Iron Furnace History in Ohio

Hope Iron Furnace Sign

By Emmett A. Conway, Sr., The Olde Forester

Southern Ohio and Northeastern Kentucky have the honor of being the sites of the first major expansion of iron manufacturing in the United States due to the discovery of what was a bonanza of iron ore. This web site explores the history of the iron industry and will eventually list and give detailed information about the 46 iron furnaces in Southern Ohio.

Iron Furnace Index:

Evolution of the Iron Furnace

It is surmized that iron was discovered accidentally by humans in Europe, Africa or Asia where the ground happened to be rich in iron ores. An exceedingly hot campfire in contact with iron ores would have changed the iron ore to an ingot of wrought iron which could be hammered into a tool.

Wrought Iron

The first iron furnace of record consisted of merely a hole in the ground with an opening at the bottom facing the prevailing wind to provide a natural draft. The type of iron made prior to the fourteenth century A.D. was not the type made in the blast furnaces of the Hanging Rock Iron District of Southern Ohio and Northeastern Kentucky. This earlier iron was called wrought iron. It had properties which allowed it to be put to use for tools and farming. It is very tough and not brittle as is cast iron.

Wrought iron of the earliest type was made directly into a tool or product. A hammermill was used to beat the heated mass.There is a bridge on the Highbanks Farm near Vauces, Ross County, owned by Kezia Vanmeter Sproat, which has a wrought iron bridge across Dry Run on the farm.

Cast Iron

Iron furnace technology evolved to blast furnaces which produced cast iron. It could be cast into items where toughness was not a problem as into stoves, kettles, skillets, steam engine blocks and flywheels. Cast iron is reworked and modified to make steel. This is an art which I am not qualified to explain, except in admiration. One can look in the atlases of the Nineteenth Century for Lawrence, Jackson, Gallia, Scioto and Vinton Counties and see the ads for iron products from the blast furnaces and the secondary forges.

Pig Iron

Because blast furnaces produced increased quantities of iron from the ore, the molten iron was cast into bars, called pig iron, for later remanufacturing.

The furnaces were built and operated for the purpose of extracting iron from the native iron ores. The objective was to form bars of cold cast iron for transfer to a foundry for later remanufacture. These were made in molds pressed in the very dry sandy floor. A main trench directed the molten iron to a distribution trench from which many side branches were formed. The molten iron was cast into bars called "pigs"; hence, the common name of "pig iron."

The name pig iron is meaningless to non-farm people, as it is a figment of the imagination of the blast furnace workers--all of whom were very familiar with the keeping of pigs. Workers before World War I were, in almost all cases, required to have a kitchen garden, and keep cows, chickens and pigs. This was a matter of survival and considered part of the compensation in a company town or village. The workers were very familiar with the appearance of a mother pig, called a sow, and her dozen or more nursing piglets. As they looked at the molten iron flowing from the hearth in the base of the furnace stack, the trench of red iron with the many short side branches made them think of a sow (the large feeder trench) and pigs (the end result).

As Robert Frost would say, "One has to be schooled in country things."

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Iron technology comes to North America

Beginning with the Vikings, Europeans who came to North America brought the iron technology with them and soon converted the indiginous people from the stone age to the iron age. Use of copper, found in the raw state and its alloy with tin, called, bronze, preceeded the use of iron. Native Americans did not make bronze, but they did use raw copper, gold and silver and meteorite iron. Iron is very seldom found in a natural state because of oxidation and its reduction from ores was unknown.

In 1607 the Jamestown settlers built a crude furnace. You can visit the SAUGUS IRON WORKS at Saugus, Massachusetts, today and see a restoration of its 1643 furnace and associated iron works. There are other survivors and restorations in the eastern states among which is the HOPEWELL IRON WORKS west of Philadelphia. Many stacks or portions of them survive across the land.

Iron furnaces in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Connecticut and other colonial states were scattered and contributed mainly to local needs for household items and mills of the day--grist and sawmills, woolen mills, etc.

