Iron and steel are two of the most crucial commodities in the history of American enterprise, right up there with the cattle of the West, coal in Kentucky, and oil in Texas. Empires and fortunes were built on iron and steel as were entire cities. In the South, Birmingham, Alabama, was well known for iron, but fewer know that there was also a booming iron industry tucked away in the mountains of quiet and pastoral western Virginia from pre-Civil-War days through the 1920’s, not only stocking the Confederate arsenal with essential weapons but making possible the railroad’s vast establishment into the coalfields and beyond.
When driving along Interstate 64 from Lewisburg, West Virginia, towards Lexington, Virginia, you’ll notice towns have names like “Clifton Forge,” “Irongate,” and “Longdale Furnace,” suggestive of their former role in ironmaking. At Longdale Furnace, you can drive down a narrow country road past farms and old timber-frame homes from a century ago until you find—if you look through the trees and across a creek for them—two tall chimneys. This was the namesake furnace itself. The furnace’s name, however, was the “Lucy-Selina Furnace,” named after the wives of the two men who ran it.
While Longdale Furnace is about the only one to have significant remaining structures intact, it was one of many in the region: Irongate, Clifton Forge, and Covington all had similar ironworks. All these ironworks were taking advantage of an abundant supply of native iron ore, and like the ironworks, the locations of the mines betray their purpose via their names. Jordan Mines, for example, now a small farming hamlet isolated in the mountains, was once just such a center of mining as well.
While mining and ironmaking operations began before the Civil War and were integral to the war effort via supplying much-needed iron to the Confederate Army and Navy, it was after the war when this industry really took off. Major Jed Hotchkiss, a Confederate States Army officer who served under Generals Jackson and Lee as a field cartographer, devoted his post-war career to producing topographic maps and other information regarding the mineral deposits and mining opportunities of Virginia and West Virginia. His efforts perked up interest by businessmen and investors in the region and illustrated, quite literally, what was possible in regard to mining.
Before the war and during it, the Tredeger Iron Works located near Richmond were the prime supplier in Virginia of iron products for the war effort. It was this foundry which stamped its cannons and other products with the “J.R.A. & Co./T.F.” stamp for J.R. Anderson, the man who ran Tredeger Foundry. A producer of military goods for the Union prior to the war, Tredeger was logically pushed into service for the CSA and serves as one of the best examples of the logistical side of Civil War era manufacturing and how the Confederates armed their forces.
The history of ironworks overlaps, of course, with that of the railroads but also with that of Virginia rivers and transport in general during the Civil War. The Jackson River in Alleghany County plus the developing network of rail-lines allowed movement of troops and materials from Tennessee into western Virginia and from there forward to the east where they were required for the defense of Richmond and planned invasion of Washington. Few regions of the South during the War were as important strategically for facilitating troop and supply movements, and the Union was keenly aware of this.
In May of 1862, Union Colonel George Crook, a commander in the area around what is today Lewisburg, West Virginia, obtained intelligence about a rail depot known as the Jackson River Depot near Low Moor. His forces staged a raid on the depot on the twentieth of May and forced out the Confederate troops guarding the depot. Though the Confederates escaped, Crook was able to capture many of their supplies and cart them off on his retreat back to Lewisburg where he was encamped. He burned a bridge crossing the Jackson River to delay the Confederate forces from catching up with him but finally encountered those forces at the Battle of Lewisburg a few days later where he was successful in defeating the Confederates, causing a major set-back for the CSA in the region.
While many may think of the Civil War in terms of grand events—the large-scale battles and comprehensive campaigns such as Sherman’s March to the Sea—the war was composed just as much of smaller skirmishes that denied opposing forces of key supplies or transportation routes. Today all that remains of the site of Crook’s Raid is the Oakland Chapel, a small church that served the men who worked at the depot complex and their families and also served as a hospital briefly for Confederate troops. A number of troops, including some from Tennessee who fought against Crook, are buried in the churchyard of this chapel, a must-see site for Civil War buffs traveling through the area.
After the war, thanks in good part to Major Hotchkiss’s work to define and promote the region’s mineral deposits, interest markedly grew in ironmaking as well as coal in the area, despite the damage done to industry and economy from the War. Much of the thrust of area ironmaking concerned the manufacture of items necessary for the railroad. While this and the export of raw pig iron at first were core to the new local industry, soon more extensive production of finished iron products arose.
In Covington, foundries for finished iron goods went into business, producing all manner of industrial and consumer goods, including perhaps most-famously the iron lampposts used in Manhattan and elsewhere. Replicas of these iconic lampposts today can be found on Covington’s Main Street, but according to Covington city councilman Bill Zimmerman, you can spy them in old movies from Hollywood’s Golden Age which were filmed in New York as well.
Clifton Forge became a major railroad works with shops focused on the repair of rolling stock and locomotives. The town today still has key railroad freight operations, an Amtrak station, plus the C & O Railway Heritage Center, which is both a museum and an archive of material germane to this railroad, including one of the largest repositories of plans and mechanical drawings related to railways in the world. Looking at the architecture of downtown Clifton Forge, you can easily spot the influence of prosperity and money here where many buildings betray high investment in commercial architecture. The 1905 Masonic Theatre is one of the finest examples of a Beaux Arts brick theatre building in the nation.
Ironmaking in Alleghany County and its environs would be an easy facet to overlook in this beautiful, rustic, and agrarian region, but it played a pivotal role in the Civil War and post-war years alike, setting the stage for the industrial might Virginia and West Virginia would find in the early and mid-twentieth century. It’s a fascinating part of Southern history.
SEE MORE “IRONMAKERS OF ALLEGHANY COUNTY” PHOTOS HERE