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The brief but impactful history of mining in Johnson City

Hannah Swayze • Mar 2, 2019 at 11:23 PM

Iron has played a brief, but impactful role in the history of Johnson City.

Plentiful iron deposits in the mountains to the East drew affluent investors to the area, the effects of which are still felt today. The desire for iron brought railroads, people, money and business, taking Johnson City from a small makeshift rail stop to a bustling city.

One could say that Johnson City’s brief but intense love affair with iron began with the charter of the East Tennessee and Western North Carolina (ET&WNC) Railroad in 1866. It was one of three railroads that would build in the city of Johnson City, giving the outside world access to the iron-rich areas close by.

It’s the combination of its three railroads and the iron industry that led to a giant economic boom in the 1890s. It brought the population from 500 to 4,200 people by 1893.

When talking about an economic boom, the iron business or any kind of development of Johnson City, one has to mention John T. Wilder.

Wilder was one of the leading industrialists in the South when he moved to Johnson City. A former Union General, Wilder used his connections across the country to fuel his business ventures.

He and a few other investors saw the potential of a developing Johnson City to be the “Pittsburgh of the South” and began to invest in and develop residential areas and railroads and other businesses in the area.

In 1890, Wilder hired contractor Harry Hargraves to build a blast furnace (the Carnegie Furnace, later the Cranberry Furnace) to transform materials from the Cranberry Mines in North Carolina into Bessemer iron, which would then be sold to make Bessemer steel.

It was the second Bessemer-type blast furnace to be constructed in Tennessee. Hundreds of workers were hired to build the furnace, and the city began to flourish.

Ultimately, as with all things great, it had to come to an end. In the case of Johnson City’s iron boom, it came to a sudden halt during the depression of 1893. In the journal of the ET&WNC Historical Society, Robbie D. Jones wrote that the iron boom came to an end with three big blows:

The opening of the Mesabi Range

In 1892 the Mesabi Range opened. Two years before, the massive Minnesota iron ranges began to be mined for their deposits. The easily accessed and plentiful iron began to flood the market and decreased the value of the iron in the South.

The death of Martha Stewart

Jones wrote that the the year after the range opened, Wilder’s wife, Martha Stewart, became sick and ultimately died of cancer. He said this took up a large amount of time and effort away from his business.

Severe economic depression

During the Panic of 1893, the stock market crashed around the world and according to Jones, approximately 500 banks and 15,000 business felt the impact and went bankrupt.

It also bankrupted the Three C’s Railroad and the Carnegie Land Co., another major player. Construction on the Carnegie Furnace was also halted.

With that, Wilder moved on to a new city in Tennessee, and he auctioned off the old bankrupted assets and time went on.

In 1898 the Virginia Iron, Coal and Coke Co. bought the property and finished the furnace, using it until the furnace broke down in 1900 and the company went bankrupt the year after.

The furnace was eventually sold and renamed the Cranberry Furnace in 1902, taking in ore from the Cranberry Mines in North Carolina.

The foundry had a 75-foot high blast furnace, three stoves, a 160-foot-high chimney, 12 boilers, 500 steam engines, a stock house and and a cast house. The steam engines ran on water from a man-made pond fed by Brush Creek. The furnace was built to produce 125 tons of iron per day.

It provided solid business for the town and the ET&WNC Railroad until the first World War. The foundry was shut down in 1929 after it failed to keep up with more modern facilities.

With the value of iron decreased, the town moved on. Other good and services fueled the economy and iron took a back seat. The approximately 50-year affair with iron had ended, but a city was born.

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