In 1829 the Estill Steam Furnace, situated on the ridge between Millers Creek and Hardwicks Creek, was begun by Col. Thomas Deye Owings, who after finishing the furnace, sold it to Resin H. Gist and James Mason. The pig iron produced at Estill Steam Furnace was manufactured at Red River Iron Works.
After a few years of operation, the furnace was sold to Samuel G. Jackson, Samuel Wheeler, Luther Mason and his brother, John C. Mason. they bought a large tract of land from Col. Green Clay and Clilton Allen. They made and manufactured iron for several years, selling to Andrew Laywell, Josiah A. Jackson, W.G. Jackson and Weeden Smith. At Smith's death all the property was acquired by Josiah A. Jackson, who sold it to the Red River Iron Manufacturing Company in 1863.
The company was reorganized in 1865 with a cash capital of $1,000,000. The works at the old forge were not revived, but the mills were rebuilt and improved.
Estill Steam Furnace was again put into blast with a flurry in the early months of 1868. Many buildings were erected, turnpikes were built and the iron produced was transported by mule team eight miles to Red River and shipped by flatboats on down the Kentucky River to market. After operating for several years, it was closed around 1879. It was doomed, as all other furnaces in the Red River valley, by the revolution in the use of coke for fuel and the opening of the great iron mines on the upper Great Lakes, which so cheapened the metal that effective competition was impossible.
The once handsome Estill Steam Furnace has rumbled from its own weight. Nothing remains except ruins. Many of the stones have been carried away by farmers of the community to be used as foundations of buildings. The oldcommissary remains and continues to serve the community as a post office adn country store. The old tavern nearby which had been possessed by the George Lyle family for many years was dismantled in 1966 and a modern home built in its place. However, a mound n the front lawn where many slaves were auctioned is still discerible. Most of the slag which had laid in profusion on the vast acreage has been carried away by tourists and collectors.
To reach the furnace ruins, take highway 52 eastfrom Ravenna, turn left on Furnace Road (highway 213) thence 6 miles to Furnace; a total distance of 14 miles from Irvine.
Left: Is Fitchburg Furnace in 1895. To the right a man holds chunks of slag left in the inner chambers of the furnace.
High in the northeastern portion of Estill County stands Fitchburg Furnace. Only the towering shaft of the ghost town knows what it was like to live in the village, and the people who lived here, but they only speak to the wind. Our grandfather Andrew Jackson Combs worked for this furnace as an Ore miner. We are very proud of that. Fitchburg Furnace was completed in 1858. Built at the peak of the iron industry. it was the last furnace to be built in Estill County. It is considerd quite unique in that it has twin stacks. It is a single stone structure 60 feet in heighth and 116 feet long. When built, it was one of the largest charcoal furnaces in the world. A town was chartered, called Fitchburg, after the two brothers, Frank Fitch, the general superintendent, and Fred Fitch, the secretary and treasurer. It was owned by the Red River Iron Manufacturing Co. with a cash capital of $1,000,000. Many buildings were erected; inclined planes, tramways, macadamized roads, mills, shops, a school and a church and several miles of turnpike leading to other communities were built. For several years Fitchburg was a thriving little city of more than a hundred families. A thousand men were furnished employment.
Far off the beaten path in the wilderness of Estill COunty near the once thickly populated community of Marbleyard, there stands hidden from public view Cottage Furnace (so named because it has the appearance of a stone cottage).
Constructed of massive blocks of native stone, it is about 25 feet square and 35 feet high. This structure, although erected more than a century ago, is still in good preservation, and stands as a monument to a vanished epoch. On the face of one of the huge blocks of stone is the inscription, "M.W. 1854."
In 1859 Mason and Wheeler sold to the firm of Pierce, Ginter and Vaughn, who operated it until 1861, when it was sold to the McKinney brothers, David, Matthew, James, Thomas and Joel. The McKinney brothers had come from Clark County to work at The Red River Iron Manufacturing Company at Clay City. All the McKinney brothers purchased farms and built spacious homes for themselves and neat cottages for their slaves in the Harwicks Creek community.
The various owners of Cottage Furnace had built their community down the mountain side in the beautiful Hardwicks Creek valley, which had become quite a thriving village. Beside the dwellings of those who were employed at the furnace, there were carding mills, blacksmith shops, carpenters' shops, livery stables, a general store, a school, and a church. The McKinneys also operated a commissary for the convenience of their employees.
There was iron ore in abundance in the high land lying between Cow Creek and Millers Creek, Virgin white oaks supplied the charcoal and most of the labor was provided by slaves, many of whom remained to work for the company after the Civil War had given them their freedom. The McKinneys were reputed to have been kind and understanding masters to their slaves, and were the first in the community to give them their freedom.
The making of iron is full of romantic interest. People of the community grew to love the furnace and the drama of it. Old timers loved to tell of how they were impressed by the fire against the sky at night. The pulsing roar of the furnace, the fillers, like ants, crossing the bridge from the band to the tunnelhead, with their baskets of ore and charcoal, the crucial tension mounting until the moment came to tap. The climax came twice a day when the dam-stone was pulled away and hot molten iron came pouring forth in a fiery red stream filling the sand molds of the casting bed, called the sow and pigs. Hince the name Pig Iron.
There are many legends, some tragic and some comical which surround the Cottage Furnace. One story in particular, almost too tragic to repeat, is told of a young slave, Ned, who had run away from his master. Ned had been given shelter by Jesse Jones, a recluse and scientist, who lived at Marleyard. The slave had a cruel master, who often punished him by tying him to a post or tree and whipped him with a cowhide whip. Ned had been given employment at the furnace. One day while on his way to work, his master sprang out behind him and started chasing him. Rather than be caught and submit to cruel punishment from his master, he dived headfirst into the molten iron ore and was burned to death.
It will no doubt be of interest to historically minded people to learn under what circumstances the Cottage Furnace ceased to operate. In 1879, Joel McKinney, owner of the furnace at that time, received word that his son, Joel, Jr., had died suddenly. Due to the shock, he stopped operation of the furnace while it was in full blast, still full of the molten iron which remains until this day. McKinney was never able to operate it again.