The Following Was Prepared Under the Direction of the Bureau of Agriculture in 1874
By J. B. KILLEBREW, A.M.,
Assisted By J. M. SAFFORD, PH.D., M.D.
Decatur County - Iron Ore. The amount of iron ore in this county is
considerable. The ore (limonite) is singularly free from flint,
sand, sulphur and phosphorus. Near Brownsport Furnace is a bank from
twelve to twenty feet in thickness, and resting upon a limestone
bed. This bank is capped with a cherty mass, and there is an
unusually small proportion of dead matter. Brownsport Furnace is the
only one in operation in the county. It is three miles from the
Tennessee River. This furnace has been in operation forty years, and
has now a capacity of 6,000 tons of pig metal per annum, or from
eighteen to twenty tons per day. The stack is forty feet high and
twelve feet between bosh. It blows with three tuyers, is hot blast
and has all the modern improvements. It has a vertical engine, with
twenty-four inch cylinder, and a blowing cylinder sixty inches in
diameter. Sand rock for hearths is convenient, and the ore is dug
within one hundred yards of the trundle head. For making a ton of
iron 120 bushels of charcoal are used (2,688 cubic inches to the
bushel). Coal costs seven and a half cents per bushel delivered. Ore
delivered costs $2.00 per ton. About two and a quarter tons of ore
make a ton of iron. The hauling of the pig iron to the river costs
$1.25 per ton. Limestone is delivered at $1.00 per ton. The iron
made is only suitable for castings, most of it being consumed for
light castings, such as require strength and toughness. About 200
hands are kept employed.
Brownsport Furnace History
From Lillye Younger,
The History of Decatur County Past
(Southaven, MS: Carter Printing
Company, 1978), pp. 34-43.
Beside a quiet, abandoned rural road and surrounded by the beauties
of nature about 13 miles southeast of Decaturville stands the ruins
of the Brownsport Furnace, located in an area known as "The Old
The furnace was a prosperous industry
between 1846 and 1878. The Brownsport Iron Company owned 12,000
acres of land on which the furnace was built. Napoleon Hill was the
first president of the company and his associates were G.M. Trigg
and CR. Thornton.
Brownsport Furnace, was the first
hot-blast furnace built in the State of Tennessee, and was for many
years one of the largest furnaces in the State. The furnace was used
for melting iron ore, the most valuable mineral in Decatur and
adjoining counties of Hardin, Wayne, and Henderson.
Ore was dug out of the ground with picks and shovels, by slave
labor, and hauled by oxen-drawn wagons to the furnace where it was
processed. Deposits were dumped into the top of the furnace and
melted by the heat. A trough mold, about 1500 feet long, was built
adjacent to the bottom of the furnace with smaller molds running
horizontal. The vertical mold was called "The Sow" and the smaller
horizontal mold was called "The Pigs" thus forming the term ‘‘Pig
Liquid melted from the iron ore settled at the bottom of the furnace
and ran out into the molds. While in the molten stage, as it began
to cool, the liquid was cut from the main trough. Each smaller mold
held around 200 pound blocks of pig iron. The area surrounding the
furnace was an inferno as the slaves worked cutting the iron apart
from the main stem.
fire came from oak wood, split into 3-1 /2 foot-long sticks and
placed lengthwise in a 50 foot circle. Leaves and brush were placed
on the wood and it was then covered with dirt, forming a mound. The
covering made it air-tight. The fire was started at an opening at
the bottom of the mound. There was one other draft hole to allow the
fire to breathe. When the wood caught fire both air-holes were
closed, allowing it to char rather than reduce to ashes.
After it charred, it was removed to the furnace for fuel. The heat
from the charcoal was ten times more powerful than from a wood fire
and lasted much longer, creating no smoke.
Out on the furnace yard were powerful air bellows which pumped air
to the charcoal to keep it burning. They were operated by a steam
boiler fired by wood. The blaze in the furnace was never allowed to
go out. The land was known as "The Coaling" because of the use of
the charcoal in the manufacture or iron ore.
