Ohio's Iron Age
Parts of rural southeast Ohio are peppered with mysterious structures of weathered stone, carefully stacked like scale models of the great pyramids of Egypt or the towering temples of ancient rainforest civilizations. A few of these historic giants stand intact, untouched by time. Many others are barely visible beneath blankets of moss, roots and leaves, having been reclaimed by the forest.
These stone relics are reminders of a time when Ohio's wildest, least populated region was the heart of the nation's iron industry, from the 1850s to the 1870s. Today's sylvan hillsides of southeast Ohio were stripped bare of primeval forest in a frenzy to cash in on the area's vast mineral wealth. This peaceful landscape once boomed and smoldered as it produced the armaments that fueled a civil war. The stories of Ohio's Hanging Rock region tell of fortunes made and lost. Poor immigrants built a lasting industrial empire, while a millionaire's dream of industrial might collapsed along with an entire town.
Frightened and exhausted after the harrowing raft ride that brought them down the mighty Ohio River from Pittsburgh, the small band of Welsh immigrants was grateful for the warm welcome they received at the port of Gallipolis. Their hosts were French immigrants who had made a new home in this vast, strange land called America. With the rough ocean voyage from Liverpool, England still vivid in their minds, and their raft badly damaged by the turbulent river, the group decided to forego their original plan to continue down the Ohio River to join relatives in Cincinnati.
The rolling, forested hills of Jackson County reminded them of their home in Wales, as did the mineral riches just below the surface. The Welsh settlers knew how to utilize the abundant coal, iron ore, limestone, clay and timber resources. They soon set to work mining coal and ore in their new home in southeast Ohio. With shovels and picks they dug pits ten to twelve feet deep, chipped the vein of ore and hauled it away in wheelbarrows. To make charcoal, they felled trees, stacked the wood in a cone shape and covered it with damp leaves and soil. When lit, the wood would slowly smolder and char rather than burn to ashes. Using technology they learned in the Old Country, they built massive blast furnaces from native sandstone to melt the ore to create bars, bricks and other items of solid iron.
A 30-mile belt including Jackson, Vinton, Lawrence and Scioto counties and dipping into Kentucky yielded abundant iron ore of exceptional quality. In its heyday, this area was referred to as the Hanging Rock region, named for a high sandstone bluff a few miles down the Ohio River from Ironton. The iron ore was first discovered in 1826, and by 1849, twenty-two blast furnaces were operating in the area, producing 56,000 tons of iron annually. In 1850, Ohio ranked second in the nation in the production of iron, and the furnaces employed 2,758 men. By this time, Hanging Rock iron had earned an international reputation for its superior strength and resistance to rust and corrosion.
The Hanging Rock blast furnaces varied little in their design. They resembled flat-topped pyramids built of sandstone block. The narrow furnace top rose 35 to 40 feet from the broad base. Inside the sandstone blocks was a lining of bricks made of clay mined nearby. The necessary ingredients, including chunks of iron ore and limestone, along with charcoal for fuel, were dropped into the open top of the furnace. Tall wooden buildings on stilts surrounded the furnace, providing easy access to the top of the furnace and a convenient, dry place to store the charcoal. After the charcoal was ignited, air was forced through openings in the sides of the furnace, "blasting" the burning charcoal with oxygen to feed the hot fire. As the ore and limestone mixture was heated and began to melt, the heavy pure iron dropped to the bottom and the lighter impurities floated to the top. The melted iron flowed through openings at the base of the furnace into beds of sand where the hot liquid iron was molded into blocks called "pigs." This "pig iron" was loaded onto railroad cars for shipment to iron foundries in Cincinnati and Cleveland, to the east coast, and even to Europe.
Business in the Hanging Rock region blossomed in the 1850s, and the area became Ohio's first chiefly industrial center. Communities grew around the furnaces, which supplied employment for ore diggers, teamsters, blacksmiths, carpenters, charcoal burners, bookkeepers and storekeepers. Some of the iron produced here was used to build the nation's growing railroad system. The railroads, in turn, provided transportation for iron exports, linking the hills of southeast Ohio to distant markets that could be reached by way of the Ohio River or the Great Lakes. By the close of the decade, Ohio boasted more miles of railroad tracks than any other state and ranked fourth in the value of its industrial products.
With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1860, new railroad construction ground to a halt, tarnishing the iron industry's bright future. Undaunted, the Hanging Rock iron makers found a new product to sell. They began manufacturing and providing iron for cannons and other military equipment for use by the Union Army. With new demand for high quality iron, production in the Hanging Rock region boomed once again. By 1869, the number of charcoal blast furnaces exploded to 45.
