Tennessee’s nineteenth-century iron industry was located along the
Western Highland Rim. Throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, a large part of this upland portion of the Tennessee River Valley, from Stewart to Decatur Counties, produced a high-quality brown iron ore from which special grades of pig iron, such as charcoal iron, high silicon, and high-iron ferro-phosphorus were made locally and shipped to other places. These ore deposits still remain distributed throughout at least fourteen counties, but they are too widely scattered to provide the economy of scale enjoyed by, for example, the Great Lakes region. In Tennessee, only relatively modest local operations survived into the twentieth century.
Founding father James Robertson and his partners established the first iron furnace in the region by 1797 at a settlement known as Cumberland Furnace, and other entrepreneurs quickly followed suit. Some of the more important Middle Tennessee ironmasters were Robert Baxter, Montgomery Bell, Wallace Dixon, William Ewing, Rogal Fergusson, Epps Jackson, Richard C. and Elias W. Napier, John and Samuel Stacker, Robert Steele, and Anthony and Samuel Vanleer. Many of these men learned their trade in northern states like Pennsylvania and brought their expertise south with them.
Numerous blast furnaces and forges have existed in Middle Tennessee. Easily accessible throughout the region were all the ore, charcoal wood, limestone rock, and water power needed to make finished iron. The pioneer ironmasters’ paternalistic system that produced this useful metal in small, low-yield operations did not require elaborate organization and was highly compatible with the self-sufficient agriculture practiced in Tennessee during the early nineteenth century.
The early iron-making operations took place on large, semi-autonomous plantations. These plantations were integrated communities, peopled by different races and cultures, and often employed hundreds of workers: male and female, young and old, black and white. The African American contribution was especially striking; well over half of the furnace and forge hands in Middle Tennessee during the antebellum period were black, overwhelmingly enslaved, and they performed every type of industrial task. The solid skills practiced by these enslaved people helped to alleviate some of the burdens that came with freedom by preparing them for good jobs in trades such as ironworking, stonemasonry, and carpentry. Many white farmers and members of their families also found permanent or seasonal employment in the industry.
By 1856, pig-iron output in the Western Highland Rim region had peaked at just over fifty thousand tons. Tennessee had usually led the South in iron production during the first half of the nineteenth century, but financial difficulties brought on as a result of the conditions that led to the Panic of 1857 and the monumental technological changes that led to the new Age of Steel effectively doomed the charcoal iron industry of the Volunteer State. By 1860, just sixteen ironworks in the region remained operational and, after a brief revival, less than a dozen were in business after the Civil War. Federal troops occupied or damaged several properties, such as the Brownsport Furnace in Decatur County, Patterson Forge in Cheatham County, and Cedar Grove Furnace in Perry County, to keep the works out of operation.
From Reconstruction forward, only a few companies, primarily in Dickson and Stewart Counties, survived. Ironworkers cast the last pig iron produced in a Middle Tennessee ironworks at the Cumberland Furnace in 1942.
With the advent of improved mining and blast-furnace technology came new demands in social organization and the exploitation of the natural resources in rural areas. In addition to increased labor demands, the structural shift that occurred in the industry at that time required more investment capital for expansion, and the ensuing production increase required a larger market and improved transportation facilities. Yet, even after post-Civil War steel manufacturing had begun in earnest and steadily increased its market share, continued demand caused certain technologically obsolete iron-making methods and processes to persist in Middle Tennessee until the twentieth century.
Today, many physical traces of this once extensive industry have
disappeared, but communities have preserved some surviving properties as historic sites and historic districts, such as Cumberland Furnace, Narrows of the Harpeth State Park, Brownsport Furnace, Promise Land community, the Natchez Trace Parkway, Cedar Grove Furnace, Bear Spring Furnace, and the Great Western Furnace at Land Between the Lakes. To encourage preservation, groups worked together to produce the Tennessee Iron Furnace Trail and developed a website, a driving tour, and a DVD to tell the stories of these often forgotten sites.
George E. Jackson, Cumberland Furnace: A Frontier Industrial Village (1994); Samuel D. Smith et al., A Cultural Resource Survey of Tennessee’s Western Highland Rim Iron Industry, 1790s-1930s (1988)