Ghosts of the Hearth: History & Hauntings of Iron Furnaces

Nassawango Furnace

Nassawango Furnace

by Karl W. Hahn

 

Beginning in the 1800s, and lasting well into the 20th century, the iron furnace played an invaluable role in helping to forge the Industrial Revolution in America. During their heyday, the raw, unrefined pig iron they produced provided the steel for countless products ranging from cannon and other weapons during the Civil War, to locomotive parts and farm plows.

They have also provided us with several ghosts. Sampson Harmon, who would later be popularly known as Sampson Hat due to George A. Townsend’s novel The Entailed Hat, was a slave, later freed, who along with many others, worked the Nassawango Furnace.

Nestled within the Pokomoke Forest of Maryland, and completed in 1832, the Maryland Iron Company would spend the next five years struggling to show a profit from it. Forced to use a poor grade of bog ore, which was mined from along the swampy ore beds along neighboring Nassawango Creek, the work was harsh. From the surrounding 7, 000 acres of forest owned by the company, trees were cut and converted to charcoal. Then a deep bed of the prepared charcoal would be laid down inside the open bottom of the furnace stack. Once lit, it would be left to burn until an intolerable white heat arose from it, terrible to any worker who moved too close.

Only then would the furnace be charged. In alternating layers of ore, flux in the form of dried oyster shells, and charcoal, mule teams would haul loads over a short, covered, charging bridge that led to the top of the furnace. Fillers, in this case often slaves, would then shovel the loads as quickly as possible into the open top of the hearth, sweating from the hellish heat rising from within. Huge bellows, driven by waterwheel, forced air through the stack, helping to melt the ore.

Filling would continue at the top, while at the base of the furnace, a tap would be opened at set intervals, allowing the molten stream of iron to drain out into a dammed up area. While still mol­ten, it would be let out into molds, called pigs, due to their shape.

The Furnace Fails

Despite the continuous labor of the workmen, who lived in what constituted a small town that had sprung up around the furnace, the company was forced to suspend operations. Finally, they sold the furnace and surrounding land in 1835.

After another, much shorter, attempt at a profit by another owner, the property was bought by an area circuit court judge by the name of Thomas A. Spence. His new purchase included not only the furnace proper, but also the entire town of Furnace Hill, down to the very last item: furniture, livestock, and all. Ever the pioneer, Spence had the furnace converted to a new type of system known as the hot blast method, already in use in England at the time. Heat exchangers, in the form of a system of pipes, allowed the furnace to be heated much more efficiently.

Close-up detail of the original furnace marker, showing Hope Furnace’s early name of Big Sand Furnace.

Close-up detail of the original furnace marker,
showing Hope Furnace’s early name of Big Sand Furnace.

By using this method, and investing all of his and his wife’s considerable savings, the furnace and town prospered for the next ten years. Eventually, though, the bog ore became too depleted to extract easily. This, coupled with cheaper iron production elsewhere, forced the furnace to close for the final time.

After the closure, the once thriving town soon became a ghost town. The buildings were left to nature and decay, and the workers moved away. Except for Sampson Harmon.

Harmon, freed and forgotten, simply refused to leave. Chosing to live in an abandoned, run-down log cabin, he eked out a living as best he could. His one great comfort in later years was his pet black cat, which he called Tom.

Eventually, though, at around the age of 100, he became ill, and was moved against his will to a local alms house. Once there, he reportedly told everyone who would listen that his last wish was to be buried at Furnace Hill.

Finally, at age 106, Sampson passed away. Ignoring his request, he was buried away from his beloved town. But, despite that, he would not stay away for very long.

Decades later, a family bought the remains of the abandoned furnace and donated it to the county historical society in 1962. During the restoration work of turning the furnace and town into a historical park, those who found themselves there alone on moonlit nights might see the lone specter of a very tall man walking about the town’s ruins. Or sitting on the porch of one of the log homes, petting the ghostly silhouette of a large cat. They can be seen there still.

A side view of the remains of Vesuvius Furnace, now located within Lake Vesuvius Recreation Area in Ohio.

A side view of the remains of Vesuvius Furnace, now
located within Lake Vesuvius Recreation Area in Ohio.

