Industrial Furnace Town celebrates its restoration


Perhaps if the road to the old furnace hadn't served as a lover's lane from the days of horse and surrey through the advent of the automobile, Maryland's only 19th century bog ore furnace may have been lost in the weeds and fallen into ruin.

But thanks, in part, to courtships that blossomed in its shadow, the Nassawango Iron Furnace, covered in plant growth for 100 years, was never forgotten.

This year, Furnace Town celebrates its 30th year since the Worcester County Historical Society first undertook to preserve it in 1962. Last October, it was finally recognized by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers as one of the early mechanical engineering feats in America when it became the 102nd site in the nation proclaimed by the society as a Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark.

Located deep in the forests along the Pocomoke River on the Eastern Shore, the charcoal-fired, bog ore furnace is the earliest surviving American furnace that employed the "hot blast" technique of smelting pig iron, a process that allowed for greater iron production in 19th century America.

Today, visitors may not only view the old brick furnace which made pig iron out of bog ore found in the cypress swamps, but also browse around a 19th century industrial town, similar to the one that cropped up around the furnace when it opened in 1830.

Duplicating original town

In an effort to re-create the original industrial town, the Furnacetown Foundation, a nonprofit organization that manages the facility, has moved original, 19th century wooden structures onto the property and converted them for use as a company store; a museum of iron; a working, double-forge blacksmith shop; a broom house; and a print shop. The Nazareth Methodist Church, built about 1874, was also moved to the site and restored.

The only thing the foundation refused to duplicate was the "hot, noisy, dirty" environment, devoid of trees, which was typical of industrial towns, including the original Furnace Town, said Kathy Fisher, executive director of the foundation.

A new growth of mature trees shades the re-created town, and a mile-long nature trail winds through the cypress swamps, which were

flooded by the Maryland Iron Co. to provide power for the town and furnace operation.

Most days, visitors can watch an artisan make old-fashioned, decorative brooms out of broom corn or a blacksmith forge iron.

Unfortunately, the furnace is never fired up because of its fragile condition, but visitors can walk through the museum of iron, which explains how the furnace made iron.

A big impact in little time

Furnace Town and the useful life of the Nassawango iron furnace was brief, lasting only 20 years, but in that short time, it had a tremendous impact on the cypress swamps, the economy of the area and the lives of hundreds of people who either labored in the company town, or found work building and manning the ships that carried the pig iron from the Pocomoke River to distant ports.

Bog ore was first discovered in the marshes along Nassawango Creek by prospectors in 1788. Bog ore, an ingredient for making

pig iron, is

found in soil wherever acidic trees, like cypress, grow amid large quantities of slow moving water, which the Pocomoke River provided.

Thirty years later, in 1828, the Maryland Iron Co. began extracting and processing the ore into iron. Large quantities of virgin trees, including cypress, were cut to create the charcoal for the iron-making process, while the creek itself was dammed so the water could power the water wheel that pumped the bellows supplying air to the operation of the furnace.

About 1835, the Nassawango Furnace was fitted with a brick-encased, cast-iron pipe stove and converted to a "hot blast" furnace. This allowed the furnace to produce 700 tons of pig iron a year.

The pig iron was moved by schooners down the Pocomoke River and up the Chesapeake Bay to Philadelphia, Baltimore and New York.

A forced closure

But when a better grade of ore was discovered in the Great Lakes

region, Furnace Town, unable to compete economically, was forced to close around 1850.

As early as the 1930s, the late Frank Jones, a resident of nearby Snow Hill, recognized the furnace's historical importance and worked with the property owners to stabilize it.

In 1962, the heirs of Georgia Smith Foster donated the property to the Worcester County Historical Society. In 1978, the Furnacetown Foundation was organized to continue the preservation work.

The best-kept secret

Despite the foundation's hard work over the past several decades, Furnace Town has remained one of Delmarva's best kept secrets. The historic site is a 45-minute to an hour's drive from Ocean City; its location under a canopy of trees in the Pocomoke Forest near Snow Hill would offer a cool interlude from baking on the beach, yet only a modest 13,000 people, many of them schoolchildren, visit the site each year.

The foundation and local organizations continue to work together to improve and expand the town, which once housed at least 300 residents and was self-sufficient, with a school, post office, stores and church.

The Soroptomist Club of Worcester County is currently working on a women's museum, housed in a 19th century building, which will open to the public in 1997.

On Sept. 26 and 27, the foundation will host Fallfest, one of several festivals it sponsors each year. Fallfest (which, incidentally, falls on the same weekend as Sunfest in Ocean City) will feature old-fashioned fun, including circle dancing around a bonfire to the tune of the recorder and fiddle, and artisans working and selling their 19th century crafts.

On Sunday, two bluegrass bands will perform, and an auction will be held to raise funds for continued work at Furnace Town.

Furnace Town

To reach Furnace Town, take U.S. Route 50 east to Salisbury, turn south on state Route 12 (at Arby's in Salisbury) and travel 15 miles, then turn right onto Old Furnace Road. The historical site is one mile on the left.

Furnace Town is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week from April through October. Admission is $2 for adults and $1 for children, except during festivals, when the charge is $5 for adults.

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