A Search for What Remains: An Iron Furnace and Some Flowers

West Virginia has long been a source of natural resources: timber, iron, salt, coal... desirable materials, for better or worse. Nearby, in Coopers Rock State Forest, we have a remnant of the time when the iron industry dotted the hills and hollows in this part of the state--the substantial stone structure known as the Henry Clay Iron Furnace.

Built around 1836, this particular furnace was "the first steampowered blast furnace in Western Virginia." The pig iron produced here was transported down-stream to the Jackson Ironworks located along the Cheat River at Ices Ferry (with the creation of Cheat Lake in 1925, what remains of the ironworks is now below water).
Walking through this part of the forest now, it can be hard to believe that the area around the iron furnace once supported 50-75 workers who, in addition to their personal dwellings also had a school and a church. The only readily visible evidence of this past use of the land is the stout iron furnace seen above.
This got me curious about what else might be hiding along the streams and in the thickets of Coopers Rock--particularly some other remnants of these old furnaces. At one point, there were multiple iron furnaces along Clay Run and Quarry Run that supplied the ironworks along the river. So, I put it on myself to see if I could find any traces of this industrial past.

After two different hikes along these two streams, I largely came up empty. No vine covered ruins of other furnaces, no obvious evidence of homes or communities that would have existed to support the industry.

But, since this was mid-May, wildflowers and other flora were out in force and mostly made up for the otherwise fruitless search.

Let's start out with the whites and greens:

    -- Fleabane --
    -- Foamflower --
-- Jack-in-the-Pulpit --
-- Solomon's Seal --
-- Cinnamon Fern --
Now for the browns:
-- Squawroot or American Cancer-root --
(parasitic plant that takes nutrients from oak and beech trees)
-- Morel --
And the belles-of-the-ball, the violets and pinks:
-- Common Blue Violet --
-- Wild Geranium --
-- Azalea --
-- Pink Lady's Slipper --

During my search, I walked along Clay Run up from the furnace, and I walked the adjacent hillsides in search of old foundations, rusted tools, or and others signs of life... nada. I also walked a large portion of Quarry Run (which, interestingly enough, literally disappeared underground and I walked on a rocky stream-bed for some time before the stream reemerged).

It should be noted that this was a visual search. I was not about to create any major disturbances or tear up any ground to find any remnants.

It's interesting, I guess, that I am so eager to find what some might simply call 'trash' from 180 years ago while, when, as I mentioned in my Cheat Canyon post, at other times the sight of refuse along the riverbanks or out in the woods kinda makes my blood boil. Why does this (see picture below) not make me as irritated as would a pile of old tires?
Tough to see here, but the black, rock-looking chunks among the roots are the byproduct of the iron-making process. Yes, this is evidence of human activity, what I had been looking for, but this is hardly as intriguing, hardly as 'human,' as an old stone chimney or a foundation. At first glance, the forest floor near the furnace looks relatively normal, but in many places, if you brush away the leaves and such, you'll find this glassy slag in abundance.
Maybe I am intrigued by the mystery surrounding this type of human activity--I know old tires and VHS tapes, they are of my time, so I don't like to stumble upon them during a hike. But, I am not familiar with iron production nor with 19th-century life. But, other than age, is there a difference between these two types of litter?
This experience brings to question the impact of our activities large and small;
It brings to question nature's relative ability to grow over our disturbances;
And it brings to question where we draw the line between 'acceptable' and 'unacceptable' changes to our environment.

One thought on “A Search for What Remains: An Iron Furnace and Some Flowers”

  • Brian Rush

    The old iron furnaces at the time were ran by a white owner, who utilzed slave labor (this area was Virginia then). Clearly Virginia wasn't a free labor state like neighboring Pennsylvania, but the western portion of Virginia in the Appalachian mountains needed to thrive and produce economically, hence the plantation style management system of old pig-iron furnaces as seen in the Henry Clay furnace which still still stands today. Thank goodness for a man named Francis Pierpont, and another character who went by the name of Abe Lincoln, lest we still see this sort of slave labor economy today in the United States.

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