According to legend, a slave, facing punishment from his master, ran
down the tram to the top of the furnace and jumped in, rather than
face the music. The pig iron was hauled from the furnace over the
country road to Brownsport Landing on the Tennessee River, where it
was shipped by steamboats to foundries. The furnace was built out of
clay bricks. Rocks were placed on the outside for protection to hold
A commissary was built for the laborers. Workers lived in log cabins
on the area. The furnace was operated successfully for a period of
30 years and ore of fine quality and of great abundance was found,
but an extensive lawsuit developed, causing the company to close in
1878. It was never re-opened. The commissary was converted into a
dwelling house in later years. The late George Murphy of Parsons
recalled living at the old commissary dwelling in 1938. He farmed
the land which belonged to Tom Frank Hassell from Clifton at that
Another History of Brownsport
From Gordon H. Turner, Sr., The History of Scotts Hill,
(Carter Printing Company, Southaven,
It is interesting but strange that several iron ore furnaces opened
up well before the Civil War, flourished for several decades and
then through the post-war years, died out entirely. This iron-rich
area extends several miles inland west of and east of the Tennessee
river within 15 to 50 miles of Scotts Hill - mostly in Decatur,
Ferry, Lewis and Wayne and Hardin Counties. Huge furnaces were built
of rock and brick and mud with fire boxes at the bottom. The iron
ore dug from surrounding areas was poured into the top of the
furnaces. The fire boxes burned mostly hardwood or charcoal produced
on the spot. The intense heat reduced the iron from the ore in white
hot streams. This liquid iron ran out of the lower part of the
furnace and into ditches leading off to smaller trenches, much like
a sow giving nourishment to her pigs - hence the name Pig-Iron.
The Brownsport furnace was located near the center of a 12,000 acre
dense hardwood forest in a remote, isolated area of Decatur Co. The
trees of the area made ideal fuel for the furnace. The "hottest"
furnace heat was generated by charcoal.
Short lengths of hardwood cut in the area were reduced to charcoal
in pits or mound furnaces covered with dirt and fired with oxygen
excluded so the wood couldn't "burn up. Since coal had long been so
reduced to (coal) charcoal, the product continued to be called
charcoal, even when made from wood. (A better name might have been "charwood"!)
Such big areas where wood was fired to produce charcoal, or coal to
produce coke (chemically termed as the "destructive distillation" of
wood or coal) were known as "coalings. Through the years the
Brownsport coalings became known locally as "the coalings" , then
simply "the colon." This name for many years now has signified a
remote, deserted cut-over wilderness where wild life abounds yet to
make it a hunter's paradise.
The original developer of the area near us was the Brownsport Iron
Co. Napoleon Hill was the first president. Associates were G.M.
Trigg and G.P. Thornton. Operations began in the 1840's and closed
out in the late 1870's. It was fortunate that it was located so
close to the river that several heavy loads of pig iron could be
hauled daily to the landing to be picked up by steamboats. I never
heard it, but it was a landing likely owned and operated by some
local businessman or leader named Brown hence Brownsport.
Just what the furnace did during the Civil War has not come to
light. It would be sale to assume however, that any slave workers
who were freed by Lincoln's proclamation in 1863, either held their
jobs or whites were taken on for their places. It is also likely
that any pig iron produced during hostilities (especially after Gen.
Grant's gunboats took over river traffic after Shiloh and up the
river to Shiloh) was shipped north to be used in the war effort of
Slaves did however, help construct the furnace, commissary, trails,
and cabins for workers. The ore was dug out of the surrounding hills
and hauled in two-wheel carts to a flattened-off hillside
overlooking the furnace proper. There the ore was transferred to
wheelbarrows and rolled by hand across a strong ramp leading to the
top of the furnace to be dumped in.
Piles of wood (or charcoal) were interspaced within the furnace
between layers of the ore. Though the lower part was called the
fire-box, actually, when the whole furnace was loaded with fuel and
ore, it became a big tall fire-box. The fire was kindled at the
bottom with just enough air admitted through the damper hole to make
the fire burn hottest.
We are not certain whether Brownsport was a "blast furnace," that
is, if it had a bellows-type pump to force air into and through the
furnace much like blacksmiths used bellows to make their forge fire
burn faster and hotter.
(Note - It is now known that Brownsport was indeed a Blast Furnace,
It was actually the first blast furnace in the state and used a
modern steam driven engine - Jeff Kobiske) All furnaces were not built alike nor did
they operate exactly the same. All worked on the same basic
idea however; special wood (or coal) burning furnaces whose fires
could be heated white hot to smelt the iron ore packed down through
the contraption. Iron melts at 1535 degrees Centigrade; boils at
3000 degrees. Some heat then and now!
Brownsport's outside circular wall of brick apparently was an
ingenious insulation arrangement to save and protect the intense
heat within the inside furnace proper. The fire hole-damper
arrangement at the bottom of the furnace may have been so opened and
closed as to naturally cause blasts of air to be taken in, and
which, heated, would rise to the top.
The huge shells of old Brownsport are still standing but are
crumbling down - just a shadow of better days. Only the basement can
be seen of the nearby commissary which supplied staple foods and
other necessities for workers. The employees' barracks and cabins
for worker families are all gone - not a trace left. Just a century
ago it was a thriving community.