By: Blake Vickers
The pictures online don’t do it justice.
The Fitchburg Furnace is big, enormous even. Located near Aldersgate Camp, it stands at 81 feet long, 40 feet wide, and 60 feet wide. It is one of two blast furnaces in Estill County. The Fitchburg furnace is something of an oddity as it was the only double stack blast furnace ever built. Designed by Frank Fitch and constructed by Scottish stonemason Sam Worthley in 1869, it now stands as a popular tourist destination and a reminder of the once booming iron industry in Kentucky. Located at 1875 Fitchburg Road in Ravenna, It’s a popular tourist destination in the county, but why wouldn’t it be? It’s an incredible structure with some intriguing history.
“It’s packed,” says Dave Cohn, Director of the neighboring Aldersgate Camp & Retreat Center. “Peak time is around 3 to 6 o’clock in the afternoon. If it’s pretty, every single day we’ll have people out there.
Blast furnaces like the one in Fitchburg use an elaborate process to refine metals. Ore is poured into the stack from the top of the furnace. After that, charcoal and limestone are poured in as well, with the charcoal working as a fuel for the fires and the limestone becoming a chemical agent or “flux” to make sure that the right chemical reaction happens inside the stack. The Fitchburg Furnace specialized in a rough industrial metal nicknamed “Pig Iron”. Until the 1870’s, Kentucky was the third leading producer of iron in the U.S. due to an abundance of resources like ore beds, timber, charcoal, limestone, and the building material for the furnaces in the form of stone. While the Fitchburg furnace is certainly the most memorable blast furnace in the state, it’s not the only one. In fact, it’s not even the only blast furnace in Estill County, as the much smaller Cottage Furnace also made its home in the county.
There is a vivid history in the surrounding area of the park in general. Cohn describes some of that history he’s picked up since living moving next to the furnace.
“The furnace is steeped in history. The quarry that built it is on a nearby ridge. The repairs made to the furnace used the same rocks that it was built with. Up the road a little ways is Needmore Hollow, which is where freed slaves in the area lived. There is rumor that a barge with some of the original pig iron from the furnace has been found in the Kentucky River,” he said.
Frank Fitch developed elaborate and meticulous plans for building his furnace. He had help from his brother and financiers from major cities like New York and Boston. Together with his brother, Fitch created the Red River Iron Manufacturing Company. Estill County was chosen as the location for the Forge because of an abundance of the necessary resources used to forge iron, but also because of its adjacency to Miller Creek. Miller Creek feeds into the Kentucky River; from there, it could be floated up to Louisville for sale. Roughly $160,000 was spent on construction of the furnace and equipment. Because of Fitch’s ingenious designs, the furnace was far more efficient in its production efforts than others in the area. Where a standard blast furnace needed more than 200 bushels of charcoal to produce one ton of pig iron, the Fitchburg Furnace only needed 155 bushels of charcoal per ton. In 1870 alone, the furnace cranked out 900 tons of pig iron.
At one time, the Fitchburg Furnace, originally named the Red River Furnace, was a bustling little town in itself. Over 1000 people lived in the makeshift community, nicknamed “Fitchburg” built around the furnace. Staples of town life such as doctors offices, post offices, churches, and more could be found near the furnace. While the remaining structure is a truly massive work of stonecraft, much of the original building no longer stands. Based on historical evidence and photographs, a four-story power house once stood next to the furnace, with a large shed standing to the other side.
Despite a town springing up around it and an innovative design, the Fitchburg Furnace was only operational for four years. A perfect storm of issues all hit at once. When plans had originally been drawn up for the furnace, it had been assumed that the state would finish it’s plans to build a rail line to the area. When the rail line never materialized, it was a heavy blow to the furnace.
Alabama began to corner the market for iron production before the demand for iron fell in general. Having to ship its product up the Kentucky River also proved to be an expensive and inefficient method of transport for the furnace. It closed its doors in 1874, and fell into disrepair over the next few decades.
Don Fig, a forest service employee, began researching the dilapidated structure in 1968. Fig played an important role in beginning the preservation process for the furnace. Frank Fitch’s descendants Joyce Broddus and Toska Middleton donated the land containing the furnace to the forest services in 1973. One year later, a full century after it was closed, the Fitchburg Furnace was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on April 17, 1974. The rest of the 70’s saw some minor work done around the furnace like building a parking lot. It would largely go ignored until the early 2000’s when an engineer from the University of Pennsylvania analyzed the furnace.
The engineer claimed that a collapse was imminent due to damaging cracks in the building. After the analyses, Senator Jim Bunning helped garner $670,000 in funding for preservation purposes. Several non-profit groups came together after this to make more improvements. The next wave of repairs would be made in 2008 with the passing of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
The repairs made helped fix several structural damages throughout the furnace. A layer of thick vegetation was cleared on the roof. Replacement stones have been put in place to fill in empty spaces, and concrete buttresses were installed in the southeast corner of the building along with a drain to keep water from collecting near the buttress.
Because of close to 50 years of hard work from some dedicated people, the Fitchburg Furnace still looms just as impressive as it did 150 years ago.