The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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Heart of the Blue Ridge

Furnace Stack - Part 1 of 3

By Bob Heafner © 1983-2012

Issue: May, 1983

furnace stackSusan Thigpen (left) and Charlotte Heafner (right) in front of the Furnace Stack in Floyd County, VirginiaBetween Furnace Creek and state road 605, in the Black Ridge section of Floyd County, Virginia, there stands a monument to resourcefulness and ingenuity of the American pioneer spirit. The exact date of its construction is not known but it is at least 128 years old. It is certainly one of the oldest structures built by man that still stands in this area today. The structure I am referring to is the old iron furnace, which served as a smelter for the ore taken from the nearby mine. It is approximately 25 feet square at its base and stands about 20 feet tall. It is made of granite blocks, some of which weigh considerably over a ton each. One can only guess and imagine the methods and back-breaking labor that were required to erect this huge smelter. The task was accomplished at a time when roads were little more than paths and no modern machinery was available to ease or replace sheer human determination. When I first saw it, I was amazed at the size of it and my first thought was, “This was built by men who didn’t say ‘I can’t’ or ‘It’s impossible.’ They had a job to do and they did it right, so right it has withstood the ravages of extreme weather for well over a century.”

Since I first saw the ‘furnace stack,” as it’s locally called, several weeks ago, I’ve made inquiries of almost everyone I’ve met as to the date of its construction. No one seems to know. It’s just always been there. Searching back through old deed books at the Floyd County Courthouse, I have been able to determine that it was standing in 1855 but there is still some question as to whether it was built many years prior to this. One deed, dated July 16, 1855, states that the land, “Has on it a good iron furnace” but yet another deed dated November 6, 1852, refers to, “the Shelor furnace land.”

furnace stack 2Mr. Matt Burnett, standing at the front, right corner of the old Furnace Stack". The openings you see were the places where the fires were stoked and the refined ore was removed.It is known that sometime around 1790, Captain Daniel Shelor, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, left Frederick County, Maryland, and came to this land and built the first iron furnace in Southwest Virginia. His father, Lawrence Shelor, had come to America 40 or 50 years before, from Germany.

It is a fact that Captain Shelor owned the property where the present “furnace stack” now stands and it is also a fact that he built an iron furnace and mined ore from this land. Whether or not the present furnace stack stands on the exact location of Captain Shelor’s, I do not know, but if it is, the date of construction would be prior to 1800.

Captain Shelor’s first attempt to market the cooking vessels he made from his foundry were not successful and it was not until he threw his wares against rocks on the streets of Lynchburg, to demonstrate their durability, was he able to sell them. The ore he mined and refined had such a high copper content that the result was an alloy much more durable than the normal cast iron of the day. Once this became known, he had no further trouble selling the items he made. His operation prospered until he was once again called to the aid of his country in the War of 1812. When he returned to his foundry and mine, many repairs were necessary. For one reason or another, he was never able to reestablish his once flourishing trade.

furnace stack 3Mr. Matt Burnett standing inside one of the openings used to fuel the furnace.Robert L. Toncray acquired the property in the early 1850’s and made the repairs that were necessary to once again put the mine in production. The furnace was operated by Mr. Toncray from around 1852 until the early 1860’s. I have been unable to determine if he repaired the old Shelor furnace or completely built a new one. It is, however, certain that the venture was not profitable for him and he suffered great personal losses as a result of his involvement. If he did, in fact, build the present furnace stack, it would indicate that the furnace standing is at least 128 years old.

We have been unable to determine if the mine and furnace lay dormant between the early 1860’s and early 1900’s. This is a period that will require considerably more research and time but we will keep our readers posted of any new information we discover.

Next month we will continue this article about the mining operations on the old Shelor property since 1900.

I’d like to dwell a few moments on the old “furnace stack,” if you don’t mind. To stand before this huge granite structure, one can not help but be in awe of the men who made it. They surely were men of great determination and endurance; men who faced any task, no matter how hard, with an attitude that would not accept defeat; the kind of men and spirit that made America great.

As I stood beside the “furnace stack” this week, dwarfed by its size, I could not help but shed a tear. Here, in the shadow of this piece of America’s heritage, I noticed a key support was broken and this was allowing some of the great blocks of granite to crack. Also, I have been told that several years ago, a bridge washed out on a nearby state road and a crew, employed by the state of Virginia, without the owner’s permission, toppled some of the granite blocks from the top of the furnace stack to use in replacing the bridge. When the owner found out, he made them quit but already they had marred this great landmark. As impressive as it is today, one can only imagine how it must have looked before it was vandalized.

I am not ashamed to shed a tear for something that has withstood so many years, only to be abused. I cannot help but regret that unless something is done and done soon, this monument to a spirit that built a nation will soon be gone. We, as Americans, have lost touch with so much of our heritage already. I can’t help but be concerned when I see something so awe inspiring as the old “furnace stack” starting to go the way of so many forgotten pieces of our great past.