Events Leading up to the Iron Furnaces

Events Leading to the Development of the Iron Industry in the Hanging Rock Iron Region

Written by Jim Joseph
(1998)

This is a brief introduction to the fortunate combination of circumstances that led to the rapid development of southeastern Ohio as the nation’s premier iron-producing region in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Emmett Conway is gathering more-specific information on the furnace sites themselves, and there is a fascinating description of the process of charcoal making that was essential to the operation of the furnaces. His site is very interesting reading – especially the story about the origin of the term “pig iron”!

For many hundreds of years before the Middle Ages, people had gradually developed an iron-making process for so-called wrought iron (not the same usage as today’s phrase) that used a combination of iron ore and charcoal. Charcoal helped to remove the oxygen from the iron, and the carbon absorbed from contact with the charcoal made the iron harder. The iron makers had learned that supplying extra air with a bellows or two would make the fire burn hotter – just like blowing on hot coals in a fireplace. Increasing the height of the chimney and using water power to increase the air flow into the furnace helped, but the process still didn’t produce large quantities of iron. Nevertheless, this was the dominant method in Colonial America; selected regions produced iron for their own consumption.

Meanwhile, the seeds of the Industrial Revolution were being sown in late-eighteenth-century Britain. The area around Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales had the right combination of iron ore, trees (for the charcoal!), and water power to become the leading iron-producing region in the world by the early part of the nineteenth century. In an interesting slice of irony (pun intended!), Richard Trevithick’s locomotive, which had been invented in 1804 to win a bet between two of the ironmasters, required miles and miles of rails from the Welsh iron works as railroads spread throughout Britain. Germans known for their metallurgical skills – particularly from Westphalia – were brought to Britain to add the right ingredients to iron so that wire and cable could be made (steel wasn’t available yet!) for the iron bridges.

Back in the United States, a swelling population was demanding goods made of iron. With cities growing, the local furnaces couldn’t begin to meet demand. A large supply of rich iron ore (AND trees AND water power) was needed. The Hanging Rock Iron Region in Southeastern Ohio (primarily Lawrence and Jackson counties) and Northeastern Kentucky had all three. The large furnaces that were built produced pig iron ingots that could be readily shipped, via rivers and canals (and later railroads) to other parts of the country for further refining and shaping.

The fledgling industry received another boost. As Sharon pointed out to me, a single furnace in Southeastern Ohio could consume 200 acres of trees PER YEAR! The area around Merthyr Tydfil in Wales had already been stripped of trees by the early nineteenth century, and the iron industry there had begun to decline. Coal mining, so common there by 1900, was not yet very profitable, and the use of coke to replace charcoal was not widespread. Crowded conditions in the coal fields led to both low wages and epidemics of disease. In Germany, the situation was little better because of constant wars among the German states, and Europe’s loss was America’s gain. Weak in “book learning”, many of these immigrants to Southeastern Ohio had knowledge of things like mining, smelting, and charcoal making that would allow the Buckeye iron industry to expand rapidly. The stage was set for an interesting half-century of Ohio industrial history.