History Book: Cornwall Furnace

September 3, 2015 in Fall 2015 Issue by Michelle McAnelly

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Cornwall Furnace Memorial Park on the banks of Weiss Lake is a picturesque place for a picnic – and for learning a saga intertwining regional history with one of the world’s most storied conflicts. 

One of the pleasures of teaching history is the occasional opportunity to take students to see the actual places where great events occurred. Of course, one must be careful not to overtax their attention spans and imaginations.

Once , as a bus load of my students disembarked at the ruins of the fourth Scottish abbey I was excited to show them that day, one young woman was heard to mutter in some disgust, “Oh, good, more rocks!” I hope that I was able to make the place come alive for her with tales of the brave lads and tragic figures that were buried there.

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]One might expect a similar reaction to a first visit to Cornwall Furnace near Cedar Bluff, on the shores of Weiss Lake in Cherokee County, Alabama.

“The furnace is a significant site and is the only place in this history-rich county that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places,” notes Jim Lewis, Cherokee County historian. The rock “stack” of the furnace is all that remains standing today, but once one knows how complex the original structure and buildings were, the drama and dangers of iron smelting and the role this furnace played in Alabama’s efforts to support the Confederacy’s war effort, one may hear these rocks whisper a captivating story.

Within a year after the American Civil War began, the Confederate government realized its armies could not be victorious without state-supported and state-organized provisions. “An army marches on its stomach,” declared either Frederick the Great or Napoleon Bonaparte, depending upon whether the Germans or the French are telling the story. Good and plentiful food is, of course, necessary for fighting men to be most effective.

But an army has complex needs beyond mere sustenance. From bedrolls to bandages, clothing to cannon balls, a successful army must be equipped with supplies adequate to the task of supporting virtual cities of men travelling over distances to face the challenge of hostile encounters, large and small. Military history is littered with stories of how providing vital supplies at a strategic moment led to success.

Some historians maintain that both the lack of supplies and the difficulty in transporting available resources caused the South’s defeat. Although possessing the most brilliant generals, Southern armies were often ragged, hungry and ill equipped. To many historians, the slow and eventually steady progress of the better-fed and armed Union armies was the deciding factor in winning the war. The Confederate government, which had expected a short war and quick victory, awakened slowly to its military deficits, frantically contracting with private individuals and businesses to produce all things needed by its armies. Later in the war, this “contracting” amounted to virtual governmental coercion and confiscation.

One of the first needs Jefferson Davis’ government addressed was the desperate shortage of weaponry. Metal production needed to be ramped up and rendered into weapons. Alabama, rich in elements needed for iron refining, was the focal point.

At the beginning of the war, there were seven blast furnaces operating in the state. These furnaces, while adequate for the civilian market, could not produce enough iron to meet military needs. Between 1862 and 1865, the Confederate government financed, at least in part, the creation of 13 new blast furnaces in the state.

In 1862, it contracted with James Noble and his sons, businessmen who owned a foundry in Rome, Ga., to build two of these new furnaces to produce pig-iron bars that would be taken to Rome, and there, transformed into armaments including cannons and caissons to transport munitions and carriages.

After surveying possible sites, Noble and his sons chose a location near the Chattooga River in Cherokee County, Alabama. The fundamental materials:limestone, timber to produce charcoal and deposits of iron ore were close by. It was necessary to dig a canal from the river to the furnace in order to supply rapidly running water to turn the wheel that operated the apparatus in the stack that blew out impurities in the iron. Because the ore and other elements were added to the top of the stack, and the purified liquid pig iron was collected beneath it, the furnaces were built against a hillside. These furnaces were typically built of stone as a pyramid, 30 feet square at the base and about 30 feet high. A wooden bridge from the ridge to the top of the stack provided a means for loading materials into the furnace.

At the Cornwall site, iron ore production began in late 1862 or early 1863.

At its height of production, it is estimated that the furnace produced 6 tons of iron daily. As Lewis notes: “This was a relatively small amount, especially compared to others nearby, but Cornwall’s output was important when added to the total produced by all the new furnaces.”

