One of our list members asked me if I knew anything about iron mining in early Kentucky and particularly in western Kentucky. No, but I did a lot of searching! My sources included the Filson Club, Kentucky Historical Society, various articles over the years. The primary information is taken from “Old Kentucky Iron Furnaces” by J. Winston Coleman, Jr., Lexington, Kentucky, to whom I owe my thanks.
I have never seen one, but scattered over Kentucky can be seen a number of stone piles. There’s no activity now but most are grown over by the native trees and vines. But in the past, these stone piles were important and some names of their locations almost unknown. Names such as Hunnewell, Argillite, Pacolus and Bourbon. The latter we will recognize of course, but the question arises, what were they and why they were important?
If we’ll remember our history, the War of 1812 comes to mind. Cannonballs. Also, the need for iron to make instruments to conquer the West. These were charcoal furnaces used to furnish Kentucky with iron – much needed in many uses.
As we may remember, the American Revolution’s resolution allowed soldiers and officers to come to what is now Kentucky but was then Kentucky County, Virginia. Land in payment for services was the only way Virginia could keep its promise to pay for the service of their noble Virginians. So, settlers and other emigrants came west into our Kentucky land. Some were land speculators, some were settlers who wanted a new start in a beautiful land with so much possibility.
One man who made the trek west, to our Kentucky soil, was a German man by the name of Jacob Myers. He moved from Richmond, Virginia in 1782 with his land grants signed by Governor Patrick Henry. He went right to work and surveyed the land, entered it on the Kentucky records and then patented between 8,000 to 10,000 acres of land around Slate Creek in what was to become Bath County. In 1791 he began erecting a small furnace to smelt the ores he’d discovered. He sold later that same year interest in the land to John Cockey Owings of Maryland, to Christopher Greenup (a later Governor of Kentucky), of Mercer County; to Walter Beall of Nelson County and Willis Green of Lincoln County and kept 1/4th for himself.
These men signed a contract which organized a joint stock company with all its rules and regulations and it included the following: “The furnace now building on Slate Creek shall hereafter be styled, called, and known by the name of the Bourbon Furnace, and the firm name of the company shall be John Cockey Owings and Company, owners and proprietors of the Bourbon Furnace.” This was established before Kentucky became a Commonwealth in 1792. This was the first iron furnace west of the Alleghenies. (James L. Bishop, A History of American Manufactures from 1608 to 1860, New York, 1864, p. 602).
The stack supposedly still stands, located three miles south of Owingsville on the Preston Road. The location was chosen as it was close to water, trees and limestone.
How did the furnaces operate? According to Mr. Coleman: “Each furnace was a bustling, self-contained community known as an ‘iron plantation’, under the direction of the owner or ‘ironmaster.’ Below the mansion of the ironmaster was the furnace, cottages for the laborers, tool and storage sheds, shops for the carpenters and blacksmiths, store for general merchandise, stables for the mules and oxen, and schools for the employees’ children. A ‘furnace house’ or home for the manager completed the complement of the buildings.”
He noted also that it didn’t take all that many men to operate the furnace but employed many others to cut trees, burn charcoal, working in the iron diggings, mining the limestone, hauling ore, charcoal and limestone and taking care of the mules and oxen.
What did the furnace look like? It was big – looking much like a pyramid and made of stone. Normally, it was about 25 feet square at the base and rose to 25-40 feet high. It as open at the top, its smallest size. It looked lick a stack of blocks, rough hewn. It contained three parts: the hearth, the bosch and the stack from top to bottom. Normally these furnaces were built against the side of a hill. The iron ore, limestone, flux and charcoal would then be carried or toted in a wheelbarrows over a small bridge from the stockpile on the bank and then dumped into the stack at its top. The molten iron was drawn out from the bottom.
At the Bourbon Furnace, work began in the fall of 1791. Iron ore was brought from the Howard Hill and Block House banks, two miles from the furnace. Power was derived from Slate Creek. The Furnace produced about three tons a day. It wasn’t totally efficient as large quantities of iron were being thrown off in the slag.
Employees had various titles that sound foreign to us to today. There were “sounders” or “smelters” who were the men who were skilled workmen and supervised the operations and cast the iron. Men called “potters” made the small castings after the molten iron had run out of the furnace. “Guttermen” had charge of the sand molds. Others, many times Blacks, were the “fillers” who carried or wheeled the heavy baskets of ore, limestone and charcoal to the top of the furnace. There were also “colliers” (charcoal burners). “Wood choppers” worked in the forest, felling trees, trimming them to lengths and bundling them into cords.
How did the furnace work? The structure is built and the furnace is now ready to be “blown in.” This meant it was ready to be used. A large fire was built inside the stack and constantly refilled as needed. This original lighting was a time of celebration – all the employees and their families came; songs were sometimes sung. It was a tradition in many areas for a young lady, sometimes the fiancée of the ironmaster’s son, to light the first fire in the furnace. This was followed by a large “feast”. That night there was sometimes a dance – a total day of celebrating.
When the ore, charcoal and limestone settled in the stack, more was added. The furnace was kept in “full blast” always. The intense heat caused the oxygen in the ore to combine with the charcoal and left the iron to separate into an almost pure state. When the bosch was reached (where the fire in the furnace is the hottest), the charcoal had burned away or combined with the iron which by that time had separated and the limestone had combined with the impurities in the ore. This fused iron and slag settled in the hearth with the heaviest iron at the bottom and the slag floating on top of the molten metal. This was diverted into a nearby ravine or put in a large pit. When this cooled down it could be broken up and taken away. This was sometimes used in the building of farms or county roads.
In front of the furnace was a sand bed with a shed built over it. This was called the “casting house”. Trenches sloped away from the front of the furnace made of sand; the hot iron flowed from the furnace into a main trench and then diverted into side trenches. This formed a series of iron bars which were four to six feet long. The long bar in the feeder trench was called the “sow”, the smaller bars at right angles were the “pigs.”
One year later, in 1792, a Lexington KY firm offered for sale “Barr Iron assorted, Smith’s Anvils and Vises, Castings.”
To be continued next week.