Cultural History

Catherine Furnace can be found on the south end of Massanutten Mountain in near Cub Run.

The beginning of the iron industry in America goes back over 100 years before the Revolution. Pig iron for the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, and the Civil War was obtained in large quantities from the Virginia pig iron industry.

It might be said that American iron making began in England. In 1609, iron ore mined by Jamestown colonists was shipped to England where it produced superior metal. Following this successful venture, the first American iron works was erected about 1620 on Falling Creek about 7 miles south of Richmond. However, in the Indian raid of 1622 these first American furnaces were destroyed even before being put into operation.

The first successful iron making industry in the South did not develop until over a century later when Governor Spotswood established furnaces in Spotsylvania County near the Rappahannock River. The Rappahannock furnace was placed in operation in 1714. For the next 50 years, growth in the iron industry was slow and although furnaces continued to be built, others failed to operate economically or were closed.

In 1781, five operating furnaces were listed in Thomas Jefferson's "Notes on Virginia". Of these, Mossy Creek and Zane Furnaces were in the Shenandoah Valley. In the 1800's there were several furnaces operating in the Shenandoah Valley area -- Columbia, Liberty, Caroline, Boyer, and Elizabeth Furnaces to name a few.

Having learned the iron making art during their indentured service to Governor Spotswood eighteenth century Swiss, English, and German settlers scattered across the Commonwealth and carried their knowledge into the Shenandoah Valley, where there were already other workers following the valley down from Pennsylvania. Their early furnaces were a far cry from today's massive blast furnaces of Pennsylvania and Ohio. Though small, there were several essentials for the location of a furnace found in the Valley -- an adequate supply of iron ore and limestone, sufficient waterpower to turn a water wheel that operated a bellows for the fire, and an abundance of timber for charcoal that was the fuel for smelting the iron ore.

Elizabeth Furnace is a typical example of these early furnaces. A self-contained community grew up around the furnace -- known colloquially as an "iron plantation" under the direction of the owner or "iron master". These communities (the forerunners of the company towns seen in the coal fields today) consisted of the mansion of the iron master, cottages for the laborers, tool and storage sheds, shops for carpenters and blacksmiths, a store, stables, for mules and oxen, schools for employees' children, and the furnace. The furnace itself was a pyramid of stone, varying in size, usually about 30 feet square at the base and 25 to 40 feet high. Furnaces were erected against the side of a small hill so that the charge (iron ore, limestone, and charcoal) could be carried or wheeled from the stockpile across a bridge and dumped into the stack at the top.

While the furnace itself required a relatively small crew to operate it there were dozens of people working in the woods felling trees, burning the charcoal, working the ore diggings, mining the limestone, and caring for the mules and oxen.


Before the mining could begin, the ore had to be located; therefore the first step was prospecting. After a general geological survey was made, trenches or pits were dug. The loose earth was removed and digging continued until the solid strata of the rock was laid open. If the expected vein of ore was not found, the trench or pit was continued farther uphill or downhill until the mineral vein was located. Since the early prospectors had crude tools to execute this type of prospecting, it was best to select the steepest terrain to reduce the amount of work in removing the overburden (the non-mineral covering of dirt and rock). Many of these trenches and pits may still be seen today throughout the George Washington National Forest.

Another method of locating ore was to sink a shaft. A shaft was about four feet wide and 30 to 70 feet deep. These shafts are also extant today on the National Forest, appearing as depressed areas in the ground. The costs of sinking the shafts varied from one to three dollars per foot, up to seventy feet, depending on the diameter of the shaft; over 70 feet, the cost increased considerably.

There were two methods of ore mining. These of course were the same as prospecting -- surface or strip mining and subsurface mining. Subsurface mining was accomplished either by digging a drift (horizontal) or a shaft (vertical). The mines had to be protected from cave-ins by the use of black locust, white oak, and red oak shoring timbers ten to twelve inches in diameter. Most of the mining was the more economical strip mining that entailed the removal of all overburden covering the ore. Miners then excavated the ore with pick and shovel. When the overburden became too thick to remove economically, the strip mine was abandoned and the miners moved to another location. Wages for digging ore and quarrying limestone varied considerably, according to the location and facilities, with the price ranging from one to four dollars per ton.

Deposits of Oriskany brown iron ores occur locally in the western portion of the Appalachian belt, from Maryland to southwestern Virginia. Minor deposits in the Shenandoah Valley occur in the Buffalo Gap area, in the Massanutten Mountains, and on North Mountain in Shenandoah and Frederick Counties. The iron content of the Oriskany ore ranges between 35% and 50%. After mining and quarrying, the ore and limestone were hauled on wagons pulled by oxen or mules to the furnace bank where it was piled along the road for storage until needed by the furnace.


