History of West Virginia Mineral Industries - Iron

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Iron was almost as essential to pioneer life as was salt, the first mineral resource exploited, and was needed for a variety of agricultural and household purposes. The iron industry, therefore, developed at an early stage in West Virginia's history. Small, workable iron veins were discovered in many areas in the State, and small furnaces were set up at these spots for smelting the ore and manufacturing bar iron for the pioneer blacksmiths. In West Virginia, iron production began in 1760 at "The Bloomery," near Harpers Ferry, on the lower Shenandoah River. George Washington considered the iron produced here so superior that in 1794 he established the federal arsenal and gun factory at Harpers Ferry.

At first, iron and iron products were carried west over the mountains to the pioneers. But because the journey was difficult, iron furnaces were iron furnace soon established farther west. In 1794, Peter Tarr built one of the first iron furnaces west of the Alleghenies on Kings Creek near Weirton, in Hancock County. As well as making cooking utensils and iron grates, this furnace also cast the cannonballs used by Commodore Oliver H. Perry in the 1813 Battle of Lake Erie. Most of the iron furnaces were built in the Cheat River Valley near Ices Ferry and along Deckers Creek in the Monongahela River Valley. The Decker's Creek Iron Works, also called Rock Forge, produced bar iron as early as 1798, although the most extensive iron works were on the Cheat River. At Pleasant Furnace, built on Quarry Run about 1798, Samuel Jackson produced large quantities of bar iron and sold it in exchange for cash, grain, and country products. Since the Pleasant (Davis) Furnace was small, it did not supply enough iron for Jackson's use. So new furnaces were built, such as Woodgrove, Henry Clay, and Anna, all near Ices Ferry on the Cheat River. Since iron manufacturers preferred charcoal over coal for the furnaces, the lumber industry in the area was encouraged and thrived. During its peak years, in the 1840s, the Jackson Iron Works was a well-known establishment, employing as many as 1,200 workers. A thriving community developed with over 100 homes, four times the size of nearby Morgantown.

Iron manufacturing and related industries also prospered in the Northern Panhandle. In 1832, a large iron mill was constructed at Wheeling. The major product was nails, which gave the city the nickname of "Nail City."

However, by the mid-1800s, transportation methods were improving and new and richer iron ore beds were being discovered around Lake Superior. In 1880, rich, thick, iron ore beds were found in the Mesabi Range in Minnesota and Michigan. A better railroad system made transportation of this ore economical, and the small iron ore furnaces of West Virginia could not compete. By World War I, only one iron mine, near Harpers Ferry, was still in operation.

At present, West Virginia cannot compete with the more accessible, large reserves of other states. However, there is iron in the State which could become a valuable resource if it is ever in short supply.

(adapted from an article by Jane R. Eggleston, updated September 1996)

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