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First Blast Furnace in Ohio

The blast furnace knowledge came west with the pioneers. The first charcoal iron furnace in Ohio was built in Poland near Youngstown. The Olde Forester happened to live about a mile from this primitive charcoal furnace. My twin brother and I read of the location and often played around the site in the Yellow Creek gorge just below Lake Hamilton dam. It was a favorite destination for our scout hikes and cookouts. We read of a tunnel from a pit to the stack which was supposed to provide the blast and actually found the opening. Dr. John White, anthropology professor of Youngstown University, and students has made a dig and published their findings about this site. I have slide pictures made after he exposed a water wheel site for creating the blast and other features we had not observed earlier. I have a copy of his report. Basically, the first furnace on Yellow Creek used the same process as the first furnaces in the Hanging Rock Iron District. It was the "cold blast" method in contrast to later innovations where the blast was heated before being blown into the furnace--only possible after steam was employed for creating the blast.

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HRIR brings tremendous boost to the iron manufacturing capacity of US

The Hanging Rock Iron Region has the honor of being the site of the first major expansion of iron manufacturing in the United States. This was due to the discovery of a bonanza of iron ore in the early 1800s. The ferriferous iron ore, often a foot thick, laid immediately on top of the Vanport Limestone formation. Outcroppings along the hillsides led to easy discovery of this important element. It was much more than heretofore had been found anywhere in the continental United States. The truly immense beds of the Great Lakes ores were not discovered until after 1845.

The HRIR extends from Greenup County, Kentucky, to Hocking County, Ohio. The area is pear-shaped with the widest part in Lawrence County, Ohio. The bounds of the region were determined by the outcropping of the ferriferous limestone. The ore and limestone smelted in a furnace heated by burning charcoal with a blast of air was a simple formula for making pig iron.

Furthermore, the other two ingredients neccessary for smelting the iron ore were immediately at hand. These are limestone and timber for making charcoal fuel.

The first blast furnace of the HRIR was built at Argillite, Kentucky, before 1825. The industry spread into Ohio where the first furnace was erected in Lawrence County and called Union (1826). Other small furnaces quickly followed to make 1 to 2 tons of iron per day and cast directly into pots, kettles, skillets--the prime necessities of pioneer life. Transportation was the key to expansion of the industry. The ore was generally mined, “raised” was the term used. “He worked at raising ore”, was written about a Hocking County man. The heavy ore was hauled to the furnace site on stone boats or two wheeled carts pulled by oxen, mules or horses on “Ore Roads” still to be found in the large furnace tracts.

Charcoal was produced at stream side by colliers working “In the coalins.” Charcoal was hauled to the furnace in huge wagons resembling Conestoga wagons. It took about fourteen days to burn off a kiln and had to be watched night and day. The valleys reeked with smoke as did McArthur, Ohio, during the Sixties when the brick plant was converted to making charcoal. (The EPA put an end to that.) The limestone was in plentiful supply nearby.

The crucial transportation problem was in getting the product to market after manufacture. The Marietta & Cincinnati Railroad, which became the B & O, spawned six blast furnaces in Vinton County during the 1850'S. Side tracks or branch lines connected the main line to Vinton, Hamden, and Big Sand (Hope). The Vinton County Atlas of 1876 shows the furnace villages and connecting tracks plus the huge tracts of ore, limestone and timber lands which were acquired for their operation.

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Researching and preserving iron furnace history.

The discovery of the really immense supply of iron ore in the Lake Superior Region led to the decline of the Hanging Rock Iron Region with the last furnace, Jefferson, west of Oak Hill, “blowing out” in 1916.

With the abandonment of the iron furnaces in the HRIR came the salvage of the furance machinery and railroad tracks, and the rapid conversion to farm and/or woodland economy. Now the only visible signs of a past high level of industrial activity are the stonestacks and waste slag dumps. We are left with sparse onsite evidence of just how active these furnace communities were and the large number of people gaining their suppport from that industry.

Yet there abounds company records, maps, photographs and other memorabilia of the HRIR Age. The Olde Forester has been researching and collecting information since his youth. Please join me and share any information you have. E-mail me at

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