Beaver Creek's Old Iron Furnace
Was Built In Menifee County In 1819
Being A Labor-Intensive Undertaking, Ironmaking
Continued For Over 50 Years Near Scranton, Kentucky
Editor's Note: Even today, Roger Keith can still remember visiting the site of the old iron furnace on Beaver Creek. At the time, the early 1950s, it was something of a picnic spot and curiosity. It is doubtful that many who visited it in those days realized the important role it played in the lives of the early settlers. Although the actual site is now under the backwaters of Cave Run Lake, the old furnace still lives on in the memory of many Menifee County residents.
By Roger Keith - 2002
With the threat of Indian attacks over by late 1793, thousands of new settlers flowed into east-central Kentucky, looking for a new beginning. They came across the Appalachian Mountains, through the Cumberland Gap, and down the mighty Ohio River. They came on flatboats, on horseback, and in wagons. Many walked the forest trails, carrying all of their worldly belongings on their backs. That which could not be transported was left behind, which meant many often arrived with only the barest of essentials.
Starting fresh in a new land posed many challenges and hardships. Once suitable land was located, the settler and his family began the task of building a shelter, clearing the land, and planting crops. Almost immediately they realized they had a great need for essential farm implements such as: axes, hatchets, saws, plough plates, and oxen and horseshoe nails. In their cabins they needed iron kettles, skillets, pothooks, and flat irons. Even though some of these heavy iron items had been brought from their former homes, they soon were worn-out and needed replacement.
Seeing an opportunity to fulfill a genuine and pressing need, a few enterprising individuals began to construct iron furnaces throughout Kentucky. One such furnace was located in Menifee County, near present-day Scranton, which is about eight miles northwest of Frenchburg. It was called the Beaver Valley Iron Furnace and was constructed in 1819 by J. T. Mason and others.
The Beaver Furnace was a large truncated pyramid of sandstone blocks, 35 feet high with a 28-foot square base. At the top it tapered to about 20 feet. Around it were constructed several support buildings and other structures necessary for running a furnace. Most were simple buildings, which housed the ancillary equipment needed to cast and handle the molten iron. At some of the earlier iron furnaces, such as the Bourbon Furnace near Owingsville, a blockhouse was built to help protect those workers from marauding Indians.
The location of these early furnaces was very important. The Beaver Furnace was built near the mouth of Myers Fork, where it empties into Beaver Creek. For a successful operation, the furnace had to be built where there was a ready source of flowing water (Beaver Creek) and an abundance of hardwood trees for the making of charcoal. Also necessary was a source of limestone and, of course, the iron ore. The iron ore came from an iron "bank" on Cold Cave. All of the resources necessary for iron production had to be within a reasonable distance from the furnace.
The final raw product of the Beaver Furnace was pig iron, which would then either be worked into bars for the making of such items as horseshoes or re-cast into such useful items as pots and kettles. But first, the iron had to be made.
Making iron was a labor-intensive undertaking, often employing upwards of 50 or more workers. The iron ore had to be dug out of the ground by hand; limestone was quarried nearby and charcoal was made from the trees of the forests. In its turn, all had to be hauled to the furnace on sleds pulled by teams of mules or oxen. Upon arrival at the furnace site, the raw materials were taken to the top of the furnace via a large earthen ramp that had been constructed for that purpose and dumped in. Alternating layers of charcoal, limestone, and iron ore went into the top of the stack until the furnace was properly filled or charged.
Water played an important role as well. Upstream, a small dam was constructed across Beaver Creek to provide water to the furnace. A slew, or race, was constructed to operate an undershot waterwheel to run a "blower" for the furnace. Once the furnace was lit, the forced air caused the fire to burn hot enough to melt both the limestone and the iron ore. The charcoal provided a steady, intense heat.
Limestone was an essential element in the iron making process, absorbing the impurities in the molten iron. Being lighter than the iron, it floated to the top and was drained away as slag.
The molten iron itself, being the heaviest material in the furnace, settled to the bottom of the furnace. Here it collected until time for the furnace to be tapped through an A-shaped opening in the base of the furnace stack. At this opening, the Beaver Furnace had a large log building built against the side of the stack. Inside this building were several sand molds, carefully shaped into the floor. Once the furnace was tapped, the molten iron ran out into these molds. At first, the molten iron flowed into a larger mold, which then emptied into several smaller molds or pigs. Early iron makers thought that the molds looked a bit like a mother sow suckling her pigs, thus, the name "pig iron" was coined.
Once iron making began it continued day and night, seven days a week. During that time new charges were continually being added to the top of the furnace. Iron making continued throughout the year, except in periods of extreme cold or heat.
The Beaver Valley Iron Works was in blast from 1820 until 1873 and was managed by ironmasters Robert Crockett (1820) and Jonathan Kring (1828). Both of these ironmasters were from Pennsylvania and were highly successful at producing iron from Kentucky ore.
In addition to the furnace, a casting mill or forge was constructed about three miles downstream at the mouth of Murder Branch. At this forge, the iron was worked to produce the products that were in demand at the time. The following advertisement ran in the January 7, 1822 issue of the Lexington Kentucky Reporter:
Beaver Furnace advertised for sale at its Iron & Casting Store. A suitable quantity of plough plates, flat irons, kettles, axe-bars, hoe-bars, oven and stove backing, skillets, mill gudgeons, nails, etc.
Over time, it became more and more difficult to make a profit producing iron at the Beaver Iron Works. As local resources were used up, iron production become less and less profitable. In 1873 the Beaver Valley Iron Works closed forever.
Today, along Route 1274, near Scranton, Kentucky, there is a state historical marker that commemorates the Beaver Furnace. This is not at the original site. The original site was covered by the backwaters of Cave Run Lake some years ago. But there on the side of the road are some of the original sandstone blocks, the final remnants of the past glory that was the Beaver Furnace.
Roger Keith, 2619 Elmo Place, Middletown, OH 45042; roerkcith(ii)msfl.corn; shares this article with our readers.