A River of Iron
By Norman H. Scott
A River of Iron is a 345-page book detailing the history of iron production in the region consisting of Alleghany, Augusta, Botetourt and Rockbridge counties. Here iron was “king” for over one hundred years and began in early settlement days when bloomery forges served the local homesteads and farms. The bloomery enabled iron mongers to convert iron ore directly into small amounts of wrought-iron merely by heating and softening the ore. The softened ore could then be pounded by hammer into a bar of iron.
Later, the bloomery was succeeded by cold-blast charcoal furnaces which could produce large amounts of iron but required a large stone structure. The furnace completely smelted the ore into a liquid. Temperatures in these furnaces reached nearly 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
Charcoal was used as fuel which was converted from hardwood abundant in the area. Bellows powered by local streams and creeks forced air into holes, called tuyers, located in the bottom side of the furnace. The air fanned the burning charcoal and created the intense heat which melted the ore. A typical furnace of this type produced ten to fifteen tons of iron a day.
There were forty-six of these stone furnaces in the four-county area. Each furnace is described and its location identified.
After the Civil War a newly developed technology of using coke and a hot-blast resulted in a larger type of furnace being built which could produce a hundred or more tons of iron per day. There were eight of these furnaces in the region.
The Low Moor Iron Company in Alleghany County was the largest furnace operation in Virginia and had two blast-stacks in Low Moor and one in Covington.
Unique operations described in the book include the use of chill molds and ore roasters. Why the iron product was called ”pig-iron” is detailed and illustrated.
The book includes the different modes of transporting iron materials and the importance of railroads, especially the Virginia Central, later to become the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad. Other topics include the great boom that led to financial speculation in the iron trade, technical descriptions of how the blast furnaces worked and how charcoal and coke were made. Also described are mining methods used to extract ore and limestone.
The location and description of over 126 Iron mines in the region are also detailed.
Over 151 photographs, maps and illustrations are included in this work.
This book is one of four written to describe the iron history of the valley of Virginia from Frederick County in the north to Lee County in the South. The other three, Iron and the Gap, Shenandoah Iron and Big lick, Cripple Creek and Rye Valley Iron, cover the other regions of Virginia not described by A River of Iron.