Iron Ore on the N&W 1910

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Tue Mar 23 12:07:03 EDT 2010

The Virginia iron industry of the early 1890s had probably passed the backwoods furnace stage and were major industrial complexes producing pig iron. I didn't get too far into exploring the industry when I was working on my book "Coalwood" as I was only looking at the role George L. Carter had in the industry. He was instrumental in developing the Dora Furnace and spent about $400,000 to develop a new quality pig iron known as "Dora Pig".

In 1898 Carter chartered the Carter Coal and Iron Company to consolidate his coal and iron holdings which included the Dora Furnace and Crozer Iron Works of Roanoke. In 1899 Carter and others organized the Virginia Iron, Coal & Coke Company (VICCC), with $10,000,000 in capital to merge eight iron and steel furnaces with multiple mining interests. The merged companies would have a capacity of 500,000 tons of pig iron annually. However by 1901 VICCC was in bankruptcy as the iron ore from the Mesabi Iron Range offered a better iron ore and better product. Somewhere in my notes are the dates that Carter/VICCC bought the Middleboro, KY Iron & Steel works and moved the equipment to Virginia.

Crozer Iron Works, Pulaski Iron Works and a number of iron furnaces in Lynchburg, VA chartered coal mines in the Pocahontas Coalfield to manufacturer coke for their furnaces. Many of them had been buying coke from the Connellsville, PA region and the opening of the Pocahontas coalfield probably cut their production cost by 50%. The Pulaski Iron Furnace operated until about 1928 with most of its coke coming from the Pulaski Iron Works coal mine at Eckman,WV.

Alex Schust
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Subject: RE: Iron Ore on the N&W 1910


What type of iron was produced in this region? . . . . i.e., what was it used for in producing a final and why did most/all of these furnaces disappears so fast? Was it suitable for producing steel?

Al Kresse


Early furnaces used charcoal to heat ore to make a crude pig iron. The charcoal wouldn't heat the ore to a sufficiently high temperature to produce steel. (Note that pig iron is basically iron (Fe) with lots of free carbon surrounding the iron grains. Think cast iron, iron with 8 to 20 % by weight of carbon in graphite form and 'stuff' combined)

The early furnaces were crude clay, brick and stone structures that would burn out in a few years. The product was essentially a lump of pig iron. Total output was pounds of pig iron and it took about a week to produce a pour. The forests around these early furnaces would rapidly be depleted of trees for miles.

It is possible to make steel in a small structure like these but you must use a high heat producing wood (rare stuff) or coke. (See the hand manufacture of samurai swords by traditional methods to see the furnaces.) The biggest draw back is that the furnace output is a few pounds of relatively crude steel with a fair amount of dirt in it.

As much higher heat was required to make steel, a furnace had to be a much more substantial structure made with much better brick clay and structure. Contaminants from the ore and the furnace retort environment significantly affect the end-result product quality and strength. So one makes a significant capital investment to make better steel by making a furnace and retort with a much more controlled environment. One has to make much more steel to amortize the much higher cost of the furnace. It quickly becomes obvious that controlled materials in controlled conditions can produce really useful steel in large quantities at a practical cost and this leads directly to the big steel producers and the big blast furnaces of the late 1800's.

Virtually all of these 'back woods' furnaces were small and were located close to a local source of ore, wood and coal. The pig iron usually was shipped by horse wagon or barge to blacksmiths or small local factories. These types of furnaces became economically impractical as the large producers of steel could easily produce more iron or steel of far better quality at a much lower selling price.

Plus, the technology to produce alloyed steel with controlled amounts of carbon, alloying elements such as chromium, vanadium, nickel, tungsten, molybdenum for heat treatment to significantly higher strengths and improved fatigue life though dirt and contaminant removal and grain size control is not possible without sophisticated furnaces and extensive knowledge. The old furnaces were very seat-of-the-pants operations.

Ain't capitalism grand!

Gary Rolih



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