30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology 2015, Day 4
Tennessee Department of Transportation
What put the “forge” in Pigeon Forge? Obviously there was a forge there, but what kind of forge? A simple blacksmith shop doesn’t often lend a name to a community. In 18th and 19th century usage, a forge is a type of ironworks, a place where iron was not only worked, but actually made from ore.
In early 19th century Tennessee there were two types of ironmaking operations that made two different kinds of iron. The blast furnace produced cast iron in the form of both finished products and pig iron, so named for the bars (pigs) that branched off from the main casting channel (trough) when the furnace was tapped. The blast furnace is what most people think of when ironmaking is mentioned. Then there’s the bloomery or Catalan forge, an open fire in which charcoal and iron ore are combined to produce a ball or “bloom” of spongy iron which is then worked under a large hammer to make wrought iron, the easily forgeable bar iron used by blacksmiths. A bloomery can also turn cast iron into wrought iron, which is a very important thing. Both of these kinds of ironworks were in Sevier County beginning in the 1810s. The forge that Pigeon Forge was named for was a Catalan-type bloomery forge, and was used not only to produce wrought iron from ore, but also to turn the cast iron pigs from Love’s Blast Furnace on the East Fork of the Little Pigeon River into wrought iron barstock. The forge was dismantled and moved to Kentucky around 1870 after having produced no iron since 1860.
In the summer of 2013 I got an email from Mike Angst at the University of Tennessee Archaeological Research Laboratory asking for a copy of a TDOT report on the Wayne Furnace site, a blast furnace operation in Wayne County in Middle Tennessee. Since I am not only an archaeologist but also a blacksmith and experimental ironmaker, I was immediately curious and offered to help out with any questions he had. It turned out that UT had been asked to help find the location of the original forge in Pigeon Forge by the town historian and librarian, Veta King. I immediately volunteered to help with the research and fieldwork. Unfortunately there is not much left of the forge site besides a thick layer of iron oxide forge scale because of flooding and later development, but while we were there I mentioned to the historian that if she could provide me with access to the orebanks I and some friends of mine could smelt it into wrought iron.
King was enthusiastic about this idea, and arranged for it to happen at the 2014 Pigeon Forge Saddleup, a living history event held at a campground not far from the forge site. A visit to one of the orebanks gave us 120 pounds of ore. I roasted and crushed it (this removes chemically bound water and increases the surface area to help with the chemical reaction needed to make iron) and packed it into buckets for later use.
My smelting partners and I made one run of iron from half the ore to test how well it would work with great success, and the stage was set. We would have liked to use the same type of forge for our demonstration, but a Catalan forge is a large and labor intensive thing to build and run so we decided to use the more primitive short stack bloomery furnace method which can be built and operated by two or three people in a day.
Thus, on February 21 the crew rolled into Pigeon Forge to make iron from the local ore for the first time since 1860. My partners were Dr. Jesus Hernandez, Mark Green, Dennis McAdams, and Christopher Price, all of whom are experienced in making iron. We set up the furnace, a 10-inch bore stack of clay 48 inches tall atop a brick plinth that evening and prepared for our smelt the following day.
The theory of making iron is simple: Iron ore, which in this case was goethite (Fe2O3[OH]+H2O), is roasted to produce magnetite (Fe3O4). This is reduced by exposure to carbon monoxide at high temperatures. The CO strips the oxygen from the ore, leaving behind pure iron and the residue of silicates in the rock as slag. Charcoal is the fuel of choice because it burns clean and adds no unwanted elements such as sulfur or phosphorus.
The smelt itself began at 10 AM on February 22 by loading the stack with charcoal. Once it was up to temperature we began adding the crushed ore with equal weights of charcoal. One charge of each was added every ten minutes as the fuel/ore column worked its way down the stack. At 2:30 PM the furnace was ready, with a bloom of spongy iron and slag resting in the base. By this time we had quite a crowd for the extraction. This is the fun part: you open the base of the brick plinth and pull out a white-hot ball of near-molten iron, put it on a tree stump, and beat it into a solid mass with a team of guys wielding ten-pound sledge hammers before it cools off too much to work. And we had success. 54 pounds of ore and 130 pounds of charcoal produced a ball of solid iron weighing 20 pounds, the first iron made in Pigeon Forge from local ore in 154 years. Team member Christopher Price filmed the event and made a 10-minute documentary I encourage you to watch.