Dickson County

Bellview Furnace

            Bellview Furnace, also called the Mammoth Furnace, was located on Jones Creek, four miles south of Charlotte, in Dickson County.  Shortly after selling the Cumberland Furnace in 1825, ironmaster Montgomery Bell supervised the construction of a substantial stone and earthen dam (much of which survives) across the creek to provide water power to run a new cold-blast furnace.   

The pig iron produced at Bellview Furnace was floated two miles downstream in shallow wooden boats to the Valley Forge, where it was converted into bar iron.  This was the site of the most stunning achievement of Bell’s expert corps of African-American craftsmen: the massive hand-hewn limestone wall that impounded the water needed to provide the power for the enterprise.  Almost thirty feet tall at the center and extending for more than four hundred feet, the finished dam totally enclosed a small valley.  After water was diverted from nearby Jones Creek by a low wooden barrier and channeled into the natural depression, the pressure produced by the considerable change in elevation of the large volume of water captured in the reservoir was more than enough to run the four huge tilting hammers and the rest of the subsidiary equipment operated by the crew of white and black workers that labored at this forge.

            By the mid-1830s the ore and timber for charcoal were so depleted in the surrounding area that the operation had to be shut down.  In 1839, Bell offered to sell or rent the Bellview facility on favorable terms along with an experienced set of hands if needed.  There were no takers at the time.  Undeterred, he tried to sell the property for $12,000 five years later, and it remained on the market until his death in 1855. 

Although most of the buildings on the site were made of wood, Bell built a brick office building, large stone molding rooms, and a spacious stone warehouse.  One of these solid buildings survives today; however, research has not been able to determine which purpose it served originally.  This building has been used as a church, first called Bellview and than Rock Church.  A cemetery is located on the hill above the site.

 

Cumberland Furnace

            Cumberland Furnace in Dickson County has the distinction of being the only existing iron village remaining in Tennessee.  Here is where a visitor can begin to visualize the layout of one of the iron plantations that existed throughout Tennessee.  Further, its history parallels that of the entire iron industry in the state from the late 1700s until the mid-twentieth century.  The first furnace was put into blast in 1797 by James Robertson, early settler and a founder of Nashville.  The associated forge was named for Robertson's daughter, Charlotte, who had married ironmaster, Richard C. Napier.

            In 1804, Robertson sold the Cumberland Furnace to Montgomery Bell. During Bell’s ownership of more than twenty years, at least two furnaces operated here.  With a large work force of slaves and whites, the village became an important industrial site in the state and in the South.  One claim to fame is that some of the cannonballs that supplied Andrew Jackson’s troops at the battle of New Orleans were manufactured here.  In 1825, Bell sold his property to Anthony Vanleer who dismantled the old furnace built by Robertson and rebuilt Bell’s second furnace.

            With the fall of Fort Donelson in 1862, Cumberland Furnace closed.  It was one of the few in the state to survive the Civil War.  Mary Florence Kirkman, granddaughter and heir of Anthony Vanleer, married James Pierre Drouillard, a Union officer who had been stationed in Nashville.  Following the war, they moved to Cumberland Furnace to oversee the reopening and running of her family’s business.  The Drouillard Mansion dates from 1868 when it was completed as the showplace of Cumberland Furnace and as a suitable residence for the owners of the J. P. Drouillard Iron Company.

            Throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century and intermittently until the beginning of World War II, Cumberland Furnace continued to produce iron through various operations including the Buffalo Iron Company and Warner Iron Company.  The L & N Railroad had a spur to the village and a depot until 1936. The last iron production occurred just before World War II began. 

 

Laurel Furnace

            Laurel Furnace was built by pioneer ironmaster Richard C. Napier in 1815.    Napier’s facility used two blowing tubes powered by a waterwheel to provide the air for the blast.  By 1820, the furnace was producing 660 tons of pig iron and hollow ware per year worth over $32,000.  Napier, whose workforce consisted of seventy men, four women, and three boys, shipped most of the pig iron to his Turnbull Forge in Cheatham County, where it was hammered into high-quality wrought iron.  The two ventures remained closely allied with each other during the period of their activities.

Napier publicly guaranteed the quality, availability, and economy of his castings, machinery, and bar iron to his customers.  He retailed much of the production at his iron store in Union Alley in Nashville, and continued to operate both furnace and forge until the early 1830s when he leased the business to the partnership of Epps Jackson and Stephen Eleazer.  After Napier died in 1834 and Eleazer in the following year, Jackson acquired both facilities and ran them until 1841, when Dr. Elias W. Napier brought the ironworks back under the control of the family.