Ritter and Rodgers

In 1848, David Ritter was a desperate man. His former business partner, George Rodgers, had just sued him for unpaid debts he claimed was owed him when he sold his share of Eliza Furnace. Worse, some rumors also claim that Rodgers had already stolen Ritter’s wife.

David Ritter and George Rodgers had purchased hundreds of acres of forested land in the Blacklick Creek valley of western Pennsylvania in the 1840s. Chosing to build their iron furnace near the forks of the north and south branches of Blacklick Creek, Rodgers sold his share of the operation before the furnace was completed in 1846.

Ritter and new partner Lot Irvin, an area farmer, invested a considerable sum over the next two years. Twenty-one log homes would be built to house the varied workforce. Additionally, there were buildings for a smith, wagon maker, company store, office, and stables.

Despite this, the furnace still operated at a loss from the beginning. As at Nassawango, local ore was of a poor quality. The cost of shipping out the finished pig iron was high due to the distance it needed to be hauled to the nearest railway line of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Finally, in 1849, after conceding defeat to Rodgers, and with mounting debts, Ritter was forced to close the furnace.

Shattered by his financial ruin and apparent failure as a husband, David Ritter made one last lonely visit to his furnace soon after.

Walking inside the furnace stack with a short length of rope, he hung himself from the very pipes of the stack’s hot blast coils.

Those coils can still be seen today as part of the restored furnace. As can Ritter’s solitary ghost, which now prowls the area, still earthbound by his attraction to his former property.

Hope Furnace

An interior view, looking up, of an iron furnace tuyere, or stack.

An interior view, looking up, of an iron furnace tuyere, or stack.

Unlike some, Hope Furnace, orginally known as Big Sand Furnace, was profitable for its owners from the beginning. Profitable enough to be kept running day and night. A fact that would lead to tragedy.

Constructed in 1854 in the Hocking Hills of Ohio, Big Sand Furnace took its name from nearby Big Sand Creek and the town Big Sand Station. Despite the added cost of hauling the raw ore in by train on the company’s own spur line, part of which now lies under the waters of Lake Hope, the furnace was very successful. Capable of producing 15 tons of pig iron a day, much of its output ended up in weaponry supplied to the Union army.

Eventually renamed Hope Furnace, when the local town changed its name to Hope Station, it was later purchased by Lt. Col. Douglas Putnam in 1870. Putnam, a retired Civil War officer who served as an aide on General Grant’s staff during the Battle of Shiloh, and was wounded on four separate occasions, kept the furnace in operation until 1875.

After the closure, the town dried up, and nearly everyone left. Except for one night watchman.

Since the furnace was in operation day and night, watchmen were employed at night to check on the fires and keep watch on company property. Armed with lan­terns, they could be seen frequently walking about the site during the long nights.

On one particularly foul night, one such watchman was forced to make his rounds during a severe thunderstorm. As he reached the top of the furnace on the charging bridge, a brilliant flash of lightning blinded him momentarily. Stumbling, he fell into the open top of the furnace stack and was instantly incinerated by the molten iron within.

Since that time, some people have claimed that during a storm-filled night a black figure carrying a lantern can be seen walking around the top of the furnace. When lightning flashes, the figure suddenly disappears.

Vesuvius Furnace

While not a haunting in the traditional sense, Vesuvius Furnace holds the distinction of being “haunted” by Satan himself.

Situated in southern Ohio near the city of Ironton, Vesuvius Furnace was built in 1833 and began producing iron using the older cold blast method. At the suggestion of the Scottish engineer who developed the system, James Campbell, it would be converted to the hot blast method by new owner William Firmstone.

Apparently, the increased temperature attracted an unwanted guest.

While the furnace was in operation, it is claimed that the devil manifested himself in human form and began blocking the path the workers took on the way to the furnace. After several days of this, the workers became so fearful and distraught that the owner felt compelled to bring in a priest.

The priest, seemingly a very brave soul, asked the devil, “What in the name of God do you want?” The devil made no reply, but all the same was never seen there again.

These and many more iron furnaces once adorned the landscape. At all but a few sites, only the stonework stacks remain to tell their stories. And the ghosts who refuse to leave them. ?

Karl W. Hahn is a resident of Piketon, Ohio. He attended Columbus College of Art and Design, with a focus on photography. He spends much of his spare time visiting historic and haunted sites and photographing them.

 

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