Upon the close of the Revolutionary War, and particularly, after the adoption of the Northwest ordinance of 1781, and the consequent opening of the western lands to settlement, there arose in the citizens of the newly formed United States a strong urge to “go west.” Not only young men, but all sorts and conditions of men, women and children harkened to an earlier and hypothetical Horace Greely’s advice to “Go west and grow up with the country.” And they went. On foot and on horseback, in covered wagons over “dark and bloody ground” of the Wilderness Trail and down the Ohio River on flatboats built at the source of the Ohio, the junction of the Allegheny and Monongehela Rivers, at the place once called Duquesne, later Pittsburg.
By the year 1797, settlements in what was to become Lawrence County were made along the river by these adventures crossing the river from Kentucky and coming down the river from Pennsylvania. One group was attracted by the cedar forests on the hills opposite where the Ashland-Coal Grove Bridge now spans the Ohio, and they stopped there and made permanent settlement. For they were coopers by trade and they took advantage of the cedars to make their buckets, churns and barrels, all of which were to function so largely in the history of Lawrence County.
This county was formally established in 1816 by taking portions of Gallia and Scioto Countues, but it was not until the 1830’s that the great Hanging Rock Iron Region began to be developed.
Why did the iron masters come to Southern Ohio? What motivated them? They must have heard of the same natural resources mentioned earlier. Did the news travel clear to Spartanburg, South Carolina and include John Means, a man of substance, to migrate to this region bringing his family and all of his slaves with him? (He was a man in advance of his time, for he wanted to free his slaves, but he knew he could not do that in South Carolina, so he brought them with him to “free” Ohio.) He arrived in Ohio in 1819, settled in Hanging Rock, and built the first iron furnace north of the Ohio River, which he named Union Furnace. This is also how the name of Union Landing came to be.
“There were giants in the earth” in those days. Another man, a descendant of those Scotch-Irish Presbyterians, “upon them,” our historian tells us, “George Washington strongly relied on in his war for independence.” This man was born in the year 1808, in Brown County, Ohio. There he remained and labored until 1834, when he was 26 years old, and having accumulated $600, he came to the Hanging Rock Iron Region to make his fortune. And, incidentally, to acquire lasting fame, as he richly deserved, as the founder and father of Ironton, John Campbell.
In 1887, Henry Howe, the historian, traveling down the Ohio River in preparation of the publication of the second edition of “How’s Historical Collections of Ohio,” interviewed this same John Campbell, now age 87, in a hotel in Ironton. He says, “In my entire tour I had scarcely met with another of such grand and patriarchial presence, of great stature and singular benignance of expression, he made me think of George Washington. He is from that strong Scotch-Irish Presbyterian stock that gave our country men such as Andrew Jackson, John C. Calhoun, Felix Houston of Texas and Stonewall Jackson.”
These men and others did at that time, establish in the County of Lawrence, named for the hero of the War of 1812, the famous furnaces whose products became known as the finest iron in the world. Prior to the Civil War, the government made a test of irons with reference to ordnance, in which “the cold blast Hecla was equalled only by results obtained from two furnaces, respectively located at Toledo, Spain and in Asia Minor.” During the Civil War, every ton of Hecla iron (excepting armor plates), was used at the Fort Pitt Works, Pittsburgh, for casting heavy ordnance and field guns, and ran far above the government’s required test for tenacity. The celebrated gun known as the “Swamp Angel,” of Charleston Harbor, was cast of Hecla iron. There is direct authority for starting that car wheels of this iron were in use for twenty years. In a memorial to Congress (1862) for the establishment of a national foundry at Ironton, we find the statement of one who was employed by the English government in 1855, that ” while thus employed, my particular duties were to make selection and mixture of metal for heavy ordnance for service in the Crimea. This employment required the making of numerous tests on different metals, to determine tenacity, deflection and specific gravity.” The cold blast pig (iron) made in Lawrence County, Ohio, was found superior not only to the irons of a similar make in other portions of the United States, but also, “as compared with the best English iron, the difference is about thirty percent in favor of this metal.” The names of the furnaces of the Hanging Rock area were: Etna, Center, Vesuvius, La Grange, Belfont, Mt. Vernon, Olive, Sarah, Union, Pioneer and Washington [and Hamilton, Buckhorn, Pine Grove, Lawrence, Hecla, Alice/Blanche, Oak Ridge, Grant – NC]. Most of these flourished between the 1830s and the end of the first World War. Only one furnace was built after that and that was the Ironton Iron & Steel Company on ground now occupied by the C. & M. Block Company.
What was the reason for the decline and fall of the furnace industry? It appears to be simply that the native supply of iron ore upon which they depended became exhausted. It was a colorful period, this period of making iron from a combination of natural resources, the native ore and charcoal from abundant forests. The activity surrounding the furnaces ceased, the flimsy houses built for the workers fell into decay, even the “big” houses built by and for the managers deteriorated. Ad the great iron industry moved elsewhere.
Since the end of the iron-making industry, how have the people of Lawrence County employed themselves? How have they made a living? First of all, farming was greatly extended and perfected, then the lumber industry, as shown by the once great Yellow Poplar Company of Coal Grove, came into being, providing for and above-average existence. And, gradually, a whole new type of industry has arisen, such as the Dayton Malleable Plant, famous the world over for their castings, the Alpha Portland Cement company and Marquette Cement Company, several divisions of Allied Chemical & Dye Corporation, the chemical plans such as Dow, Barrett and Oxo, and Carlyle Tile. and Ironton Fire Brick Companies, among many others have made the Lawrence County area again as world renowned as it once was as the Hanging Rock Iron Region.
Excerpt from “A Story About Lawrence County, Ohio” from the 1966 Sesquicentennial