The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Furnace Stack - Part 3 of 3

By Bob Heafner © 1983-2012

Issue: August, 1983

This month we conclude the story of the Furnace Stack in Floyd County Virginia. Last month we brought the story up to the twentieth century. America was entering an “Industrial Age” and the management of the iron mine kept pace by ordering a marvel of engineering called a steam tractor all the way from New York.

Horse and wagon and oxen were such a slow way to travel and this steam tractor was “guaranteed” to do 5 to 6 miles an hour.

When the steam tractor arrived, it wouldn’t pull that fast, so the factory representative was sent to the mine. He opened the governors wide open, in order to reach maximum speed. It seems the tractor would do 5 to 6 miles an hour but they hadn’t taken into consideration the steep terrain of this area. Once the governors were opened up, the gentlemen who drove the tractor climbed on to give it a test run.

In those days, there was no steering wheel as we know it. There were two wheels and each had to be turned. One turned the right front wheel and the other turned the left front wheel. As the driver headed down the road wide open, probably doing six miles an hour, he came to a curve. One can only imagine how hard it must have been to crank both wheels to make a turn. As he approached the curve, he just couldn’t turn the tractor fast enough at that “speed” and ran off the road into a neighbors potato patch. About that time the owner of the potato patch walked up and told the owner he didn’t know what to do now. The potato patch owner allowed as how he could drive it back out! (or words to that effect). The tractor was driven back out but soon broke down in the middle of the road. It sat in the road, unable to be moved until parts could be ordered from the factory, shipped to them and repairs made. This took so long that people had to drive around the tractor and literally make a new road in the meantime. The tractor, like the mine, didn’t last for long.

The last time the mine operated was during World War II, when approximately 70 tons of copper was mined and shipped.

One passing through this country today wouldn’t expect that a copper or iron mine ever existed here. From the road there is no evidence of the shaft. Even at the mine site there is just a hole in the ground. Ah, but years ago it gave men jobs. There was work to be done, ore to be mined and the old Furnace Stack glowed cherry red.

Fuel for it was charcoal and the way they got charcoal was a monumental task in itself. They had to cut and split oak and hickory into lengths like chestnut rails, then stack them into piles as high as a house. This was then covered with dirt and set afire from the bottom. If air got to it, it would blaze up and burn too fast. It had to smolder to make charcoal. This charcoal fired the furnace. A water wheel, which was located in a pit beside the Furnace Stack, forced air through a bellows, onto the charcoal to increase the heat.

Can you only imagine what the Furnace Stack looked like then, with the rocks ruby red and smoke curling out of the top while melted ore ran out from its base?

Harmon Shelor and Matt Burnett are but two of the people that could remember the works at the old mine. These gentlemen I would like to thank for all the information they gave me.

As we stated in previous issues of The Mountain Laurel, the old Furnace Stack is a part of America’s heritage. It would be a shame to lose it. As it sits now, with trees growing up around it, it is lost and neglected.  Unless work is done before much longer, it will soon be only a rock pile, crumbling into oblivion, like so many other works of our forefathers. This, in our opinion, would be a terrible waste of America’s past and heritage. We can only hope that someone or some organization will devote some of their time in order to generate interest in preserving something so monumental.

A twenty foot high tower of granite blocks, some of which weigh over a ton each, is crumbling. Won’t someone help save the Furnace Stack? There are other Furnace Stacks throughout Virginia but this is one of, if not the first, in southwestern Virginia. We have documentation to prove it is at least 133 years old and perhaps it was the original Furnace Stack Captain Daniel Shelor built when he came here from Frederick County, Maryland in 1790. He served our country in the Revolutionary War as a Captain and also in the War of 1812. Can our country not serve him by preserving this tribute to our forefather’s determined refusal to say any task is impossible to accomplish?