Madison-Derr Iron Furnace

Early 19th Century Carolina Piedmont Industry


An important cultural and political concern for early 19th century settlers and their elected representatives was the absence of plentiful and inexpensive iron tools: plows, nails, chains, fire-backs, etc. Laws were passed in North Carolina that supported the development of the piedmont iron industry.  In 1809, Peter Forney of Lincoln County erected the Madison cold-blast iron furnace. This charcoal-fired furnace smelted local ores and produced pig and cast iron until the early 1870s.

Today little remains of the Madison furnace: stack, wheel well, race, and casting floor. Archaeological testing designed to identify manufacturing activities began in 2001. Backhoe testing adjacent to Leepers Creek identified the location of slag dumps as well as the original ground surface. A majority of test squares were placed in the area of the casting floor. Near the mouth of the hearth, six large castiron plates were excavated and conserved. Additionally, a number of nails were excavated and interpreted as being associated with the structure covering the casting floor. A staging area for charging the furnace has been identified and tested. With little historic documentation to identify activity areas at Madison Furnace, archaeological testing has expanded our understanding of iron manufacturing in piedmont North Carolina.

Sites relating to the early iron industry of North Carolina are geographically located in this area because it contains the four essential resources necessary for production: iron ore, limestone, abundant hardwood forests for charcoal production, and fast flowing streams and rivers with rapids and waterfalls.

The Piedmont is a region of moderate-to-high-grade metamorphic rocks, such as schists, amphibolites, gneisses and migmatites, and igneous rocks like granite. Topographically, the Piedmont mostly consists of rolling hills.

Madison Derr 
Iron Furnace

Piedmont soils are commonly a red color for which North Carolina is known. Those soils consist of khandite-group (kaolinite, halloysite, dickite) clays and iron oxides. They result from the intense weathering of feldspar-rich igneous and metamorphic rocks. This intense weathering dissolves or alters nearly all minerals and leaves behind a residue of aluminum-bearing clays and iron-bearing iron oxides because of the low solubilities of aluminum and iron at earth-surface conditions.

Iron production was abruptly halted in 1861 by the Civil War. The use of slave labor in the iron furnaces and ore deposits allowed landowners to make tremendous profits. Like other southern economies: cotton, tobacco, other agricultural products, iron manufacturing relied on the slavery-based economic system that, by the middle of the nineteenth century, was nearing its end. After the Civil War the iron manufacturing industry never fully recovered.

At the Catoctin Iron Furnace in Maryland, the production of charcoal was a major enterprise employing over 300 woodcutters and consuming timber from 11,000 acres of company land during peak years (1859-1885).

Approximately 80 bushels of charcoal were burned for every ton of iron manufactured. It took a cord of wood to manufacture 6 bushels of charcoal.

Most 18th and 19th century iron industries were established in relatively isolated rural areas with large portions of their products serving local and regional economies. These industries were centered about the mining of surface or near surface deposits or iron ore and the production of charcoal.


Iron furnaces of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries functioned on fairly simple principles. The furnace itself was a truncated pyramid of stone built into or near a hill. Fillers carried iron ore, charcoal, and limestone across a bridge connecting the hill and the stack, near the stack’s upper opening. They dumped the charge into the furnace tunnel head where it combined with heat and blasted air. The heat caused interaction between the ore and limestone thus smelting out the iron.

“Madison Cold-blast Charcoal Furnace, owned by James F. & R. D. Johnson, and managed by J.F. Johnson, Lincolnton P.O., Lincoln County North Carolina, and standing on Leiper’s Creek three miles above Rehoboth Furnace last described and six miles east of Lincolnton, was built in 1809, and rebuilt in 1855, 6 feet across the bosh by 30 feet high, and made in 1849 225 tons of foundry metal out of magnetic ore from the ‘iron bank’ one and a half miles distant” (Lesley 1859:74-75).

Madison Furnace was listed in the 1870 census with Jonas W. Derr as owner.  The census further described the operation as a “Cold Blast” furnace with a capacity of 1 2/3 tons and powered with one water wheel. Five hands were employed for one month of operation in which 250 tons of iron ore, 11,112 bushels of charcoal, and 21 tons of limestone were used to produce 83 tons of pig iron and 50 tons of castings.


Objectives of the Madison Furnace Project include determining the location of the casting floor as well as the location of any outlying structures. We have placed several excavation pits in the location of the casting floor, in front of the hearth of the furnace stack. Of these pits, four revealed some eroded brick fragments, and (5) large slabs of iron with sandy soil beneath. These iron slabs were removed for further study and storage. (2 feet by 4 feet and roughly an inch thick). The others yielded charcoal fragments, pieces of limestone, and numerous nails. Six backhoe trenches were dug alongside the creek bank, with the sixth being placed adjacent to the presumed tailrace area. All contained large slag deposits.

The Madison Iron Furnace Project is a collaborative effort of the Lincoln County Historic Properties Commission and the Lincoln County Historical Association.

Research funded by the Timken Foundation of Canton, Ohio.