Charcoal iron production in Ohio was centered in the Hanging Rock Region, a geographic area extending from Hocking County to the Ohio River and including portions of northern Kentucky. The region encompassed an 1800 square mile area that was rich in deposits of iron ore and limestone and was covered by a forest that supplied the raw material for charcoal. Union Furnace, built in 1826, was the first to be located in the Hanging Rock Region. By 1856, sixty-five furnaces were located in this region, and the Ohio furnaces alone produced 105,000 tons of pig iron that year.Introduction of coke as a fuelThe introduction of coke, a substance made by heating coal in the absence of air, provided a fuel cheaper than charcoal. Although the Hanging Rock Region had a supply of coal it was not suitable for making coke, and furnaces in other areas much closer to a coke supply could produce iron more cheaply.
Stimulated by a need for munitions during the Civil War, the demand for iron produced by the Hanging Rock charcoal furnaces increased. After the Civil War, however, the furnaces fell on hard times. By the beginning of the 20th century the once prosperous industry had all but disappeared.
The decline of the Hanging Rock charcoal furnaces was a result of several changes that swept across the American iron industry during the second half of the 19th century.
Size of the furnaceAfter the Civil War furnaces constructed in the other iron making areas were far larger than those in the Hanging Rock Region. For example a coke-fired furnace built in 1878, at Wheeling, produced 60 tons of pig iron each day as compared to the 12 tons produced by Buckeye Furnace.
Supply of iron oreOne of the reasons the Hanging Rock Region developed an iron industry was the availability of iron ore. In the 1840's a major deposit of iron ore was discovered in the Lake Superior area. After the Civil War this ore was mined and shipped economically to Pittsburgh and other iron-producing areas. With this development the Hanging Rock Region lost one of its natural advantages.
Business organizationsThe final decades of the 19th century were ones of radical changes in the business world as men with great amounts of wealth built huge industrial empires. These wealthy individuals formed corporations that owned furnaces, rolling mills, and even factories that made finished products. In an era of "integrated" corporations where efficiency was the key to success or failure, the small charcoal furnaces of the Hanging Rock Region could not survive the competition.
When Jefferson Furnace at Oak Hill closed on December 29, 1916, the last of Ohio's charcoal furnaces went out of operation. Furnaces decayed, equipment was scrapped and communities disbanded, leaving only the bleak stone furnace stacks as a reminder of these once thriving businesses.