The iron ore was shipped by steamboat to the foundry in Rome to be transformed into weaponry. Evidently the furnace was considered enough of a threat that Gen. William T. Sherman, occupying nearby Gaylesville on his sweep into the South, ordered it destroyed. In 1864, United States Brigadier Gen. Frank Blair and his men found the Cornwall site and burned all that would burn, including the wooden bridge and the nearby sawmill and grist mill. Despite their best efforts to destroy the stack by hand, the heavy stone structure resisted, yielding only a small number of the exterior hematite bricks. Some of these still lie around the foot of the furnace today.

“Why didn’t they use dynamite?” Lewis wonders. “That would have ensured their success.” Despite the limited damage, Blair and his men did succeed in forcing the furnace out of production, but after the war it was rebuilt in 1867 and produced iron until 1870, when a fire ignited a pile of charcoal stored nearby and caused the stack to collapse. The stack was rebuilt and remained active until 1874, when production was finally shut down.

The furnace and land it stood upon remained in private hands, and were soon overtaken by what the Cherokee County Historical Society describes as “jungle-like growth.” Ironically, that overgrowth protected it and preserved the stone stack even as it allowed the elaborate wooden structure attached to it to fall into ruin. There it remained, suspended in time for almost 100 years.

Of course, despite the foliage, people knew the old furnace was there. There was talk and a great deal of determination to clear the site and create a veterans memorial park in conjunction with preserving the furnace. The first step, accomplished on Sept. 27, 1972, was to get the site listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Three years later, the Cherokee County Commission in partnership with the Alabama Historical Commission and the Cherokee County Historical Society, bought the land where the furnace stood plus five additional acres.

The Cherokee County Soil Conservation Service cleared the land and built the park’s pavilions and picnic area. What they revealed when the vines and trees were cut back was the best-preserved of all the four remaining iron blow furnaces in the state of Alabama. On April 24, 1977, the park was dedicated to the memory of the men and women of Cherokee County who had died in all wars, from 1775 to 1973. Today, all are welcome to visit, picnic and pay their respect to veterans. In addition, Lewis has been busily enhancing the displays, including those of Cornwall Furnace, at the Cherokee County Historical Museum in downtown Centre, Ala.

More recently, Cherokee County history enthusiasts have focused upon preservation of the furnace and restoration of the nearby canal, which was hand dug by thousands of slaves and is now a dry bed in winter and contains stagnant water in summer. The Friends of Cornwall Furnace Memorial Park organization is raising funds for both projects.

When Cornwall Furnace was built in 1863, it sat on solid, dry land a good 200 feet from the Chatooga River. In 1961, Alabama Power Company built a dam capturing waters of the Chatooga, Coosa and Little rivers and flooding 30,000 acres of farmland to form Weiss Lake. Today, the shoreline of the lake is only 25 feet from the base of the stack. Despite construction of a short retaining wall to protect the furnace, preservationists fear lake water has penetrated soil beneath the stack and will ultimately destabilize the stones.

For further information on preservation efforts or to make a donation, see friendsofcornwallfurnace.com.

Upon first glance, the furnace might appear to be just another pile of rocks, sitting beside a peaceful lake. But it takes only a little imagination to hear the ghostly groans of the men laboring to pull heavy piles of ore and limestone over the creaking wooden bridge, to be dumped with a roar into the top of the fiery furnace. One can imagine the rushing of the water over the wooden wheel to force the wheezing bellows to breathe life into the conflagration. One hears calls from the men below as they spilled the molten iron into molds to harden into pig iron ingots.

Ultimately, of course, one must shudder at the sounds of battle, uniquely horrific, fueled by the staccato blasts of cannon and gunfire born in the iron of the Cornwall furnace.


If You Go

HAVE A PICNIC: The park pavilion and picnic tables are perfect for a relaxing lakeside meal.

CONSIDER A STAY ON WEISS LAKE: Fishing and swimming opportunities abound. Chesnut Bay Resort is a great place for enjoying both activities, plus many other amenities. For additional lodging information, see visitors> accommodations at cherokee-chamber.org.

RENT A BOAT: See bayspringsmarina.com, littlerivermarinaandlodge.com, leesburgal.com (Leesburg Landing) and chesnutbayresort.com