The mystery of the belching blasts and the lost furnaceFeb 15th, 2011 | By admin | Category: Features, History Mystery, In Every Issue
The Mystery of the Belching Blasts and the Lost Furnace
By Jennifer Crutchfield
Ironmaster Robert Cravens was born in Virginia but had Chattanooga and its spirit in his blood. When his parents died of fever Robert began his career, starting by learning the iron business from his uncle to support his seven siblings. Iron stayed in his blood and as a leader of the growing Chattanooga community his innovations would start to turn the tide of progress for his adopted city.
Cravens had his heart, fortune and fingers in most of the industries that characterized Chattanooga’s early growth. One of the leading supporters for the erection of a Masonic academy he donated half of the funds needed to build the first Methodist church and was one of the first men to build in the Lookout Mountain community that became known as Summertown.
His energy was critical to the development of Lookout Mountain and as a businessman he guided the development of the local waterworks and a booming leather manufacturing company that employed 400 men each “peeling season” who supplied tan bark for St. Louis, Chicago and other eastern cities.
Iron stayed in his blood and in the 1830’s Cravens partnered with Abe Lincoln’s cousin, Jesse to build a blast furnace in Roane County. The Eagle furnace failed in 1844 and his wife, mother to his five children, died the next year. His iron will persevered and a few years later his partnership with Colonel Whiteside, another prominent early developer, produced the first charcoal furnace in the state.
While iron has been used for 3,000 to 4,000 years large-scale steel production is relatively new, only occurring during the last 150 years. Production of iron in the South began to grow as an industry prior to the Civil War and the pig iron (ingots of cooled, shaped iron) from Chattanooga was of remarkably high quality. The East Tennessee Iron Manufacturing Company came to represent a fine example of vertical integration as it owned each part of the supply chain that fueled the mighty furnace.
The Bluff Furnace was a large iron-producing facility with a powerful blast furnace that belched black smoke, guided by a team of businessmen and ironmasters from Chattanooga and Northern states. Shut down with the threat of war the New Yorker, James Henderson, tore the limestone stack down, erecting a new iron cupola stack. His 1860 blast produced high quality ingots with the first operation of a coke furnace in the South, only to be stopped again prior to the 1863 occupation of the Scenic City.
Built in 1891 the Walnut Street Bridge represented a new era for the city, the Bluff Furnace sliding further into the shadows of history as the antebellum furnace was covered with layers of dirt with each generation of the city’s growth. The construction of Riverside Drive buried the remnants of the furnace until its neighbor, the Walnut Street Bridge, fell into disrepair and was scheduled for demolition.
Chattanooga was ready to aim the wrecking ball at the Walnut Street Bridge when an impact statement and site survey of the area uncovered the remnants of the Bluff Furnace and Dr. Jeffrey Brown supervised excavation at a site that would shed light on a landmark in history. The field school began by Dr. Brown was continued after his untimely death by Dr. Nicholas Honerkamp and Chattanooga’s metallurgical history came to light from under 15 feet of dirt, proving that there was direct casting at this remarkable site and as donated heavy equipment removed years of fill dirt the iron slag, coke and pig iron fragments told a tale that had been lost and the Bluff Furnace Association and the Walnut Street Bridge Restoration Committee became intertwined in an effort to save the city’s history.
The drama of lobbyists, federal funds and the frenzy of growth came together when Marilyn Lloyd, the 10-term Congresswoman from Tennessee, bargained with Senator Lautenberg of the Armed Services Committee, trading her support for his support and guaranteeing the protection of both the Walnut Street Bridge and the Bluff Furnace.
That legacy continues today and the sites are connected by their history and the passion of the people who saved them, reflected in the community spirit of the bridge, the Parks Foundation and the families that fight to save it. Today local families can join that effort and purchase a plaque that will carry their family’s name into Chattanooga’s future as the iconic blue bridge will celebrate its 120th year with a celebration of the communities that it connects.
The Parks and Recreation Department and the Parks Foundation’s efforts lay the groundwork for a bright future celebrating our history and the fruits of their labor provide a venue for Chattanooga families to enjoy the city, its vibrant, revitalized riverfront and the history that guided its growth.
Visit this site and make your family a part of Chattanooga’s history:
Visit www.walnutstreetbridge.org to purchase a plaque with your family’s name. Join the celebration at the South entrance of the Walnut Street Bridge on February 18th at 11:00 am for the unveiling of the plaques that will become a permanent part of the Bridge’s history.