New River Symposium 1984
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Beatrice Holbrook
Local Historian
Traphill, North Carolina

Smoke began rising from ironworks on New River in North Carolina soon after Ashe County was formed, in 1799. By 1802, the Iron Age in Ashe County had begun, with mining, processing and hauling iron as far as Charleston, South Carolina. [1]

The manufacture of iron was an important industry along the New River in North Carolina for more than 80 years.

Early Iron Making in North Carolina

As late as 1764. no forges or furnaces had been erected in North Carolina, [3] but beginning in the 1700's, ironworks, mostly furnaces, began appearing in the Piedmont area and spreading into the foothills. [2]

In 1772, the Surry County Court ordered an ironworks road opened from Longbottom, at the foot of the Blue Ridge, to Little Elkin Creek, where David Allen was setting up ironworks.

Near the end of the Revolution, a limited number of men were exempt from military duty to manufacture iron at David Allen's and at certain other works. [2]

To encourage iron making, a North Carolina legislative act of 1788 offered for every set of ironworks erected, a bounty grant of 3,000 acres of vacant land certified as unfit for cultivation by the county court. It promised tax exemption for a decade if works were set up within three years of the grant and produced 5,000 weight of iron annually. [2]

Early Ironworks in Ashe County

Several ironworks in Ashe County qualified for the grants, especially works of the ancestors presented by Mrs. Jesse Reaves, including Thomas Calloway, Col. Jesse Ray and Meredith Ballou. [4]

The August, 1807, term of the county court issued the first approval of a land grant, to Daniel Daugherty "for the use of iron works built on 'Bigg' Helton." [4]

Bloomery Forge on Helton

Meredith Ballou stated that the first forge was built in 1807 "by one Tarbert," meaning Herbert or Harbard, with spelling following the British pronunciation, even though Herbert was a second generation American. In 1802 he had applied for a grant and received grant no. 528 for 100 acres on Little Horse Creek, where he may have built a forge, but by 1807 he preferred the mouth of Helton Creek on the North Fork, where he erected Harbard's Bloomery Forge, with the help of Robert Thompson.

For the bounty grant, Herbert filed the entry in 1808, [5] declared that the production was "upwards of 5,000 weight of merchantable iron" in 1810 and received the grant in 1812. The large acreage was needed for hardwood to provide charcoal so essential for the alternate red-hot heating and beating of a bloomery.

After operating seven years, Herbert sold his North Fork holdings to Meredith Ballou in 1814. [6] The forge was washed away in its tenth year, 1817.

Similarity of Ballou and Herbert

The circumstances of these two pioneer iron masters, Meredith Ballou and William Herbert, Jr., were similar in several respects: both were natives of Virginia, who came to Ashe early in search of iron, found it and forged it; both had fathers involved in mining Ballou's a mining engineer, and Herbert's a superintendent of the lead mines; both held important public offices, Ballou an early justice and county surveyor, and Herbert, a state legislator, representing Ashe in 1825; both passed on their interest in iron, Ballou, to his sons, and Herbert, to his son-in-law, Robert Thompson.

Forges and Furnaces, 1810, 1811

Although at least two furnaces had been erected in this mountainous region before 1810, [2] the forge was more suited to this area. The furnace produced castings for skillets, pots, pans, etc.; forges turned out tools and implements. [2]

By 1811, five successful iron furnaces were in operation, according to Thomas McGimsey.

Since most iron masters were also farmers or planters, they operated their ironworks only part of the year, especially furnaces, which were blown in the first of the year and kept in operation until late spring when plowing and planting demanded attention.

Forge on Little River, 1815-1884

In 1815 William Herbert, Jr., and Robert Thompson, his son-in-law, set up a forge on Little River, near Gap Civil, and employed 10 men in 1820.

Herbert sold his interest in the forge in 1823 to Joseph Woolfolk Alexander, who committed suicide in 1847 and was succeeded in the business by his son, A. B. The forge was still listed as Thompson and Alexander until 1884. [7] After 1859 it was in Alleghany County instead of Ashe.

The hammer of the forge was kept in the Thompson-Bledsoe family until World War II, when it was donated to the scrap iron drive.

Recently Jack Thompson, a descendant of Robert, photographed the site of the Herbert-Thompson-Alexander mine and the Little River below, where the ore was loaded on rafts to be sent downstream to the forge.

Forges of the Teens and Twenties

In 1817 Ballou's second bloomery forge was set up at the falls of the North Fork but was ashed away in 1832. [4]

In 1825 the North Fork Forge was erected eight miles west of Jefferson but was abandoned in 1829 and washed away in 1840 and rebuilt later.

In 1829 the Helton Bloomery Forge was set up 12 miles north of Jefferson. It produced 15 tons of bars in 1856, but was washed away in 1858 by an ice fresh net.

Forges of the Thirties and Forties

By 1830 only four ironworks were in operation during part of the year. Four others had been either abandoned or washed away, and perhaps as many more had produced their little quota and had disappeared unrecorded. [2]

Nearly two decades later, in 1847, Laurel Bloomery Forge was erected 15 miles west of Jefferson, only to be abandoned in 1853. [4]

In 1858 a forge was built first by John Ballou on Helton and rebuilt in 1871 by W. J. Paisley, called the Paisley Forge. It was abandoned.

Forges of the Sixties and Seventies

The need for iron in the Civil War prompted the building of the Elk Creek Forge built and operated by "Osborne (C) and Fields (A)" in the sixties and operated by Caleb Osborne in the seventies in Alleghany County, near Gap Civil. [7] Tons of iron went to the Confederate arsenal from the Ashe and Alleghany forges.

The last New River Forge, on the South Fork one-half mile above its junction with the North Fork, was set up in 1871 but was washed away in 1878. [4]

Iron Mines 1872-1896

Up to this point, the mines that fed the forges have been taken for granted but not mentioned. Owners and locations of mines were listed in Branson's North Carolina Business Directory, 1872-1890.

In Ashe County there were the following: at Crumpler, two, owned by J. C. Plummer and by H. and Polly Ballou; at Grimsley, one by Eli Bower; at Helton, Ore Bank Mine, by __ Plummer; at Jefferson, one by Jesse Colvard; at Sturgill, one by B. Sturgill; at the Mouth of Buffalo, four by C. E. Ashley, by Calvin Graybeal, by J. Stuart, and by Wyatt Rose.

The mines in Alleghany at Edmonds were owned by Hester Collins and James Galion.

Mining practically ceased in 1887, mainly because of transportation costs. [4] The opening of the Virginia—Carolina Railroad in 1914, caused a flurry of mining interest and some ore was shipped from mines near Lansing, but by 1922 this activity had ceased and no mines were operating. [4]

In 1896, only blacksmiths were listed: 13 in Ashe and two in Alleghany.

Finally iron making was becoming a forgotten industry along the New River in North Carolina.

Early in the twentieth century iron making along the New River in North Carolina became a forgotten industry.


1. North Carolina Geological and Economic Survey. Bulletin No. 32. Ed. by W. S. Bayley. 1802

2. North Carolina Historical Review. Vol. IX, No. 4. October, 1932. North Carolina Historical Commission. p. 331-348.

3. Surry County. Court records. 1772.

4. Fletcher, A. L. Ashe County — A History. Ashe County Research Association, 1963. p. 221-223

5. North Carolina. Land Grant Office.

6. Ashe County. Deed Book.

7. Branson's North Carolina Business Directory. 1872-1890.

8. Family traditions.

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Last Updated: 08-Jul-2009