The Historic Iron Industry of Middle Tennessee:
Few substances have played a larger role or had more of an impact on the peoples of this planet than iron. From approximately 4000 B.C. until the commercialization of the Bessemer process of steel manufacture (1867), iron has been a constant and consistent element in the development of races, cultures, and nations. From primitive spearheads and knives to plows, kettles, weapons, cannon, munitions, battleships, railroads, bridges, and buildings, generations have relied on the iron found within the earth’s crust to survive, to farm, to wage war, to build, and to flourish.
deposits of the
of the upland areas of the
Numerous blast furnaces and forges existed in Middle Tennessee, primarily during the nineteenth century. Early adventurer James Robertson and his partners established the first iron furnace in the region in 1797 and others quickly followed suit. The early iron making operations took place on large, remote, self-sustaining plantations and often employed hundreds of workers: male and female, young and old, black and white, who mined the ore, burned charcoal, hauled raw materials, produced the metal itself, grew and prepared food, or performed the many and varied tasks of the village and its surrounding farms.
Hopewell Village National Historic Site, Southern Berks County, Pennsylvania
Photo Courtesy of National Park Service
Supervising the entire operation was the multitalented ironmaster who functioned as chief executive officer, head engineer, personnel director, and sales manager. Further, it was his ultimate responsibility to make sure that there were adequate supplies of ore, wood, charcoal, and foodstuffs, as well as horses, mules, and workers who could perform the many and varied tasks. Under the watchful eye of the founder, whose job it was to keep the furnace in blast twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, the blast furnace chemically reduced large amounts of ore and limestone flux into molten metal and waste material.
This process was accomplished by subjecting the charcoal fuel to a continuous blast of air that produced temperatures high enough to separate the iron from the other elements. These impurities joined with the fluxing material and were drawn off as slag. Guttermen made the liquid iron flow into previously prepared channels in the sand floor of the casting house. When cool, these large hardened bars (known as pigs) could be transported to forges or rolling mills for further refinement. The highly trained (and well paid) molders fashioned cast iron consumer products in a shed at the base of the furnace.
Finery forges served as adjuncts to the blast furnaces, heating the brittle pig iron in the presence of an oxidizing air blast to remove more of the carbon, and turning it into malleable wrought iron by mechanical pounding. Bloomery forges acted as small open blast furnaces that transformed relatively small amounts of rich ore directly into wrought iron by heating, cooling, and hammering. Beginning in the 1840s, most Middle Tennessee bloomeries were being abandoned in favor of puddling furnaces at the rolling mills. Some forges continued to use trip or steam hammers for turning bloomed or rolled iron into various shapes for mechanical purposes, i.e. crankshafts and axles.
In 1847, there were 21 blast
furnaces, 11 forges, and
3 rolling mills operating on or near the Cumberland River in the
Generally, however, the
industry was in a decline by
the mid 1850s. Financial difficulties that led to the economic Panic of
and the monumental technological changes that led to the new Age of
effectively doomed the charcoal iron industry of the
The furnace stacks, the water courses, a few buildings, cemeteries, piles of slag, archaeological remains, some documents, and oral traditions are the remnants of this nearly forgotten chapter of Tennessee’s history. The remains of the hearths where immense quantities of wood were burned to make the charcoal that fueled the furnaces are still evident at some sites or are being rediscovered by archaeologists. The densely forested landscape surrounding the furnaces underwent a major change during the years of iron production because of the clear cutting of the virgin timber that was transformed into charcoal.
To request a copy of Tennessee Iron Furnace Trail: A Guide to Resources on the Western Highland Rim or the accompanying video, contact the Center for Historic Preservation or the Buffalo Duck River and Five Rivers Resource Conservation and Development Councils.
Center for Historic Preservation
BDR 931/729-2686, Ext. 102
Five Rivers RC & D – 931/368-0252
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