Virginia’s iron industry was neither the first nor the largest in early America–those distinctions belong to Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. But the demand for day-to-day items such as nails and barrel staves and, later, armaments for the Confederacy, meant that some hundred-plus stone furnaces once graced the Old Dominion. Most are long gone, their cut stone carted off for other projects. A handful remain, though, and some are publicly accessible. They are beautiful ruins, but deceptive in their attraction
The Iron Forest at Roaring Run in George Washington National Forest
George Washington and Jefferson National Forests are home to several furnaces. The forest that has grown around these stone ruins belies the landscape that surrounded them when they were active, the resources they consumed. These furnaces had voracious appetites. To make the iron the country demanded, these furnaces needed iron ore, lime and charcoal–and lots of it.
A single iron furnace like that at Roaring Run, minutes from a trailhead in George Washington National Forest, once burned as much as an acre of wood, in the form of charcoal, every single day for the the four months a year it operated. That’s 120 acres or more per year. And it’s worth considering, too, that environmental practices of the day were far from sustainable. Loggers denuded hillsides. The trees used for charcoal were often three decades old.
L: Iron Furnace at Roaring Run; R: Salisbury Furnace, Botetourt County, Virginia
And that’s to say nothing of the strip mines and pits that furnished the iron ore. In many places the forest floor still bears these scars.
The furnaces are haunting and nostalgic but do little to acknowledge their vanished context, the destruction wrought around them. Even so, they’re gratifying to find and explore if for no other reason than to admire the comeback nature has made in the face maltreatment for so long.
L: Sailsbury furnace; R: Roaring Run furnace
Here is the Roaring Run furnace on Google Maps.
In Pennsylvania? You could spend years exploring those furnaces. Try Pennsylvania Iron Furnace Sourcebook.
Related: The lime kilns at Eagle Rock, Virginia. Lime was an ingredient in iron production.