The third ingredient needed for iron making was a material to provide heat; charcoal when fired provided the heat to melt the ore. The process of making charcoal was considered an art and the charcoaling skill was called the "Mystery of Charring". The master collier and one or two helpers "coaled" together working as many as eight or nine pits at a time. The collier's hut was placed in a central location to the group of pits being fired. The hut was conical in shape, having a base about eight feet in diameter and a height of about ten feet. It was constructed of three-inch poles that were covered with leaves to form a mat so that the final dressing of topsoil would not sift through the remaining crevices. A door just large enough for one person to get through was placed on the pit side of the hut and a wood stove and rough log bunks were the furnishing of this temporary structure.

The hearth of the charcoal (or collier's) pit was a flat space 30 to 40 feet in diameter and free of all brush, roots, and stumps. Much care was taken so that the surface of the hearth was hard and smooth so as to afford good shoveling and raking of the coal. The hearth had to be level to assure uniform burning.

A collier's responsibilities did not begin until the wood had been sledded in from the woodchopper's ranks to the hearth, and there set on end until the entire surface was filled. This wood usually was cut during the winter months and allowed to season until the coaling operations began in late spring. Colliers often became woodchoppers during the winter in order to receive a full year's pay.

Two sizes of wood were used by the colliers to "set up" their charcoal pits: lap wood ranged in size from one and a half to four inches in diameter, and billets varied from four to seven inches. All wood was cut in four-foot lengths. The woodchopper "ranked" the cut wood separating each cord by up-right poles so that the owner, in computing the woodchopper's wages, could count the number of cords readily. Woodchoppers received 40 to 50 cents per cord ranked. An expert "ranker" could sometimes cut and put up five cords per day. This system was to turn all bark sides down in the rank and use crooked sticks to prevent the wood from packing closely. The average amount cut was two cords per day.

The wood hauler brought the billets and lap-wood from the woodchopper's ranks to the hearth on a wooden sled pulled by a mule or horse. The road leading to the pit always went right through the hearth so that the hauler could unload easily and drive out on the other side on his way for another load. When the hauler had filled the hearth with wood, that job was finished. It was at this point that the collier and helpers began the building of the pit. Actually, the word "pit" is misleading for it refers to the structure as a whole including the hearth and the pile of wood and does not convey the impression of a hole in the ground.

The first step in building the pit was to find the center of the hearth and erect the "fagan" a green pole 18 feet long and three or four inches in diameter. A three-cornered chimney was constructed around the Fagan using lap wood. When the chimney was five feet high, the collier placed the billets carefully against it, allowing each piece to protrude slightly at the base. When the first ring of billets had been placed, another ring was begun, the base protruding a little more each time, so the outside ring would have enough slope to the sides of the pit to enable the final covering of leaves and dust to rest securely without sliding off. Lap wood was fitted whenever possible to take up the air spaces.

After the first tier of billets and lap wood, which was called the foot, had been set out from the chimney far enough to give the collier a footing; he climbed up on it, built the chimney up another four feet or so, and then set the second tier of billets and lap wood called the waist. This procedure was continued until the chimney was completed and a rounded structure was fashioned. Throughout the operation great care was taken to set and fit the pieces substantially together to prevent the whole from reeling or twisting. Lapping-off was the last job in completing the construction of the pile. This consisted of using what lap wood was left to fill in all possible air spaces and cracks on the sides before the final covering of leaves and dust was spread on.

The pit now "set", the colliers constructed a ladder by notching out steps in an 8-inch log long enough to reach from the ground to the head. Enough chips and fire kindling were cut to fill the chimney within a foot of the top and a bridgen of three billets and several pieces of lap wood to cover the chimney made the pit ready for "leafing and dusting".

Leaves were raked by the collier's helper, from the forest floor into piles then carried to the pit in baskets. The leaves were scattered uniformly over the pit to a depth of several inches. The long-handled collier's shovel was used to spread on the dust that had been raked in a ring around the circumference of the hearth during the early preparation of the site. Several inches of dust were required for the sides and at least a foot on the head and shoulders.

The pit was then ready for firing. A shovelful or so of red-hot coals from the colliers cooking fire is placed on top of the kindling in the chimney when the bridgen and covering were replaced. The lighting of the pit was usually done toward evening in order that the collier might have at least one more good night's sleep before the constant watching began for it was not likely that the pit would "burn through" or need dressing until the following afternoon. Any kind of wood was used to make charcoal but it must be "solid". It was generally held that the harder the wood, the better the coal. It was usually the practice to cut clean, using everything except deadwood and in 30 years the tracts would be coaled again.

