Decatur County

Brownsport Furnace

Immense quantities of high quality iron ore were found on both sides of the Tennessee River in Perry and Decatur counties in the early nineteenth century.  On the Decatur side, two iron furnaces were established with the name Brownsport.

The first iron furnace (which no longer exists) was built by Samuel Vanleer in 1838 on the west bank of the river.  The son of Vanleer’s sister Hettie, Felix Lanier, inherited a half interest in the operation and took on a partner, Alexander Fall.  In 1850, these two young men oversaw a thriving business that employed 90 people, most of them slaves, which produced over 2,000 tons of pig iron and realized a profit of $15,000.  Three year later, Lanier sold 6,000 acres of land to the partnership of William Ewing, David Dick, and Robert McClure.  The furnace itself and the surrounding buildings were not part of the transaction.

            Ewing, Dick, and Co. built a steam powered hot blast furnace on a new site three miles from the river, and by the end of 1854 the operation had made over 2,100 tons of metal.  Ewing died soon afterwards and the Chancery Court ordered the business sold in 1857.  After resolving this matter, Dick sold the furnace and lands to ironmaster John W. Walker, the former owner of an ironworks near Forty-Eight Creek in Wayne County.

Unlike many Western Highland Rim ironworks, Brownsport escaped destruction during the Civil War.  Lieutenant-Commander Leroy Fitch listed the presence of the furnace on a U.S. Navy reconnaissance report in March 1863.  He identified the facility as a foundry and noted that the owners were known to be Unionists.  After the war, Walker sold a 2/3 interest in the business to Charles B. Young.

Information from the 1870 census schedule of manufactures identifies the partnership of Walker and Young as running the only furnace in Decatur County.

The partnership rebuilt the stack to a height of 40 feet and installed the most modern equipment in order to process the brown hematite ore found within 400 yards of the furnace.  200 people labored at the facility for several years but mismanagement took its toll.  All work was suspended by 1878 and the plant never reopened. 

            Over the years, the machinery, bricks, and lumber were sold and reused elsewhere.  Decatur County Parks and Recreation now oversees the remains of the furnace stack and some of the surrounding acreage.  Brownsport Furnace is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is accessible to the public.


Decatur Furnace

Decatur Furnace is located at Bob's Landing in the southeastern section of Decatur County, about 6 miles northwest of Clifton on the west bank of the Tennessee River.  For many years this was the southernmost landing in the county.  The settlement that developed here was first named Shannonville after early resident Bob Shannon.  With the coming of the postal system, the name was changed to Bob's Landing to avoid confusion with an already existing post office of the same name.                                                                                                                   

This steam-powered hot blast facility was established on the site of an earlier iron manufacturing venture (then known as the West Point Furnace) in the early 1850s by the firm of Watkins, Golladay & Co.  Several investors came and went and by 1857 the enterprise was operating under the style of Golladay, Cheatham & Co.  In the years before the Civil War, George W. Carter managed these ironworks utilizing a number of enslaved laborers hired by the year from local slaveholders.  On at least one occasion the company’s owners advertised for the return of a runaway hand in the Nashville newspapers.                                                 

At almost ten feet across inside and forty feet tall when constructed, the furnace boasted one of the larger stacks in the iron-producing region of the Western Highland Rim.  The brown hematite ore smelted there was mined across the river in Perry County.  In 1856, pig iron production reached almost 2,000 tons in less than a year.                                                      

In the nineteenth century the facility was located on a high bluff above the Tennessee River, but now the remains of the limestone stack are located only about 50 yards from the impounded waters of Kentucky Lake.  Like many of the iron furnace villages, bricks and building materials were salvaged by people in the area for other uses.


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