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Brownsport Furnace

Listed with:  The National Register Of Historic Places


National Register of Historic Places

The Brownsport Furnace park offers an interpretive of an old Pig Iron smelting furnace. The park is also host to Decatur County Saddle Club Trail rides and other public use. Come and enjoy the relaxed and peaceful outdoors at the furnace. We have areas to use for company picnics, family outings, church outings etc.


Brownsport Furnace

Number 40DR86

Added 1988 - Site - #88001105
Also known as 40DR86;See Also:77001205
Address: Decaturville Tennessee

Historic Significance: Information Potential, Architecture/Engineering
Architect, builder, or engineer: The Brownsport Iron Company

Area of Significance: Historic - Non-Aboriginal, Engineering, Industry
Cultural Affiliation: 19th C Anglo-American
Period of Significance: 1850-1874, 1875-1899
Owner: Local Government
Historic Function: Industry/Processing/Extraction
Historic Sub-function: Manufacturing Facility
Current Function: Landscape
Current Sub-function: Forest


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National Register Of Historic Places


The Following Was Prepared Under the Direction of the Bureau of Agriculture in 1874

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 and Present

(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 Coaling".

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 Iron’’.

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.

The 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 it intact.

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 time.


Another History of Brownsport Furnace

From Gordon H. Turner, Sr., The History of Scotts Hill, Tennessee

(Carter Printing Company, Southaven, Mississippi, 1977).

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.

Brownsport furnace

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 the Union.

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.



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