Antebellum Ironworks, 3


Appalachian Blacksmiths Association

         additional material 10/16/2007.

The Antebellum Iron Industry In 
Western Virginia; eastern counties

By Dave Allen, Editor

On May 10, 1742, Thomas Mayberry entered into an agreement to “erect a bloomery for making bar iron on the plantation of William Vestal lying on the Shunnandore [Shenandoah] River.” Located south of Harpers Ferry, this was the first iron furnace west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Mayberry would go on to make a career in iron making in Pennsylvania.

Thomas Mayberry was born about 1692 in Herefordshire, England. He is believed to have arrived in America before 1717. He purchased 1000 acres of land in Berks County, Pennsylvania in October 1742. On this land, Thomas Mayberry established the Green Lane Forge and the Hereford Furnace. He died in 1764 having been known as “the ironmaster.” 

The Hereford Furnace operated from 1734-1768 and produced the first cast iron cook stove with oven made in America (1767). Green Lane Forge remained in the Mayberry family until it was sold in 1814. 

Harpers Ferry was a prominent place in US history. Located at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers, the town was a jumping off point for commerce in the Appalachians. Thomas Jefferson visited Harpers Ferry (Jefferson County is named for him). President George Washington made the decision to locate the nation’s first armory there (1799).

As I related in the article on the Lewis and Clark Expedition (see June 2003 issue or the ABA website), Capt. Lewis procured rifles and supplies in 1803 from Harpers Ferry Armory. The armory also fabricated a collapsible iron boat frame for the expedition. The wrought iron for the boat frame could have been made at Vestal’s Bloomery. 

George Washington was a land surveyor long before he was the nation’s first president. As early as 1754, he believed the Potomac River could be a successful canal operation joining the Chesapeake Bay with the Ohio River valley. In 1785, Washington invested in the Potomac Company which began work on the Chesapeake and Ohio canal. But the canal construction suffered years of fits and starts. The canal began at Georgetown and was not completed to Harpers Ferry until 1833. The canal was built to Cumberland, MD in 1850 and that is where it stopped. By then, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad had crossed the Alleghenies. Unforeseen by Washington, it was rail, not water, that would link the Chesapeake Bay with the Midwest.

Across the river from Vestal’s Bloomery stood the Shenandoah Furnace. It was located on Furnace Run in the community of Shannondale. Purdue, Nichols and Co. operated the works which began making up to 3 tons of pig iron daily in 1839. Some 50 men were in the employ of the company. The furnace is said to have burned 200 bushels of charcoal per ton of iron. Most furnaces in that era burned 130-170 bushels. Pig iron from Shenandoah Furnace was shipped overland by wagon to Alexandria as well as by boat and the railroad.

Vestal’s Bloomery and Shenandoah Furnace ceased operations when the Civil War began. According to legend, Yankees set the Shenandoah works afire believing some Confederates were hiding there.

The most prominent iron operation in Jefferson County was Friend’s Orebank on the Potomac River, a short distance upstream from Harpers Ferry. Iron ore was mined there until about 1917. The mine was named after the land’s original owner, Israel Friend, a Quaker who received a regal land grant of nearly 400 acres in 1734. Prior to that, in 1727, Israel Friend acquired land on the Maryland side of the river from the Indian Chiefs of the Five Nations. This land would become the site of the Frederick Forge and later, the Antietam Iron Works.

Interestingly, the Antietam tract was measured by “arrow shoots”. A “shoot“ was the farthest distance an archer could shoot an arrow. Friend’s land measured 200 shoots along the river with a depth of 100 shoots and then the backside was squared off to intersect with Antietam Creek.

Friend’s Orebank contained a rich deposit (78% iron) of brown hematite, which was found in both ledgerock and boulders. Israel Friend died about 1750 and there is no evidence that he produced iron ore. An inventory of tools at his death reveals that he did not own any mining tools.

In 1763, John Semple, owner of Occoquan Iron Works, purchased Friend’s Orebank. He then built an iron furnace there and named it Keep Triste Furnace. Located at the confluence of Elk Run and the Potomac, this furnace began operation in 1764. “Keep Triste” appeared in Semple’s family crest (Scottish).

Semple was also a land speculator. His businesses failed and he died in a debtor’s prison in 1773. His holdings went through foreclosure in 1786 and the successors built a second furnace at Keep Triste about 1788. One of the successor owners was Henry Lee, father of Robert E. Lee. The original furnace was rebuilt in 1792 and employment at the works expanded to fifty. Pig iron production continued at Keep Triste until 1800 when two events coincided. The US government purchased mining rights at Friend’s Orebank and wood for charcoal had all but been depleted.

In 1802, Thomas Jefferson questioned federal ownership of the Orebank because he thought the marketplace could provide iron to the armory at much less cost. Thus, here is a lesson in early American history about wasteful military spending! The government never did produce its own iron. But it was not until 1869 that it sold its interest in Friend’s Orebank. 

Harpers Ferry Armory purchased gun barrel iron (high quality pieces of rolled iron known as "skelps") from Pennsylvania furnaces in the Juniata district and from Connecticut furnaces in the Salisbury district. Though Antietam Iron Works made castings for the armory from 1827-1830, none of the Virginia and Maryland ironworks could meet stringent quality specifications for gun metal. The thirty or so furnaces in the Shenandoah Valley at that time shipped their pig iron to finishing mills at Richmond.