The collier's enemy was fire; the "live" fire, which would consume and undo all of his painstaking efforts to achieve the "dead" or charring fire. Flames might break through the covering and destroy the whole pit. A gas explosion might blow off the cover. Soft spots had to be found by the rather dangerous operation of jumping up and down on the surface. They had to be reinforced or dug out and replaced with new wood, leaves, and dust to preserve the original shape of the structure. The pit was tended in this manner every evening in order to prevent, if possible, its burning through during the night. The number of days required for a pit to burn off varied greatly with the size of the hearth and the kind of wood. For the average hearth, which held 30 cords or so of partly seasoned wood. It took from ten days to two weeks for the pit to come to foot, that is for all billets to char.

Because charcoal carries fire for a long time only small amounts could be removed at a time making the raking a tedious and painstaking task. The collier chose a side of the pit where the dust was driest and with a shovel dug out a portion starting at the foot. This opening acted as a draft and soon there were signs of fire. At that point the collier stopped digging and covered the burning area with dry dust to reseal the pit and allow it to cool. The long iron-toothed collier's rake was then used to draw back into the ring the pile of charcoal which had just been dug out and each pile was kept in a separate ring so that a single fire might not destroy the total.

On the day when the wagon was to come for the first load, the colliers were up early and ready to start work at dawn. They spent several hours in raking out the coal and the rest of the morning in seeing that no fire remained in it. The same collier's baskets that were used to carry leaves to the head of the pit were used to fill the wagon with charcoal. Charcoal wagons held about 200 bushels of charcoal. They were drawn by six-mule teams and equipped with high sideboards and a button that would pull out. Upon reaching the charcoal house, the teamster unhooked the lead team from the "spreaders" and fastened their whiffletree to a coupling connected to the sliding floor of the wagon. In that way the load of charcoal was dumped without effort to the teamster or damage to the brittle charcoal.

Charcoal made an ideal fuel, being almost free of sulfur, and its ash, consisting largely of lime and alkalis, supplied part of the necessary flux. Hickory was the best wood for making charcoal but all trees were used. The wood was not charred immediately after being cut but only a short time before it was needed. Large as most of the strong-walled charcoal houses were, they could not hold enough fuel to feed the furnace for any length of time and to have left the charcoal outside would have made it unfit for use. An average furnace would consume from 600-800 bushels of charcoal every 24 hours. This required about 30-40 cords of wood from trees 25-30 years old. Some furnaces consumed the yield of an acre of woodland each day.

Perhaps the one disadvantage of charcoal as a fuel was its lightness that made it easy to crush. This was the factor that limited the height of early furnaces in the Shenandoah Valley to a maximum of about 35 feet.

The clear cutting of the forest went on year round to provide enough wood for the charring season. As many as ten or twelve colliers were needed to keep a furnace going. Three cords of wood made enough charcoal to fire the furnace for about two hours and produce one cubic foot of iron; therefore it took about 8 cords of wood to produce one ton of pig iron. Once the furnace started it ran 24 hours a day during the summer months. If you assume that this season was from May 1 to September 1, then the furnaces operated 123 days. This means that the furnace ran for 2952 hours and consumed 3 cords of wood (in the form of charcoal) every two hours. This meant that each year 4,428 cords of wood was cut to provide the charcoal. This is the approximate yield of about 150 acres of woodlands each year. In the middle 1800's there were five furnaces operating in the Massanutten area of the Shenandoah Valley alone meaning 750 acres of land was clear-cut to provide charcoal for the furnace and that it would be between 25-30 years before that area could be coaled again. In this amount of time between 19,000 and 23,000 acres of forest had been clear-cut in continuous bands. These operations caused impressive impacts on the forests of the Shenandoah Valley that may still be seen to this day as the mountains were criss-crossed with roads, dotted with colliers pits, covered with iron ore test pits, and scarred by mining operations.

Three main raw materials were needed for the successful operation of charcoal ironworks: water, iron ore and timber. All of the Shenandoah Valley's forges and furnaces were located on or near water sources. The bellows connected to a water wheel. As water turned the wheel, the bellows alternately injected blasts of air into the furnace that helped to create and maintain the high temperatures needed for the furnace and forge to work. The relatively primitive transportation techniques in the 19th century made it necessary to locate furnaces within a convenient distance from the ore beds. In the Shenandoah Valley a brown hematite ore was the main supply used.

During the 19th century the appearance and operation of an ironworks and its associated structures differed little among the various Virginia furnaces. The furnace, which took from eight to twelve months to build, was roughly 30 feet square on each side and about 30 feet high with inclining sides. The top of the furnace was usually about 20 feet square. The blast furnace was constructed of stone and within the structure separated from the outside wall by mortar, broken stone and sand was a furnace core lined with firebrick or other refractory material. The working arch is located at the front of the furnace and the furnace is tapped at the base of this arch.

The water wheel and bellows were typically located to one side of the furnace. The bellows system was eventually replaced by the use of two wooden tubs, each of which contained a piston.

