Historic iron furnace on the mend

Preservationists and the media toured the Fitchburg Furnace on Monday to check on restoration work that has cost more than $900,000. It was once the largest coal-burning iron furnace in the world.
Preservationists and the media toured the Fitchburg Furnace on Monday to check on restoration work that has cost more than $900,000. It was once the largest coal-burning iron furnace in the world.

IRVINE — The historic Fitchburg Furnace is looking a lot more like its old self these days, so much so that Frank Fitch himself would be pleased.

The massive stone structure in rural Estill County was the largest iron furnace in the world in the late 1860s and early 1870s, when it provided iron for the railroads. It was there because of iron ore in the surrounding hills, and thick forests that could fire the furnace.

But it had been abandoned and abused for well over a century until rescue attempts that have cost more than $900,000 since 2004.

The vines that hung down over the massive stone structure and the trees that grew in thin soil on the top were removed some time ago.

Now, missing stones have been replaced with pieces from the same quarry as the originals. And archaeologists are learning a lot more about the inner workings of what is considered one of the state's top historical treasures.

"I'm very pleased," said Robert "Skip" Johnson, an Estill County school administrator who is a member of a group called Friends of the Fitchburg Furnace.

For Johnson and others in Estill County, that's a reversal from a year ago.

Then, work paid for with a $670,000 earmark secured by U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., in 2004 was winding down. A lot of that money had gone into research; there still was a considerable amount of work needed to stabilize the structure to keep it from falling down.

Last August, the Forest Service secured $250,000 in federal stimulus money to replace the missing stones and shore up a corner that was in danger of being undermined by water from what apparently was a spring.

There was a lot of damage to repair, from both time and people. Lee Padgett, who is involved in the Friends group and is director of the Methodist Aldersgate Camp and Retreat Center that sits next to the furnace, said there were two other things that did more damage:

In 1939, he said, the furnace was stripped of most of its metal machinery as part of preparation efforts for a war that already had started in Europe.

And in 1947, the story goes, a local moonshiner got tired of people coming out to look at the furnace, so he hauled some dynamite into one side and detonated it.

A town of mostly men

Wayna Adams, the archaeologist for the Daniel Boone National Forest, said the next step is to wrap up construction. That means leveling surfaces in and around the furnace so people can walk around without worrying about tripping and falling in a hole.

"We're buttoning up this structure so we can get people back in it," she said. "And we will keep talking to (the Friends group) because we have longer-range goals to display some of the artifacts."

Archaeological field work on the second phase of the project has been directed by Kim McBride, co-director of the University of Kentucky's Kentucky Archaeological Survey.

An important part of the story of the furnace, she said, is the town that was created around it, Fitchburg. She's learned about the town mostly from census records.

"There were lots of people from England and Wales and Germany, skilled workers," she said. "They looked pretty different from the surrounding populations."

The town once boasted 1,000 households. Most of the residents were men, but even when there were families, there almost always was a boarder. Most of what was the town is occupied now by the Aldersgate Camp.

The most recent restoration work has opened up passages between the furnaces and uncovered a large retaining wall that might have been part of the foundation for a brick boiler house that was behind the furnace.

Also uncovered by people working on the project and volunteers from the adjacent camp and retreat center were bricks and machinery that apparently were missed in 1939.

Built like the pyramids

Adams and others working on the project have been doing research into how the whole thing worked.

Another mystery: How was the furnace built?

Franklin Simpson, project manager on the most recent phase of work, said the huge stones were brought down more than a mile from the quarry on Cobb Mountain. He knows that the equipment he had on hand for the recent work could not have lifted multiton stones to the top of the 80-foot structure. He thinks the stones were raised on earthen ramps, the same way archaeologists believe the pyramids of Egypt were built.

The answers to some of the questions could be provided by seven of Frank Fitch's notebooks, which include drawings and operational notes from the years the furnace operated. Although they were donated to UK by two of his descendants three years ago, the archaeologists didn't know about them until this week.

Tourists have been finding the furnace for years, as well as classes of school kids. The Friends hope to increase those numbers.

They have managed to get $10,000 of the money Bunning secured six years ago. They plan to sell a book about the furnace and use the proceeds to promote the story of a major industry that briefly flourished in Kentucky.