In 1820, Harpers Ferry Armory installed a puddling furnace to recycle its considerable reserve of scrap iron and milling machine cuttings. Some 60 tons was recycled that year which was about one-third of the total iron used.

During the period 1800-1869, the government did not mine Friend’s Orebank. But the owners of the Antietam Iron Works did. The government tried to enforce its mining claim in 1837 but the court ruled that the claim was non-exclusive. Antietam Iron Works continued to mine the ore and ferry it across the river. 

There were many ups and downs in the iron business in the early 19th Century and ownership of the Antietam Iron Works changed hands again and again.  About 1842, Antietam’s owners built a coke-fired furnace at Lonaconing in western Maryland. In 1845, they began blending coke with charcoal at Antietam Iron Works. Coke shipments made part of the journey on C&O Canal boats.  The advent of coke as a furnace fuel indicates that charcoal was becoming too expensive. The tariff on imported iron was reduced in 1842. This event effectively forced the shift to coke.

I did come across this interesting note regarding Harpers Ferry Armory and Antietam Iron Works. In 1829, Thomas Dunn, the manager of Antietam Iron Works, was hired as manager of the armory. Hired to improve quality control and production rates, Dunn was not a popular manager. Just six months after his appointment, in January 1830, a former armorer, Ebenezer Cox, walked into his office and shot him dead with a pistol.

Of the ironworks in Hampshire County, James Morton Callahan writes (in 1923): 

“Among the early iron industries in Hampshire was the Hampshire Furnace Company, whose plant was built and operated by Edward McCarty, on Middle ridge, twelve miles south of Romney. The forge for the furnace was near Keyser. An extensive business was carried on by this company, as shown by the many ponderous account books of 1816-18 now in possession of the clerk of the courts at Romney.  “The Bloomery Furnaces, ruins of which are still to be seen, were built and operated by a Mr. Priestly, and were being run in 1833. Large quantities of iron were made and shipped over the Capon River on rafts and flatboats, S. A. Pancoast purchased these furnaces in 1846, and after his death they continued in other hands until 1875.”

The West Virginia Geological Survey notes that the Bloomery Gap iron ore was also mined in 1880-1881.

Kyle McCormick’s article mentions other furnaces in the area:

“A furnace known as the Fanny Furnace was built four miles from the village of Greenland on Hasard’s Creek in Grant County in the early part of the Nineteenth Century which, of all things, made stoves. Several of these stoves were in use several generations afterwards. It ceased operation about 1860.

“There were five furnaces at one time in Hardy County, one at Orr’s Mountain west of Moorefield, and two on the east side of the same mountain. One furnace was at Wardensville and another one, the Old Capon furnace, six miles south of Wardensville, worked until 1875. It cost $10 per ton to haul the iron to the railway, but when the price of iron fell from $50 to $40 per ton to $20-$25 per ton, this furnace went out of business.”

"The Virginias" (Nov. 1884) mentions two charcoal blast furnaces in this area:

  1. Bloomery Furnace, Bloomery Furnace Co., Bloomery P. O., Hampshire Co. WV. One stack 40' x 9', built in 1844, rebuilt in 1880; closed top; cold blast; product, car-wheel and mill pig iron; weekly capacity 60 net tons.  Property for sale.  Contact John Birkinbine, 144 South 4th St., Philadelphia, PA.

  2. Capon Iron Works, Keller & Co., Capon Iron Works, Hardy county.  One stack 32' x 8, built in 1822 by James Sterrett, and run by him for some time, then sold to Geo. F. Hupp, and in 1856 bought by J. J. Keller, who has since run the works; open top; cold blast; ore, local hematite; product, car-wheel iron; annual capacity 1,500 net tons.


A more detailed version (in PDF format) about the ironworks in Jefferson County appears on the ABA website.
  Jefferson County Ironworks.pdf



eastern counties of west virginia

(click on image to enlarge)

These eastern counties of West Virginia were originally part of Virginia.  President Lincoln issued a Proclamation forming West Virginia on June 20, 1863.  West Virginia is the only state to enter the Union in this manner.

Image from 1910 Hammond Atlas 


  • Friend's Orebank and Keep Triste Furnace, by William D. Theriault; WV History, Volume 48, 1989.

  • The Story of Iron Mining in West Virginia, by Kyle McCormick; WV History, Vol. 21

  • Iron Industry in Jefferson County; Magazine of the Jefferson County Historical Society; Vol. 30, December 1964

  • Shannondale, Magazine of the Jefferson County Historical Society, Vol. 7, 1941

  • The History of West Virginia, Old and New, Vol. 1, Chapter XI; by James Morton Callahan, 1923.

  • Harpers Ferry Armory and the New Technology, by Merritt Roe Smith; Cornell Univ. Press, 1977

  • American Iron 1607-1900, by Robert B. Gordon; Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996

  • WV Geological Survey

  • The Virginias: A Mining, Industrial and Scientific Journal, Vol. V, page 174.  Edited by Jed. Hotchkiss.  Staunton, VA.  November  1884.

  • Jefferson County Ironworks, by David G. Allen; Magazine of the Jefferson County Historical Society; Vol. LXX, pp. 94-103, December 2004.



Up ] Antebellum Iron Works; Part One ] Antebellum Iron Works; Part Two ] [ Antebellum Ironworks, Part Three ] Antebellum Ironworks; Part Four ] Antebellum Ironworks; Part Four A ] Antebellum Ironworks; Part Five ] Antebellum Iron Works; Part Six ]



David G. Allen © 2004, 2007



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