This week, the Amanda Furnace at AK Steel was demolished, which marked the official end to the blast furnaces of the Hanging Rock Iron Region. Ironically, this famous pig iron capital of the world began with the original Amanda Furnace, constructed in 1818 in Ashland, Kentucky.
The first furnace in southern Ohio was built in Hanging Rock in 1826. Named “Union,” it produced a meager one ton of iron daily. It was soon replaced with the Ohio Furnace, which was closer to the river. Not to be discouraged, the men who would eventually be known as iron masters, kept building, finding better resources, refining the process, and producing more iron. It wasn’t long before there was a need for a shipping terminal. Iron was loaded onto boats at various points along the Ohio River, but many of the companies fought for access and storage space. Getting iron to the river was also difficult since oxen had to pull heavy wagon loads across steep hills and rough terrain. While Hanging Rock was suggested, it was soon decided that the vast farmland to the southeast proved to be a more central location. As a result, the Ohio Iron and Coal Company was organized and consisted of 24 members, with John Campbell chosen as president. They purchased 400 acres of land, established the town of Ironton, then quickly started construction on the Iron Railroad.
By the dawn of the Civil War, there were nearly 70 furnaces in the region, producing more than 100,000 tons of iron annually. During that time, iron made at Hecla Furnace was the standard that all other pig iron was tested against. The celebrated Civil War gun, known as the “Swamp Angel” was produced with Hecla iron. In the years that followed, so much of the timber that was used to make charcoal had been depleted. Charcoal was a crucial fuel used to smelt the iron ore, with limestone added as flux, which absorbed impurities into slag that was skimmed from the top of the molten iron.
Once again proving to be innovative, Hanging Rock led the change and adapted Hamilton Furnace to use coke, which was made from coal. Many other old furnaces in the county followed suit, including Lawrence Furnace in Elizabeth Township and the old Iron and Steel Furnace, an upgrade of the Ironton Rolling Mill. New, modern furnaces were constructed in Ironton using the coke method including, Belfont, Sarah, Ironton, and the twin stacks of Big Etna. These factories also began producing cut nails, wire, and fencing.
By the 1900s, pig iron, which is high in carbon content, was further purified to create steel. To keep up with changing trends, the Marting Iron and Steel Company was founded to combine the production of many of the upgraded furnaces with the intent to make steel. Instead, the iron materials were sent to the steel mills in Ashland.
If you could stand at the Marting Iron and Steel plant, which had been, at one time, the largest blast furnace in the world, and look directly across the river, you would see the site of Ashland Furnace Number 2, which once held the record of the oldest running steel furnace in America. In the 1960s, the second Amanda Furnace replaced Ashland No. 2 and ran until 2015. While many held onto hope that the furnace would be fired once again, that hope was dashed when it was blown down around 8:30 a.m. Tuesday morning.
The blast furnaces of the Hanging Rock Iron Region spanned a history of more than 200 years. And while it’s bittersweet to see the end of an era, may we remember the innovation and ingenuity of those who made it possible, to spur the next era of industrial success.
Nicole Cox is a member of the Lawrence County Museum & Historical Society and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.