The wartime prosperity was short-lived, however. During the 1870s, the vast forests that had supplied timber for charcoal were becoming alarmingly sparse. With forests being depleted at a rate of more than 300 acres of trees per furnace per year, two decades of iron production had taken a heavy toll. In addition, the Hanging Rock charcoal furnaces were facing competition from new, more efficient coal-fired furnaces recently built in Cleveland and Youngstown. High quality iron ore from Lake Superior was making its way to northern furnaces at a rate of one million tons per year. A period of nationwide economic depression starting in 1873 also contributed to Hanging Rock's decline, shutting down half of the state's iron furnaces by 1878.
Perhaps the most successful of the Hanging Rock furnaces was Jefferson Furnace, built in 1853 by Thomas Jones, a Welsh immigrant. The iron produced here was sold under the trade name "Anchor," and quickly earned a reputation as the finest iron in the Hanging Rock region. Jefferson Furnace prospered during the Civil War and made its mark in history by supplying the iron plate that sheathed the Union Army's famous iron-clad warship, the Monitor, which battled the Confederate iron warship, the Merrimac, in 1862. The Jefferson Furnace operation was highly profitable, paying annual dividends of 100% or more between 1864 and 1874. In 1866, stockholders received a 200% return on their investment. Despite the difficulties that plagued the Hanging Rock charcoal furnaces at the close of the century, Jefferson Furnace was the last to give up, finally closing its operation forever in 1916.
Though it held great promise, the story of the Zaleski iron enterprise is a tale of the best laid plans gone awry. Peter Zaleski, a wealthy banker and financial advisor to a group of Polish exiles living in Paris, stumbled upon the perfect investment opportunity in 1856. With one million dollars to spend, he purchased a large tract of unspoiled land in far-off Vinton County, Ohio, rich in minerals and covered with forest. He organized the Zaleski Mining Company to begin digging out coal and iron ore, and hired surveyors to lay out a town. An iron blast furnace was to stand like a sentry on the town's north end. Modest homes were quickly constructed for miners and furnace workers who flocked to the new town of Zaleski. At the same time, an imposing castle was built in anticipation of the arrival of the town's benefactor. The Zaleski furnace operated steadily from 1862 to 1870, providing a livelihood for many of the townspeople. Zaleski boasted a population of 1,500, along with 15 saloons, seven general stores, three churches, two resident doctors, two newspapers, a public school, a Masonic lodge, two brickyards and a flour mill. Incredibly, the iron furnace cracked from top to bottom due to faulty construction, and was dismantled. The iron industry was abandoned, and Zaleski's population plummeted to a mere 862. Peter Zaleski never did visit the town named in his honor, and his lavish castle was dismatled. Today, the hamlet of Zaleski rests on the edge of Zaleski State Forest, a few miles from Lake Hope State Park. There is no evidence left of the prominsing iron enterprise of the past.
The story of Hope Furnace is typical of the fortunes of many of hanging Rock's iron furnaces. As Hope Furnace was being constructed on the bank of Big Sandy Creek in 1852, a community of eager iron workers spung up from the surrounding forest. By 1854, Hope Furnace was producing fourteen tons of iron each day, and the town of Hope had grown to more than 300 residents. Like many "company towns" of that era, the mining company or furnace owner provided housing, and paid workers with script from the company store. The ironmaster, storekeeper and company secretary lived in relative luxury, while the majority of iron workers lived in dirt-floored log houses, 16 to 18 feet square. Hope enjoyed wartime prosperity, however, and the town's population swelled to 500. But, in time, the iron ore in the vicinity of the furnace proved insufficient in quantity and quality to meet the heightened demand. Ore and limestone were brought from neighboring McArthur by the local Sand Valley Railroad. Struggling against fierce competition and dwindling resources, Hope Furnace closed in 1874 and the town of Hope was quickly abandoned.
The crumbling stone stack of Jefferson Furnace still stands, dressed in moss and ferns, along the shore of Jackson Lake at Jackson Lake State Park. New generations still carry on the family iron tradition in Jackson, Ohio. Today, visitors to Lake Hope State Park can admire the remains of the Hope Furnace on the scenic Hope Furnace nature trail. One of Ohio's best preserved charcoal blast furnaces is Buckeye Furnace in Jackson County, which is operated as a museum by the Ohio Historical Society. The wooden storage buildings surrounding the sandstone core of Buckeye Furnace have been restored, painting a complete portrait of one of these charcoal eating giants during the Hanging Rock region's brief period of industrial might.