Charcoal Iron Furnaces  

Besides the stack, there were several other parts to the furnace that were vital to the making of iron. There was the stock yard, the charging house, the casting house and the engine house. Also needed were barns to keep the mules and oxen that were used for draft. A blacksmith shop and plenty of water available for the furnace molds. There was a company store for the workers. A church house for all to attend. A school house if the church were not used for that purpose and homes for the workers to live in while they worked for the furnace with a spot for a garden. The final item needed was a cemetery for those unfortunates who were accidentally killed at the furnace or died for some reason at their home.

Each furnace usually had around 3000 acres of land that the company bought for the entire operation.

The cemetery only had to have the land allotted to it. The church house had a lot ascribed to it along with the schoolhouse. The company store had to be located reasonably close to the storage sheds so the burden could be weighed or measured before it was taken to the stock yard. The barn for the animals was usually located somewhere near the stock yards and with the barn there had to be a grainery and a corn crib.

The furnace stack was located next to a hill because there had to be two levels for it. The top level was probably 35 feet above the base level of the stack and the stock yard was located on that second level All of the burden materials were kept in the stockyard. The charging house was sitting with one end over the top of the furnace stack and the other end on the ground on the second level.

Photo of fireboxOn the ground level the furnace stack sat next to the hill. The side of the hill was cut back to accommodate the stack. Where the hill was cut back, a retaining wall was built to keep the hill from sliding down on the stack. The casting house was in the front of the stack and fastened to the stack so the iron as it was poured could go into molds under roof. Not too far from the casting house was a blacksmith shop for things would break and need repairing. Beside the stack was the engine room. This was the place for the steam engine that ran the air pump for the blast. Sometimes there was another house that was next to the engine room. It was for making steam for the engine and to heat the air going in for the blast. Some furnaces used the unused gases and smoke to heat the water for the engine and some used these gases to heat the air for the blast. This utilized the heat that would otherwise escape into the air.

On the side of the store next to the furnace was a large scale that could weigh mules and wagons with a load. When any of the burden was brought in it was first weighed on the scale - wagon and all. This figure was put down and then the wagon would go to the stock yard and unload After it was unloaded it was driven back to the scale to be weighed again. The first weight and the second weight were subtracted to give the weight of the burden it had just brought in, This figure was recorded in the ledger and the driver was given script to show how much money he had in the store to spend.

Once the burden was in the stockyard, it was broken down with a sledge hammer to the size of a man's fist for nothing could go into the furnace larger than that. This also made it easier to `roast' the ore. Once the material was broken down to the smaller size it was put in a shed separate from that which had not been broken down.

There were two wheel push carts that were used to wheel the burden in to the furnace, it took so many carts of each kind of burden to properly fill the furnace. This had to be done every half hour until the furnace was tapped. These push carts were pushed through the charging house to a spot over the top of the stack. A steel trap door was there that would be opened and the burden dumped in. After each dump the trap door was shut. The smoke and heat from the furnace were shunted off through pipes to the smoke stack where it was dispelled into the air.

After the furnace had been smelting the ore for about 24 hours it was tapped and the iron came out and flowed into molds. These molds could be just pig iron molds or they could be for stove parts or pots and pans. They could have been for train car wheels.

Once the iron was cooled it was broken from the leaders bringing the iron to the mold. These items were then hauled by oxen and a wagon to a storage area for sale later or they were taken to the river and placed on a boat for a foundry that had bought them.

The tapping of a furnace got its name from the fact that a large clay ball was placed in the mouth of the furnace to keep the materials inside until they were ready to be let out. This clay ball would turn to ceramic from the heat of the furnace, so when the iron was ready to come out, two men with a long steel bar would place the bar on the ball. One held the bar while the other one hit the end of the bar with a sledge hammer until the ball broke.

There was always slag to get out of the furnace. When the iron was flowing, the last part of it would be the slag. The trained eye could tell the slag from the iron, so a person would wait for the slag and put a dam across the main flow so it would go a different direction from the iron. When it cooled it was broken up and hauled away and dumped.

Iron on Tramway at Pine Grove.

As soon as the furnace was cleaned it was recharged and another smelt was begun.

Copyright 2006 by Amos Hawkins