Cheatham County

Narrows of Harpeth Forge

The Harpeth River, which originates in Rutherford County, empties into the Cumberland River about six miles below Ashland City.  Twenty-two miles or so upstream, in southern Cheatham County, the river loops around a limestone ridge known as the Narrows of Harpeth.  Several hundred yards long and rising as high as 250 feet, the slender piece of land forms a solid barrier between the waters of the Harpeth.

            Early in the nineteenth century, Tennessee’s legendary ironmaster, Montgomery Bell, recognized the enormous industrial potential of this unique geographical site.  He imagined that by harnessing the water of the Harpeth River as it looped around a high limestone ridge known as the Narrows of the Harpeth, he could produce a waterfall that would provide power for an extensive commercial enterprise.

            Bell was a man of many ideas and, though unprecedented in the United States in 1814, he began the process of building a tunnel fifteen feet wide and six feet high through solid rock.  To help him construct the tunnel, Bell hired millwrights, carpenters, blacksmiths, masons, stonecutters and other laborers, many of whom were slaves.  After four years of construction, the tunnel was completed on July 4, 1818 and water began to flow.  The engineering project was an unparalleled success.   

  After the project’s completion, Bell sought assistance from the State of Tennessee in order to develop an ironworks on the site.  Despite his efforts, he was unsuccessful in receiving funding and he soon began to develop the Narrows into an extensive ironworks by himself.  Named Pattison Forge after his mother, the facility went into operation in 1831.  The harnessed hydro-energy transferred by means of at least eight wooden waterwheels easily powered four large trip hammers to pound the iron.  Two nobling fires served each of these heavy instruments, and the skilled crew of sixty-five hands produced forty tons of iron blooms per week by the mid-1840s.  More than half of this workforce were enslaved African Americans, many of whom lived in a small town across the river known as Bellville.

Although Bell’s plans for a rolling mill on the site never worked out, he continued to sell his hammered iron with his name stamped on every bar.  The bars were retailed at his own iron store on College Street in Nashville and through other merchants.  Four years before Montgomery Bell’s death in 1855, the property came into the hands of his nephew, James L. Bell, who had married the older man’s daughter, Evelina.  The younger Bell operated the forge until his death in 1860.  After the occupation of Middle Tennessee by Union troops two years later the forge never ran again, although the gristmill continued to operate for some time during the post-war period. The tunnel, an engineering marvel of the early 1800s, remains an impressive site today.  

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