smaller side trenches (the pigs), hence the name “pig iron.”
In one 24-hour period of operation, a furnace could consume an average of 750 bushels of charcoal, 12 tons of iron ore, and many tons of limestone to produce five tons of iron. To produce the 750 bushels of charcoal needed for 24 hours of blast required 19 cords of wood, which means that about an acre of forest was cleared for each day of furnace operation. Many furnaces were in blast for nine or ten months a year.
In her book The Appalachian Forest, Chris Bolgiano describes the impacts of the iron industry on the mountain environment: “It was common for furnaces to go out of business when all the trees within convenient hauling distance were cut. By the early 1800s, tens of thousands of acres had been cleared, crisscrossed with hauling roads, and pocked with mining pits and charcoal hearths.”
The forests of the James River Ranger District, located in Botetourt and Alleghany counties, are young. District Ranger Annie Downing says that by 1900, the forests were completely gone: cut, split and made into charcoal to feed the region’s iron furnaces. Many areas have probably been cut a couple of times since then to feed Westvaco’s chip mill and paper mill in Covington, at the edge of the national forest.
Callie Furnace, built in 1873 is on the side of Rich Patch Mountain, about four miles from the town of Glen Wilton. The largest furnace in the area, its unique features are a rust-colored iron smoke stack sticking out of the chimney, and a large stone-lined cistern sunk in the ground just uphill from the furnace. The small hills around the site are slag piles.
There are also lots of mines; most are surface mines, but some are tunnels and vertical holes. “They hunted and picked all over these ridges,” Downing says. She’s fascinated by the furnaces, and plans to improve the sites in her district to make them more attractive and educational for visitors. The most visible of the local furnaces, Clifton Forge, isn’t on federal land, but sits just off Highway 220, between the towns of Clifton Forge and Iron Gate.
There are 10 iron furnaces within the George Washington-Jefferson, including Catawba Furnace, Catherine Furnace in Page County; Elizabeth Furnace in Shenandoah County; and Raven Cliff Furnace in Wythe County.
To find out about how you can visit them, contact the Forest Service at 888-265-0019 or visit www.fs.fed.us/gwnf.
Do you have repository of high-resolution images of these charcoal blast furnaces? I am with the C&O Historical society and I have a project dealing with the iron industry in the general area near the old C&O railroad lines. I am in contact with Liz Higgins at the Covington Office. I did a 64-page issue of our magazine titled Alleghany Iron which is available at the C&O Heritage Ctr in Clifton Forge.