The alternate strokes of the water-driven pistons furnished an almost continuous blast to the furnace. To prepare a furnace for the blast, the bosh, or interior was filled with charcoal. The charcoal was lit at the top of the furnace and the fire was allowed to work its way to the bottom of the bosh. The furnace was then refilled with charcoal and the fire burned its way back to the top. Once the fire reached the top of the furnace limestone and iron ore were dumped in. Iron ore and limestone melt when temperatures reach 2,000 to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. As the iron melts, the limestone serves as a flux causing the molten metal to separate from the dirt and flow downward. During the blast process, charcoal and iron were fed continuously to the furnace. The furnace could operate no longer than eight or nine months at a time because the crucible and the inner lining of the firebrick had to be renewed periodically.

The most profitable period of the charcoal iron industry in Virginia was between the years of 1826 and 1855. During this period, the Virginia furnaces could effectively compete with Pennsylvania charcoal furnaces while the tariffs of 1824 and 1828 helped to keep European iron out of American markets. Even during this period though, economic and logistic difficulties hampered the Virginia iron industry. In the winter of 1836-1837, pig iron sold for as high as $55 per ton but during the panic of 1837, the price fell to $22 per ton. Virginia also lacked an adequate transportation system. Even though railroads were constructed in Virginia as early as 1837 providing the Shenandoah Valley access to the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, no broad plan was created to construct an efficient rail network. Most bar iron had to be hauled by wagon that was very expensive.

Iron production methods in Virginia remained about the same from 1825 to the 1850's. Virginia ironmasters stated that it cost about $15 to $20 to turn out a ton of pig iron during these years. But because the British iron industry used bituminous coal for fuel and steam engines they could produce pig iron for $11.75 per ton in 1845. In 1839, Pennsylvania began construction of furnaces that used anthracite coal and this innovation reduced production costs. Virginia, however, did not have a supply of hard coal.

When the Civil War began in 1861, Virginia had 14 charcoal iron furnaces in operation. Twenty-two others had been temporarily shut down. If Virginia's demand for pig iron for munitions and machinery were to be met, closed furnaces would have to be reopened and new ones built. During the war, the western counties of Virginia seceded from Virginia to become West Virginia, which remained loyal to the Union. Because of its proximity to West Virginia, the Shenandoah Valley was invaded by Union forces. The Valley's pig-iron furnaces and forges that furnished the Confederacy with weapons and other strategic materials became a prime target for destruction by the Union forces.

Union forays against the local iron industry formed a part of several major military campaigns undertaken in the Valley during the Civil War and damage was extensive; for example, Columbia Furnace was burned three times by Union forces, Liberty Furnace was less severely burned on one or two occasions, and Henrietta and Caroline Furnaces were destroyed in 1864 and never rebuilt.

After the war, many of the furnaces continued operations. Virginia's furnaces played a role in reconstruction and as late as 1870 Virginia was producing annually far more iron than it had during the year before the war. However, the economic resurgence of Virginia's iron industry did not extend into the 20th century.

In summary the charcoal iron furnaces constituted part of Virginia's economic history from its initial colonization by Europeans to the end of the 19th century. The industry was characterized by marked individualization, continual economic uncertainty, a transient labor force, fluctuating markets, and a dependency on sometimes-capricious natural resources. Jobs at the furnace plantations were strenuous and the workers paid low salaries although they were often supplied with food and lodging. Ownership of an ironworks never guaranteed success, but rather depended on the abilities of the iron master and the workers.

TOP PHOTO - Click on images to see enlarged version.

Catherine Furnace, Cub Run, Lee Ranger District.


Bradford, Samuel S. The Ante-Bellum Charcoal Industry of Virginia. Unpublished PhD dissertation, Department of History, Columbia University (1958).

Bruce, Kathleen Virginia Iron Manufacture in the Slave Era, Augustus M. Kelley, New York. Reprint of 1930 edition, published by the Century Co., New York (1968).

Capron, John D. "Virginia Iron Furnaces of the Confederacy." Virginia Cavalcade 17(2)"10-18 (1967).

Dew, Charles B. Ironmaker to the Confederacy: Joseph R. Anderson and the Tredegar Iron Works. Yale University Press, New Haven (1966).

Gardner, William and William Boyer A Cultural Resources Reconnaissance of Portions of the Northern Segment of Massanutten Mountain in the George Washington National Forest Page, Warren and Shenandoah Counties, Virginia. Report submitted to the U.S. Forest Service, Harrisonburg, Virginia (1978).

Kemper, Jackson American Charcoal Making. Eastern National Park and Monument Association (n.d.)

Kury, Theodore W. "Iron and Settlement: The New York and New Jersey Highlands in the Eighteenth Century." Geoscience and Man 5:7-23 (1974).

Swank, James M. History of the Manufacture of Iron of All Ages and Particularly in the Unites States from Colonial Times to 1891. Burt Franklin, New York. Reprint of the 1892 edition (1965).

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