The Iron Industry in Lincoln County
Situated in a once remote and isolated area in eastern Lincoln County, among large concentrations of iron ore and hardwood forests, iron furnaces dot the landscape. The furnaces are remnants of a thriving industry that served the local and regional economies of North Carolina. The large furnace stacks, constructed of massive quarried stones, stand near swiftly running creeks. The stacks are also adjacent to large slag deposits and the remains of related structures that served as the ironmaster’s house, gristmills, sawmills, and blacksmith shops. The size of the stacks averaged from about twenty-five to thirty-feet square at the base and about twenty five to thirty-five feet in height.
During the colonial period, Lincoln County’s economy was based primarily on agriculture. The introduction of the iron industry brought an “industrial revolution.” It contributed to the local economic structure by producing andirons, fire backs, household cooking utensils, farm implements, and munitions for the military. The iron products from the furnaces found a market that stretched in North Carolina from the Mountains to Hillsborough, and in South Carolina from Camden to Cheraw. With undeveloped and inefficient means of transportation, the iron producers sent their products to markets by wagon and on flatboats down the Catawba River.
The North Carolina General Assembly passed an act in 1788 “to encourage the building of Iron Works in the State.” This act enabled a person to claim three thousand acres of land found unfit for cultivation. It also required the production of five thousand pounds of iron within a period of three years. By 1810 Lincoln County boasted six ironmaking operations including Vesuvius, Mt. Welcome, Mount Tirzah, Mount Carmel, High Shoals, and Madison.
A number of individuals and partners took the lead in establishing ironworks in eastern Lincoln County. The partnership of Peter Forney, Joseph Graham, John Davidson, and Alexander Brevard was responsible for the construction of Vesuvius Furnace in 1795. Peter Forney built Madison Iron Furnace along Leeper’s Creek in 1809. These two sites, like other local ironworks, changed hands at various points. Other individuals involved in the development of the iron industry in Lincoln County include Turner Abernethy, John Fulenwider, Dr. William Johnston, Jonas W. Derr, and J.F. Reinhardt. James Madison Smith erected Stonewall Furnace in 1862 to help meet the demand for iron brought on by the War Between the States. Operations at Rehoboth (begun in the 1820s) and Madison furnaces also resumed during the turbulent years from 1862 to 1865 to supply much-needed iron for the Southern war effort.
Iron Production and Labor
The production of iron was labor-intensive, requiring water to power large bellows; iron ore; lime, and charcoal. Depending on the size of the operation, a workforce numbering between 100 and 150 might be employed. Laborers handled various responsibilities such as mining ore, cutting timber, making charcoal, hauling lime, and transporting these materials across a large bridge called a charging ram to be dumped into the furnace. Once these ingredients reduced into molten iron, the furnace was tapped, releasing a stream of liquid iron that was ladled into molds. Molds were made for items such as andirons, pots, and firebacks. During the time the furnace was in operation, ironmasters supplemented slave labor with hired workers from various families in the surrounding area. In order to supply the furnace with the sufficient fuel, timber was cut from vast areas of land and converted into charcoal. When the supply of timber was exhausted, ironmasters purchased additional land to continue their operations.
Iron furnaces served essentially as crucibles in which iron ore and limestone were melted down by the burning of charcoal in a manufacturing process known as batch processing. Iron ore, limestone, and charcoal were fed into the furnace through an opening in the top of the furnace. As the charcoal in the furnace burned, fanned to high temperatures through the use of large water powered bellows, the iron ore and limestone became molten. The limestone would melt and chemically draw off unwanted minerals from the iron, such as quartz, producing a molten calcium glass with a relatively low density. The relatively pure molten iron was of a much high density and would settle to the bottom of the furnace’s interior. Thus the molten iron and the calcium glass settled into distinct layers at the furnace’s base, with the calcium glass on top and the iron on the bottom. These layers would be run out of the furnace separately. The calcium glass was skimmed off first to produce a waste product called slag. The molten iron was run off next into sand paved casting beds. As the iron ore, limestone, and charcoal burned down, additional quantities were added, thus keeping the furnace constantly filled. In this manner, furnaces were in operation for as long as five or six months, usually until stores of iron ore and charcoal were depleted or until the furnace’s interior stone lining needed repair.