Eight years later, Napier’s nephew, William C., acquired both properties from the deceased doctor’s estate and continued to make iron.  He rebuilt Laurel Furnace in 1854 and converted it to steam power for greater efficiency and production.  At that time he boasted that the facility “probably (had) the best engine and blast in the state.”  After producing only 657 tons of metal in 40 weeks during 1855, Napier offered to sell the furnace and 5 to 6,000 acres of land so that he could concentrate his manufacturing activities at his Carroll Furnace on Barton’s Creek.  Buyer William H. Crutcher attempted to make a success of the operation, but abandoned the furnace after a few years.  Iron was never produced there again, although the roughly-hewn limestone stack remained a landmark in the neighborhood until the middle of the twentieth century.  Today, the ruins of Laurel Furnace are located within Montgomery Bell State Park near Burns, Tennessee.

 

Promise Land Community

            Shortly after the Civil War, in the hilly landscape two miles or so north of Charlotte, Tennessee, a group of ex-slaves established the Promise Land community and it became the earliest African-American settlement in Dickson County.  According to tradition, the name was chosen because the settlers believed that the Federal government had promised to set aside land for them. However, the name may also have a Biblical origin.

Many of the people who came there to live had previously labored at the local ironworks or in the nearby fields, including the families of Nathan Bowen, Washington Vanleer, and the Nesbitt brothers, John and Arch.  Early ironmaster Montgomery Bell had purchased this tract in 1809 for the benefit of his Cumberland Furnace.  It contained the rich Ticer Ore Bank as well as extensive woodlands that were used for the production of charcoal.

In 1825, Anthony Vanleer bought the furnace from Bell and operated it until Union forces took control of the area in 1862.  After the war was over, Vanleer’s daughter and her husband reopened the facility and hired many residents of Promise Land as free laborers.  These men and women worked as fillers, keepers, forgemen, blacksmiths, miners, teamsters, colliers, farmers, laborers, housekeepers, cooks, and laundresses. 

As time went on, more black families bought small farms in the vicinity and the community grew.  By 1880 at least 175 people called Promise Land home.  Eventually it encompassed almost two square miles and consisted of some fifty houses, several stores, two churches, and a school.  Religion and education were very important to African Americans and the two have been intertwined for generations at Promise Land.  The first schoolhouse burnt down in the late nineteenth century.  The present building dates from 1899; its kitchen wing was constructed in the 1940s.  The community furnished all building materials and labor. 

At one time there were three churches in Promise Land, although two congregations shared the same building.  Both church buildings were built at the beginning of the twentieth century.  Lightning destroyed St. John Methodist in 1939 and it was rebuilt in 1942.  The other church building was taken down in the early 1980s.

The community began a slow decline during the 1920s.  Both furnace and farm work had become unattractive to the younger generation and northern cities offered better educational and occupational opportunities.  Although only St. John Church, the cemetery, and the old schoolhouse are all that remain of the historic village now, the descendants of the original landowners of the Promise Land settlement continue to keep its history and heritage alive with annual reunions.

 

Worley Furnace

In 1825, Montgomery Bell paid Isaac West, Sr. $10,000 for the Mother Ore Bank in southwestern Dickson County.  After selling Cumberland Furnace in 1825, the ironmaster began to establish new ironworks within the county.  Bell had come to Tennessee in 1802 with his personal servant, a black man by the name of James Worley.  For most of Bell’s career, Worley acted as his trusted executive assistant, handling important business transactions and transporting large sums of cash over great distances.  As the legendary entrepreneur’s agent, advisor, and confidant, Worley emerged as one of Tennessee’s first prominent African Americans. 

In 1844, Bell completed the construction of the last of his stone blast furnaces, the remains of which still rest against a hillside along Old Furnace Road.  At that time, he designated the site as the “Worley Furnace” to honor James Worley.

A steam engine provided the power to run this cold blast furnace which was manned by a workforce of eighty and produced forty tons of pig iron per week.  Much of this output wound up at the Pattison Forge on the Harpeth River, now in Cheatham County, where it was converted into bar iron.  In 1851 Bell transferred the ownership to his nephew, James L. Bell.  The younger Bell employed J. M. Skelton to manage the operation and rebuilt the furnace in 1854, which increased overall production somewhat.  By 1859, an industry-wide depression had forced the furnace to go out of blast, and early the following year J.L. Bell died from an overdose of laudanum.  The property was sold by decree of the Chancery Court in the fall of 1866.

When Worley Furnace reopened, it and Cumberland Furnace were the only works that made charcoal iron in Dickson County.  After operating unsuccessfully under several owners during a 12 year period, the Warner family leased the facility and tried to convert it to a coke-fired plant, but the high costs that they incurred caused them to shut down the business in 1880.

 

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