The Remains of Ohio’s First Industrial Decline Are Hiding in Its Forests 

Once the hotbed of iron production in the United States, the Hanging Rock Iron Region has all but disappeared today. Though obscured, its history reveals important insights into industrial triumphs and missteps alike – and what comes after for the region. Cover graphic by Jason Mecchi for Midstory.

Ohio’s forests are hiding a forgotten past. 

Nearly overtaken by nature, crumbling stone walls stretch toward the tree canopy overhead. Though medieval in appearance, these furnaces are the remnants of a once-bustling 19th-century pig iron industry that defined what was known as the Hanging Rock Iron Region.

Between 1818 and 1916, this region, stretching from the northern end of Kentucky through several counties in southeastern Ohio, produced hundreds of thousands of tons of pig iron, used in everything from frying pans to the USS Monitor

Now, almost nothing remains of once bustling company towns and iron furnaces in what Ohio State University professor Kent Curtis identifies as “the first region in the United States that experienced what you would call deindustrialization.”

Map depicting Hanging Rock Iron Region Furnaces of Lawrence County, Ohio in 1916. Image courtesy of Internet Archive Book Images.

Named for a cliff formation along the Ohio River, the Hanging Rock Iron Region was ripe with potential to produce pig iron (so-called due to the ingot’s resemblance to piglets nursing on a sow.) Producing pig iron requires two key ingredients: iron ingot and charcoal to fire it. The region was flush with iron due to a particularly abundant iron ore vein that sustained over 100 years of continuous mining. (According to Curtis, iron can still be found in the ground across the whole region.) Over 30,000 acres of forest growth in Lawrence County, Ohio satisfied the need for charcoal, which furnaces consumed at a rate of around 1,200 bushels a day.

The first person to take advantage of that potential was Richard Deering of Argillite, Kentucky, who established the first charcoal-powered furnace in 1818. The pig iron industry in the region continued to grow throughout the early 19th century, with about 48 furnaces constructed by 1850. 

Much of this growth was fueled by experiments in the production process that put the region on the cutting edge of pig iron production.

“This area was one of the first in the country to employ what is called a hot blast method,” Terry Baldridge, a photographer and author who has written multiple books about the region, said. 

While the hot blast method did not originate in the region, a collective of furnace owners in Hanging Rock experimented with it in 1837. On its success, it became widely used in the region, reducing fuel costs. 

Another experiment that contributed toward the region’s dominant position in the iron market was the use of waste gas to produce steam, which was first pioneered by furnace owner John Campbell in 1833.

Black-and-white photo of overgrown Buckhorn Iron Furnace in Lawrence County, Ohio. Image courtesy of the National Parks Service via Wikimedia Commons. 

Another thing that set iron furnaces in Ohio apart from their counterparts in Kentucky was their labor. 

“The Ohio River was like a demarcation,” Baldridge said. “The Kentucky side had slaves, used slaves in producing iron up until 1865, whereas in Ohio most of the iron masters and owners, they deplored slavery. They were abolitionists.”

Thomas Means and his father John Means were among the most successful furnace operators in the region. They were also staunch abolitionists — John Means moved his family from South Carolina to Ohio to free his slaves and to raise his children away from the influences of slavery.

“They wanted to launch a free-[person]-based industry,” said Curtis. 

Helping support this industry was a workforce of white Americans and European migrants, housed predominantly in company towns that were built and run by the pig iron industry. 

“They had their general store. They had their marked up inflationary scrip, or their own money. They had their own schools. They had their own cemeteries — you name it,” Baldridge said. “Basically, they were their own sovereign.”

Ironton was one of these towns. 

Founded by a collective of business titans, Ironton served as the base of operations for 16 furnaces, in addition to connecting the region to the rest of the state with the Detroit, Toledo and Ironton Railroad. It was among the largest and most influential towns in the region, identified in 1916 as “the geographical and commercial center of the Hanging Rock Iron Region” by contemporary historian Eugene Willard. 

Ironton was also a stop on the Underground Railroad, well positioned on the free side of the Ohio River for enslaved people fleeing Kentucky. 

At its peak, the Hanging Rock Iron Region was responsible for the majority of the American iron supply, with around 70 furnaces producing hundreds of thousands of tons of iron annually in the 1850s. 

But the industry could not grow in perpetuity. 

“I think about southern Ohio as the very last expression of medieval mining,” Curtis said. “What emerged through the Civil War and into the 19th century — and where we often look at the beginning of American Iron — was the modern steel industry, based on science and engineering and advanced mechanics and a combination of a new set of modern skills, that allowed scale to increase.”

The furnaces of Hanging Rock couldn’t easily pivot.

Updating would be a costly endeavor, and a poor investment compared to places like Pennsylvania, where access to coal reserves and the Great Lakes for transportation made steel production and distribution easier at large scales.  

“This was a classic case of technological sunk costs,” Curtis said. “There was just no way for these small producers to compete.”

The region’s reliance on charcoal to power furnaces was another limiting factor. In 1837, a geological survey claimed that the pig iron industry could last for 2,700 years in the region. But this figure came with a catch: the necessity of reforestation, which was largely ignored by the industry. 

“The forests were just denuded in the region,” Curtis said.

Some furnaces converted to coal and kept producing pig iron after they exhausted their charcoal supplies. But lack of charcoal was just one of many problems.

“The 1850s were miserable,” Curtis said, referring to low tariffs and overproduction that kept iron prices low. The Civil War provided temporary relief, dramatically boosting demand for iron, but at a cost.

“They’re absolutely critical to the North’s success in the Civil War. But they were basically floating in the 1860s on an artificial price during wartime,” he said.

The iron industry in Hanging Rock persisted, but never again reached the heights of the mid-19th century. When the last furnace shut down in 1916, it marked the end of the pig iron industry in the Hanging Rock region.

Today, you would be hard-pressed to find evidence that the Hanging Rock region was host to a burgeoning iron industry. 

“Most of it is, sadly, it’s just gone,” Baldridge said. 

Nonetheless, the city of Ironton remains the region’s most prominent town, boasting a population of a little more than 10,000 residents. But like many towns in the Midwest, it has struggled to attract stable jobs, with a population in decline since the 1950s. 

Surrounding areas haven’t fared much better: The counties encompassing the Hanging Rock Iron Region in Ohio have all depopulated in the last 10 years. Some furnaces and the towns that surrounded them, like Center Furnace, have completely disappeared, identifiable only through archaeological research.  

While Ironton has held onto its legacy, many remnants of the industry have deteriorated over time, overtaken by the woods they once threatened. 

“There are about eight stacks that are complete, and then there’s about seven or eight that are less than complete. Most of them have collapsed in over time,” Baldridge said.

Although the pig iron industry of the Hanging Rock region may be lost to time, its impact on history is not. 

“They were heroes of an older age that did this great service,” Curtis said. “I suspect we forget about them because they don’t have all the smoke stacks and big production of something like a Carnegie Steel Mill, but they are as important to American economic development as those more modern models were.”

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