When the molten iron was removed from the furnace it was treated in one of two principal ways. Some of the molten iron coming from the base of the furnace was run into patterns or molds to form products such as wood stoves, hollow ware, or cooking vessels, cannons and shot, and even grist, or rice and saw mill machinery. The remainder of the molten iron would be allowed to cool into puddled masses called “pig iron,” that could then be easily transported and later reheated and refined through a process of repeated hammering or forging. Pig iron was generally cast into pieces weighing approximately 100 pounds and was generally transported by wagon from furnace sites to foundries, bloomaries, or forges.
Forging of pig iron created bar iron or blooms. Forging involved heating the pigs until they attained a plastic or malleable state so that they could be hammered or rolled. The processes of hammering and rolling changed the iron’s molecular structure from a crystalline to a fibrous state. Iron had to undergo this transition from pig to bar iron to be suitable for further manufacture. Initially, bar iron was used by blacksmiths to produce wrought nails, guns, and most iron or metal components for agricultural, trade, and industrial tools. Later rolling mills also rolled bar iron into sheets for processing into cut nails and other iron items that could be stamped out rapidly. Forge hammers and rolling mill rollers weighed hundreds of pounds and like furnace bellows were also dependent upon waterpower for their operation. Many ironworks combined a furnace, forge or bloomary, rolling, and cutting mills at one or nearby locations so that the same dam and sluice system could power several different water wheels and pieces of machinery. The term ironworks normally described this broad multi-component type of operation. The average ironworks also included other components such as houses; storage buildings and other associated structures and related site features.
Furnaces were constructed of quarried stone and averaged in overall dimensions from about twenty-five to thirty-feet square at the base and about twenty-five to thirty-five feet in height. The interiors of the charcoal furnaces were chimney to egg-shaped with fairly consistent interior dimensions, ranging from approximately seven to eight feet in width at the bosh, or widest point near the base. Interior heights ranged from approximately twenty to thirty feet. The interior measurements are important because they are the largest dimensions attainable in charcoal fueled furnaces.
Furnaces were usually constructed on large streams or rivers at points where the water flowed swiftly over abrupt changes in elevation, forming rapids or waterfalls or what were commonly known as mill seats. At these locations, dams were constructed to harness the power of the falling water. Waterpower was needed to turn large water wheels, which in turn supplied power to various pieces of equipment such as bellows and hammers. The bellows were quite large and blew air into the base of the furnace to increase the rate of combustion, so the iron ore and limestone would get hot enough to melt. The use of these bellows led to the term “blast furnace.” Furnaces were also built next to steep banks so that ramps could be erected from the bank to the top of the furnace to assist in the process of loading the furnace. The iron ore, limestone, and charcoal were carried over these ramps and fed into openings in the top of the furnace.
Several factors helped to seal the industry’s doom in Lincoln County. The suppressed economy in the South after the war, coupled with depleted natural resources, brought about the industry’s fate. Also, the lack of significant improvements in transportation, and the development of more efficient methods of producing iron in the North, did not help. Other factors leading to the decline of the charcoal iron industry in North Carolina include: labor problems, due to the collapse of the slave-based economy, and the inability to compete with ironworks in other regions with better quality resources and cheaper production costs due to the use of coal
Post-Civil War industrialism drastically changed the iron industry in the South. Ownership of ironworks operations before the Civil War centered on a singly owned plantation style management structure. After the war, many individual and family owned operations attempted to improve management and marketing by consolidating and incorporating. Advances made by charcoal fueled iron makers could not be met by iron operators in the South. North Carolina manufacturers could not build larger furnaces or a greater number of furnaces to match the production of the iron makers in the areas where there were abundant, high-grade coal resources. The Rehoboth furnace was the last furnace to operate in Lincoln County. It closed down on May 27, 1882.
The remains of Lincoln County’s iron industry stand as a testament to a prosperous period in local and state history.