Beginning with the industrial revolution in the 1820’s, the demand for iron products for factories and consumers increased through the mid-1800’s. The iron industry in Land Between the Lakes contributed to a regional industry that stretched from Western Kentucky to the southern counties of Middle Tennessee. The rivers provided cheap transportation to markets.
Today, only two of our eight furnace stacks remain; Great Western Furnace and Center Furnace. Other markers of this thriving industry include shallow ponds that were once iron ore surface mines, cliffs of limestone from mines long abandoned, barren circles in the forest that were once charcoal hearths and even, in some locations, rail road beds.
Located 5 miles south of Eddyville, Kentucky, Mammoth Furnace is the northern most furnace in Land Between the Lakes. Built in 1845 by Charles Stacker, it was 9 feet wide at the top of the bosh and 31 ½ feet high inside. In 1857 it produced 1,514 tons of iron. Built of stone and brick lined, it now rests under Lake Barkley.
Two years after firing up the Empire Furnace and located just three miles north, Dr. Thomas Tennessee Watson and Daniel Hillman built the Fulton Furnace in 1845. It was 11 feet wide by 33 feet inside. After Dr. Watson died in 1846, ownership of Fulton transferred to Daniel Hillman. Last blast was in 1860. This furnace also rests under Lake Barkley.
Center Furnace | See ruins near Woodlands Nature Station
Two miles west of Empire Furnace, Center Furnace was built in 1852 and owned by Daniel Hillman. Called the “Granddaddy of them all;” Center Furnace was the largest furnace in Land Between The Lakes at 10 feet wide by 35 feet high. Center Furnace served as the longest running furnace and was one of the few furnaces that operated during the Civil War.
Built in 1843 by Dr. Thomas Tennessee Watson, Empire Furnace stood on the banks of the Cumberland River across from Rock Castle and two miles east of Center Furnace. Soon after the furnace was built, Dr. Watson and Daniel Hillman became partners. Again upon Dr. Watson’s death Daniel Hillman became sole owner. Dr. Watson was buried at Empire Furnace and later moved to Center Furnace when Lake Barkley was created in the 1960s.
Laura Furnace was the last furnace to be built in Land Between the Lakes in 1855. Located 3 miles north of the Tennessee state line. The inside of the bosh was 40 feet tall. Operated by Gentry, Gunn and Company and managed by J. F. Gentry, Laura employed 130 workers. The furnace was forced to close during the Civil War and after the war was intermittently in operation until finally closing in 1872. Today a Kentucky historical marker identifies the site.
Great Western Furnace | Just south of Homeplace
Our most visible iron industry ruins, Great Western Furnace was constructed in 1854 by Brien, Newell and Company it closed in 1856. Due to its short period of operation, the furnace remains in good physical condition. It sits on The Trace south of the Homeplace and was 40 feet high inside. It’s demise came due to a bad location, too remote for raw materials, slave insurrection limited labor force, and the profitable period for pig iron had passed. All of these factors caused the Great Western to cease operation. A town grew up around the furnace called Model.
Located 6 miles south of Great Western, Iron Mountain was built by same builders as Great Western in 1854. It was 42 feet high in the inside. Iron Mountain stopped production of iron from 1855 to 1859, for many of the same reasons that closed Great Western Furnace. But unlike Great Western Furnace, Iron Mountain Furnace resumed pig iron production after the Civil War.
Peytona Furnace was built in 1847 at the head waters of Bear Creek. It was operated by Thomas Kirkman. The bosh stood 42 feet high and was said to be the tallest furnace in Stewart County. The village of Peytona grew up around the furnace and included a boarding house were many of the workers lived. According to legend, the furnace was named after a famous Sumner County, Tennessee, racehorse named Peytona.
Check out these areas on your travels through Land Between The Lakes trails and roads.