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Iron Furnace Found

Milestones Vol 24. No.2 Spring 1999

By Denver L Walton

Some years ago, in a casual survey of historical sites which tell the story of Beaver County in the early days, I visited the site of the Homewood Iron Furnace. I had always heard that this landmark, located near the Koppel Bridge in North Sewickley, was covered by a dump, and what I saw seemed to confirm the comments and opinions of other observers.

I found myself again at the scene for another look, and I've drawn some drastically different conclusions. Early records of the Homewood Furnace are very incomplete, and it is mostly tradition rather than documentation that places it near the site of the former Eliwood City dump (now Townsend Company property).

This same tradition holds that the dump covered the furnace, leaving no trace except some building foundations nearby. We don't know what the dimensions of this furnace were (it operated from 1858 to 1868) but installations of this nature varied considerably in size, depending on building materials available, designed capacity, quality of raw materials available and so forth. But even a small furnace would have measured 20 feet square or thereabouts at the base, and would have projected 25 or 30 feet high. A tall stack was necessary to provide the draft needed to heat the iron to melting temperature.

Since my first visit to the site, I've seen a few old iron furnaces around the countryside and I know a little better what to look for. Upon my recent visit, the first thing I noticed was that nowhere did the dump elevation appear to be high enough above that natural terrain to cover the furnace stack.

At the foot of the dump, which at this point was about 20 feet high, there was the usual accumulation of old bottles, cans, tires, steel drums, and other junk, none of it old enough to be of any interest to collectors. What was of interest though was an occasional chunk of coke slag, or impure coke that was partly burnt as if in the coke-making process, but of too poor a quality to use as a fuel.

This could very well have been left over from furnace days, which ended a scant hundred and five years ago. But why, if the furnace was under the dump, would the coking process have been located downhill from it. The coke, iron ore and limestone had to be charged into the top of the stack, thus it would have had to be hauled uphill from here. Not very practical.

I found several high mounds of this stuff. Earlier observers had reported the foundations of several buildings, including an extra sturdy foundation which may have housed the steam compressor needed to provide the strong blast of air directed into the furnace.

With a little persistence, I found the foundations, about a hundred yards north and downhill from the dump. I called for the rest of the family to join me and we made some interesting discoveries. Initially, it was obvious that the foundation was too heavy for any ordinary structure that would have been built to serve a furnace.

Heavy, one inch iron bolts projected from the base about three or four feet along the back. In front of the site (toward the river) was "paydirt"; a bank composed largely of red furnace slag, the by-product of the iron industry. If the furnace was a hundred or more yards up the hill, why the concentration of slag here?

There is only one obvious explanation. The stone foundation is the foundation of the furnace itself. The heavy iron rods would have been necessary to tie the massive stone blocks of a furnace stack together, but would hardly have been needed in a service building, even if it, too, was made of stone.

The red slag, of course, was deposited at the front of the furnace, and the pile of coke up behind it would have been accumulated spillage from the ramp leading to the stack. And the pile of fused bricks? The lining of the stack itself which probably collapsed or was knocked down toward the hillside.

What about the heavy cut stone that comprised the furnace itself? Well, it will turn up, too, but in a culvert, or bridge pier or the foundation of a barn somewhere nearby. In an era when quarried stone was the primary source of permanent building materials, it was easier to haul it away from a handy abandoned furnace that to quarry it fresh.

So much for the Homewood Furnace. I believe that this is the furnace site, and that earlier reports were in error. It would be very nice to hear from anyone who can supply more information about the furnace, or local history in general.