Illinois Iron Furnace Location | Google Maps
Open year round, this hidden gem located in the Hidden Springs Ranger District is one of the must see historic places nestled within the Shawnee National Forest. This U.S. Forest Service managed Picnic Area is a local hot spot during summertime, offering visitors shaded pavilions with picnic tables and grills amidst an expansive lawn on the banks of Big Creek. Several natural pools along a stretch of creek right across from the picnic area contribute to making this a well known swimming hole in the area. Within earshot of Garden of the Gods, Rim Rock, Pounds Hollow Recreation Area, Stoneface, and High Knob, a stop here could easily fit into any trip itinerary. Driving down County Rd 750E south towards Cave-In-Rock we decided to make a pit stop at the Illinois Iron Furnace to see the rebuilt blast furnace and learn a little more about the areas fascinating history.
The Illinois Iron Furnace is the only remaining iron furnace structure in the state and only one of two ever built. Hardin County is the only known county in Illinois to contain large deposits of naturally occurring iron ore deposits. Built by the Leonard White, Chalen Guard & Co. in 1837, the site took advantage of a natural deposit of iron ore discovered along the banks of Hogthief Creek less than a mile away. The mined ore could vary from gravel sized lumps to larger pieces the size of a mans fist. After a sizable enough quantity was mined, the ore was first burned on log heaps to expel its water content. Once roasted, the ore was ready for charging the furnace, a process through which it descends through the shaft, where it is preheated and reacts with ascending gases to produce liquid iron and slag that accumulate in the hearth. Two hundred bushels of hardwood charcoal were needed to produce 1 ton of pig iron. Nine tons of pig iron were reportedly produced every 24 hours at the height of the operation.
Lumber from the surrounding forest, was chopped and hauled to the furnace where it was turned into charcoal to fuel the furnace. Charcoal burning is one of the world's oldest crafts dating back to pre-Roman times. Felled wood was carefully stacked in a dome and covered with litter and then wet sand and turf. A chimney dug out from the middle of the pile and adjoining air inlets near the bottom would create a slower burning process to allow the wood to be charred and not incinerated. Essentially, the hotter the wood would burn with a minimal amount of exposure to oxygen, the more residual compounds would be released from the wood, creating a purer and more reliable product. The entire process would take 24 hours to complete and was usually done in logging camps near where the wood was chopped.
In the 50 years the blast furnace was in operation it took approximately forty men working in two shifts to keep the furnace in full blast. Workmen at the furnace included a general manager, at least two founders, a chief filler with five to seven assistants, a keeper and one or more helpers, a molder, a gutterman with four or five helpers, and five or six miscellaneous laborers. Workmen away from the furnace included many woodchoppers, colliers, iron ore miners, limestone quarrymen and teamsters. Water also had to be hauled from Big Creek to quickly cool the finished “pig iron” after the smelting process. Two miles away, a competing iron furnace named Martha Furnace was built in 1848, but operated for less than 10 years before shutting down.
During the onset of the Civil War, pig iron produced at the Illinois Iron Furnace was essential in the construction of Union ironclad boats secretly being built in Southern Illinois. First constructed from 1859 to the early 1890’s, ironclad boats were utilized as steam propelled warships protected by iron or steel armored plates. The first and most famous of these ships built in 1861 at a cost of $275,000 was the USS Monitor. Susceptible to attacks by early forms of torpedos and static mines, the ironclads were rendered obsolete just as quickly as they appeared on the battlefield. Fifty miles to the southwest of the Illinois Iron Furnace, a Union shipyard at Mound City constructed the lighter City-class ironclads that would famously patrol the Mississippi River and its many tributaries throughout the war.
Rebuilt by Job Corps students in the 1960’s, this site was almost entirely lost to history. The furnace was partially destroyed in the 1930’s to supply rock rubble for the embankments of the Hog Thief Creek Bridge built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. A small user made trail leads up the hill behind the furnace to an area where part of the top can be seen. The reconstructed furnace core is solid, having been filled with rubble and concrete so visitors would not try to use it as a fireplace. Just across the road from the main entrance is a trail leading down to a wide beach on Big Creek. Rubble piled several feet high and wide slow the flow of the creek enough to create a gentle, family friendly wading pool. Continuing all the way to the banks of the Ohio River, this spot along Big Creek is a popular paddling access point for canoeing and kayaking.
With a well planned visit, one could easily spend an entire afternoon enjoying various outdoor activities in the shadow of this relic of Americas industrial history that has been so thoughtfully preserved by the U.S. Forest Service. Up next, we were headed back out to finish off our exploration of Southern Illinois and the Shawnee National Forest by paying a visit to Cave-In-Rock State Park. Known for its enormous key shaped entrance, Cave-In-Rock was one of the first natural landmarks depicted on European maps of the interior United States. Used by Native Americans and early French explorers in the 1700’s, it was a popular hideout for bandits and a common stop along the Detroit to New Orleans fur trade route during the Beaver Wars. Stay tuned for this upcoming article and as always, see y’all on the trails.