FURNACE STEEL MILL
The Furnace Steel Mill, located south of Bloomfield on Iron Mountain Road, was started in 1840 by Andrew Downing. He was a local businessman who had gained great wealth from other businesses that he operated in the area. When the demand of iron products for farm use and other household needs rose, Downing realized that a steel mill could be a prosperous business venture.
The Furnace Steel Mill was a blast furnace. It was a vertical pressure shaft-blown furnace, operated by forced air, which reduced the iron oxides and turned it into a liquid form. A great amount of fuel was needed to complete this task. Fortunately, charcoal that was manufactured nearby was plentiful. This shaft furnace was similar to those that the Germans and French were using during that time period.
After several years of profitable business for Downing at the steel mill, three other men, M. H. Shryer, William Eveleigh, and William Mason, joined him in the purchase of a small steamboat. "The Richland" was used to haul the products produced at the mill to places where they could be bought and sold. Before the men bought "The Richland," they had to pay teamsters as much as $5 per ton to take the iron to Louisville. With their new purchase, however, they were able to do this for themselves at a low cost and ship agricultural products for local farmers, resulting in higher profits.
At the mill, the workers were divided into divisions that required them to perform a specific task in the manufacturing of the iron products. A division was assigned to keeping the furnace burning. Their duties included cutting and hauling the wood, forming and burning the pits, and hauling charcoal to the furnace. Another division was involved with the mining of the iron ore, part of which was mined in the area. A third division actually worked in the mill. When the business was at its high point in the early 1850s, over one hundred men were employed at the mill.
Over the next few years the business grew larger. It attracted the interest of some wealthy businessmen in Terre Haute. Chauncey Rose (founder of the Rose Polytechnic Institute, now known as the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, and Rose Orphanage), along with A. L. Voorhees and E. J. Peck, joined Downing. With the help of these men, the business enlarged even more, to staggering heights. More men were hired, many making as much as one dollar per day.
The company owned a large plot of land along with the mill, the net worth estimated to be $200,000. What once was a small village surrounding the mill, was now larger than the nearby county seat, Bloomfield. Downing purchased a bank and printed his own currency, which was issued in excess of $25,000. He started a large gristmill and a sawmill. Two years later he had already gained over $2,000 from these business ventures.
For several years, the profits continued to grow but all that came to a stop in 1859. Trouble within the company caused the profits to begin diminishing. The canal used to ship the iron products south was abandoned. The entire town of Furnace plummeted with the mill. The workers at the mill left town, leaving the community with little more than empty buildings. The blast furnace was no longer burning.
In 1962, while contractors were building a new bridge across Richland Creek, they came across a huge solid platform. Their powerful equipment could not budge the massive structure. The local highway engineer along with a man from the contracting firm found through much research that this structure was the old loading dock for the Furnace Mill. Several pigs of iron, along with the huge spikes that held the structure in place, were found and salvaged. Today the town of Furnace no longer exists. A country church, which was once the Furnace School, is the only trace of a boom town that once thrived in this rural area.
[Written May 1998]
Dickerson, Mike. "First Greene County Settlers Arrived in 1813," Linton Daily Citizen, April 29, 1987.
Flynn, Faye L. "Greene County Had an Iron Ore Boom in 1840’s," Linton Daily Citizen, April 30, 1986.
History of Greene and Sullivan Counties. Chicago: Goodspeed Brothers and Company, 1884.
Roach, Jim. The Richland Furnace: A Project for F 39I.
Pioneer Days: A History of Early Bloomfield and Greene County. Bloomfield: Lions Club, 1959.