DELMARVA ALMANAC

The Nassawango Iron Furnace

by Dana Kester-McCabe

The Nassawango Iron Furnace rises up in the forest looking ancient and mysterious. It is an historic reminder of the beginnings of the industrial revolution.

One attraction that brings history buffs and nature lovers to Snow Hill is the nearby Nassawango Iron Furnace also known as Furnace Town. Located in the lush Pocomoke forest, the property’s border backs up to the Nature Conservancy’s Nassawango Preserve and they share a hiking trail. This is a great place to hike particularly in the spring. You can see wildflowers unique to the area like the Pink Lady Slipper Orchid. It is a nesting area for the Prothonotary Warbler a beautiful little yellow bird, as well as many other birds, turtles, and more.

The furnace itself rises up in the forest looking more ancient and mysterious then it really is. It is historically significant partly because it has been recognized as the earliest surviving hot-blast furnace in the United States. Colonial residents of the region discovered bog iron in the swamps of the Pocomoke River as early as the 1780’s. Enterprising blacksmith’s in the area melted the ore in their forges and used it to create household items like nails, hinges, and other hardware. There seemed to be a great supply of the bog iron, so the Widener Furnace Company began operations in the area in 1788 when they purchased 4,800 acres in the Pocomoke River Forest. In 1828 the Maryland Iron Company took it over and the Nassawango Iron Furnace was built.

The process of turning lumps of iron into workable metal was not too complicated. The ore was dug from the swamp. Trees from the forest were cut and burned to make charcoal which was used to fuel the furnace. Oyster and clam shells were brought in from coastal shellfish companies. The ore, the charcoal, and the shells were loaded in layers in the furnace and set ablaze. A large billow, powered by a water wheel, would keep the fire burning at a high temperature so that the iron would melt and flow into channels in the sand floor where it cooled. The finished products were oblong iron bars called pigs. These were loaded onto barges on the creek and shipped to other larger foundries in Baltimore and Philadelphia. Some of the metal was cast into smaller items like hardware and kitchen pots to sell locally.

In 1835 they upgraded the technology of the furnace from a cold air process to what is known as hot blast. This meant that now hot air was used in the furnace billows to stoke fire. This engineering feat was accomplished by modifying the chimney with dampers which recycled the heat created by the fire and channeling it back into the stove enclosure. It was a more efficient process that had already been adopted by other foundries.

Unfortunately, the company fell into debt trying to catch up to industry standards. The operation was sold a couple of times, eventually becoming the property of a Snow Hill lawyer and entrepreneur named Thomas Spence in 1837. Under Spence’s ownership the furnace produced over 700 tons of iron annually. It ran twenty-four hours a day from early spring until the first hard freeze. A small village grew up around the iron furnace. There was a manor house for the company manager, a small church, and a few shops to accommodate the needs of the approximately 300 workers who lived there in small cottages.

Despite the small community built to support it and the ambitious production schedule, within a decade the Nasswango Iron Furnace fell on hard times. Like his predecessors Thomas Spence could not make a go of it. Though a reliable supply of bog iron was there, the market was weak, and the small profits gained could not meet the expense of hiring a consistent labor force willing to do the difficult and sometimes dangerous work. The furnace operation was closed down and the once bustling village was abandoned. By 1860 the only person left in the ghost town was a gentleman named Sampson Harmon.

Sampson was a free man of color who was born in 1790 and raised in the area. He was very tall and often wore a hat but no shoes. In his youth he was known for his athletic ability. It was said that he could run down a deer and wrestle it to the ground. For much of his life he worked at the iron furnace as a laborer. Then after the business closed he served as a sort of caretaker living off the land on the property with his family. They grew their own food and bartered crops for supplies in nearby Snow Hill.

Sampson and former company owner Thomas Spence were thought to be the inspiration for two characters in a lurid novel written in the 1880’s. Their names were changed, only slightly in Sampson’s case, to keep the author George Townsend out of legal trouble. The book, “The Entailed Hat” is mostly the story of Patty Cannon the infamous kidnapper and serial killer from further up the peninsula in Reliance, Maryland. Sampson’s namesake in the tale was a slave and a brawler who loved to fight for the fun of it. The attention he received from the book’s notoriety was not welcomed by Sampson. He gave an interview in 1895 to the Salisbury Advertiser refuting the presumption everyone had that he was the person in the book. He wanted people to know that he was never a slave and that he was of good character. The book was after all a work of fiction never intended to serve as the historical record.

Sampson must have been an interesting interview. At the time he was already over 100 years old. Neighbors enjoyed visiting him and his black cat Tom to hear him tell stories about the old days working at the iron furnace. They tried to check on him and help him out in those later years. Local authorities felt, however, that the most compassionate thing they could do was force him off his beloved homestead and into the local poor house where eventually died at the age of 107. He wanted to be buried near the iron furnace but was instead laid to rest in Snow Hill. There are some who claim that his spirit and that of his cat continue to return to the place he had called home all of his life.

After Sampson’s passing, the Nassawango Iron Furnace property was left untended, changing hands a number of times. In 1962 it was donated to the Worcester County Historical Society by a woman named Georgie Smith Foster who had inherited it from her father Senator John Walter Smith. The Historical Society cleared the property of over growth and restored the furnace structure. Buildings built in the 19th century were moved to the site to recreate the lost village. Now Furnace Town is a living history site where visitors can see artisans at work demonstrating traditional crafts from that era. It has been host to quilting shows, special Victorian-themed Christmas events, and the annual Celtic festival held each October. They have a public archeological dig program. Visitors using equipment provided for them can learn how to properly dig for artifacts.

The newest addition to the village is the Mt. Zion one room school house. It was originally built in 1869 up the road a piece in a little town call Whiton. After it was replaced in 1931 it was moved to Snow Hill and operated as a museum. It is hoped that the building will be ready for visitors by this Spring (2016).

Furnace Town and the nature trail through the Nassawango Preserve are open to the public April through October.

References:


Furnace Town Living Heritage Museum - furnacetown.org

Worcester County, Maryland's Arcadia
By Reginald Van Truitt, Millard G. Les Callette - Worcester County Historical Society - 1977

The Entailed Hat; Or, Patty Cannon's Times
By George Alfred Townsend

The Big Book of Maryland Ghost Stories
By Ed Okonowicz

Historic School House Finds New Home At Furnace Town
by Charlene Sharpe - Maryland Coast Dispatch