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Beginning as early as 1790, iron mines operated in Lincoln County, providing North Carolina with much of its iron in the first half of the nineteenth century. Drawing upon the “Big Ore Bank” deposits, production by 1810 centered around six bloomeries and forges. Lincoln County’s iron production peaked in 1830, with 1800 tons of iron was refined, mostly in the area around present-day Iron Station. The damaging effects of the Civil War and a lack of technological development, however, led to the demise of the county’s iron industry by 1880.
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Iron mine development in Lincoln County was encouraged by the legislature’s 1788 “Act to Encourage the Building of Iron Works.” The act guaranteed investors ten years of tax exemptions, as well as 3,000 acres of non-farmable land for charcoal if their facilities successfully produced iron. In 1789, Peter Forney purchased a large tract of land in eastern Lincoln County at the “Big Ore Bank,” and began to mine the iron ore deposits there. Forney and his associates including Alexander Brevard, Joseph Graham, and John Fulenwider, soon developed multiple forges, furnaces and bloomeries in the area. Fulenwider had developed two forges of his own by 1804, and also built the High Shoals Ironworks, which produced cannonballs for the War of 1812.
By 1820, the “Big Ore Bank” area of Lincoln County led the state in iron production, although most of it was used locally. The pig iron produced at the works served a variety of purposes, including for plows, horseshoes, tools and munitions. The area ironworks prospered between 1820 and 1840 though, producing around 900 tons of iron yearly.
By the outbreak of the Civil War, the ironworks in Lincoln County were losing profitability. During the war, several of the works were reopened to supply iron to the Confederacy. James Madison Smith even opened Stonewall Furnace in 1862 for the purpose. After the war though, the economic hardships throughout the South accompanied by the depletion of iron deposits and natural resources in the area made mining more difficult. The increasing technological developments in Pennsylvania and other northern mines made Northern iron less expensive and of higher quality.
Lester J. Cappon, “Iron-making—A Forgotten Industry of North Carolina,” North Carolina Historical Review (October 1932): 331-348
William Sherrill, Annals of Lincoln County, North Carolina (1932)
Lincoln County Historical Association website: http://www.lincolncountyhistory.com/exhibits/ironIndustry.html
Hugh T. Lefler and Albert R Newsome, History of a Southern State: North Carolina (1973)
William S. Powell, ed., Encyclopedia of North Carolina (2006)