Old Iron Town

Although discovered by Peter Shirts in early 1868 – the area known as Iron City blossomed under the investment of Ebenezer Hanks. In June of 1868 Hanks established the Union Iron Company, later known as the Great Western Iron Company.

One of the remaining charcoal kilns at Old Iron Town.

One of the remaining charcoal kilns at Old Iron Town.

The 1870 census indicates that 97 people, living in 19 households resided in Iron City. The iron works consisted of a furnace, with a 2,500–pound capacity, a pattern shop, molding shop, erastra, (grinding device) and two charcoal kilns.

The Great Western Iron Company needed large sums of capital to operate, and outside (non-Mormon) investors were sought. With new money came new labor. Many of these workers were not members of the conservative religion and Iron City soon became a place where drinking and swearing were commonplace. By 1871 Iron City had a post office, boarding house, a brick schoolhouse, butcher shop, and a general store.

At peak production the iron works produced 5-7 tons of pig iron per day. They supplied ore for the Utah Western Railroad, mining companies in Pioche, Nevada, and also provided the iron used in the 12 oxen that support the St. George LDS Temple baptismal font.

The Great Western Iron Company could not survive financially selling small items to cash- strapped Mormon settlers and could no longer afford the shipping costs for their larger contracts. The iron works closed in 1876.

Ruins at Old Iron Town.

Ruins at Old Iron Town.

Now known as Old Irontown State Park, this area has been preserved for its distinctive structures and historical presence.  In May of 1951 William R. Palmer as part of his radio broadcast “Forgotten Chapters of History” produced a program about Iron City. You can listen to that broadcast here.

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The Pioneer Blast Furnace

Cedar City was settled by pioneers hoping to successfully mine and produce iron. This group of core settlers became known as the Iron Mission. After many early attempts with a small furnace, they got the process down and began construction on a much larger structure. Built in 1854 the second pioneer blast furnace produced the best quality iron seen in during the entire length of the Iron Mission. Even before beginning construction, the residents of Cedar City named this structure the Noble Furnace because of their expectations that this would be a “noble building.”  The Noble Furnace proved much larger than its predecessor and also used a mechanical loading assembly.

Blueprints of the Noble Furnace taken from the Deseret Iron Company

Blueprints of the Noble Furnace taken from the Deseret Iron Company

Producing iron in the 19th century began with the combination of raw ore with a mixture of fuel and limestone. This was called a “charge” which filled or “burdened” the furnace. Many trials of each mixture were needed to get the right combination of ingredients. These were done in a smaller furnace or “cupola.” If a large charge was mixed incorrectly the lining of the furnace would fall off and need to be replaced – a process which could take months.

The replica furnace built to the exact dimensions of the pioneer furnace.

The replica furnace built to the exact dimensions of the pioneer furnace.

The fuel used by the pioneers was either wood-based charcoal or coal-based coke. Charcoal proved the fuel of choice at Iron City. It was created by burning or smoldering wood in an oxygen free environment.   Coke is produced in a similar manner using coal and a coke oven. Using charcoal benefited the workers at Iron City because wood was readily available and it produced a softer more pliable piece of iron. Unfortunately, charcoal production uses a large number of trees.

Limestone served as a flux or catalyst that assisted in melting iron ore and binding to impurities. The furnace was lit and a constant temperature maintained through use of a water-powered bellows system. The ore mixture would heat up and separate – the heavier iron sank to the bottom while the impurities bound to the limestone rose to the top as “slag.” The pure iron was released when the furnace was “tapped,” then taken to the molding shop for further processing. Once cooled, the slag would be ground into cinder and discarded.