The Longdale Mining Complex, Allegheny County, Virginia
by Katherine Stroh
"High in the hills of Western Virginia, Lucy Selina reigned as the Iron Queen. For more than 80
years she was the despot of Alleghany County. Thousands of men sought her favor and pitted their
strength for her good will. Some went from her embrace to high positions, but the majority remained
to gather the scraps beneath her table…Of the hordes of youths that toiled through the bitter cold
of mountain winters and slaved through the long, hot days of summer in her service, only a few
remain. These men, now toothless and senile delight to recite her legend and chant of the glory
that was hers. The saga of the Queen lives on!" (Scott 1936:3)
Washington and Lee University's Early Industries Archaeological Project focuses on the development and evolution of industries in western Virginia and their impact on the regional economy. As a part of this project, the university has conducted archaeological surveys and excavations at the Longdale Iron Mining Complex in the George Washington/Jefferson National Forest. The goal of these investigations is assessing the impact that mining had on the local economy, demographics, and environment. Data from historical documents and informant interviews is being combined with archaeological excavations and surveys to accomplish these goals.
The iron industry was important to the growth of our nation because a reliance on imported iron goods such as tools, nails, and ammunition would have been very costly to the growing colonies. As a result of the British Iron Act of 1750, which permitted the duty-free import of iron into Great Britain, forges and furnaces began operation in all the colonies except Georgia. The Valley of Virginia was particularly suited to iron mining because it contained iron-rich ore, limestone for flux, and plenty of hardwood forests for fuel. In fact, during the 1830s and 1840s there were over 75 furnaces in operation in the Ridge and Valley region (Russ, McDaniel, and Wood 1995:5).
Longdale Mining Complex is located near the headwaters of the James River, three miles due
east of the confluence of the Cowpasture River and Simpson Creek in a valley formed by Brushy and
North mountains. The complex is in the Ridge and Valley province of the Appalachian Highlands
The history of Longdale began in 1827, when the Lucy Selina, a cold blast furnace, was constructed. The furnace was named after the wives of the owners, John Jordan and John Irvine. The owners' purchased approximately 8,800 acres in Alleghany and Botetourt counties for the purpose of constructing an iron works (Alleghany County Deed Book 10).
The Lucy Selina was a probably a stone stack about 30 feet square at the base, 30 feet high with inclining sides and the top of the furnace was about 20 feet square. (Bradford 1958:59-60). Iron ore, limestone, and charcoal were fed in through the top and combustion and smelting was caused by a cold air blast from the water-powered bellows (Cappon 1957:33).
The Jordan and Irvine Iron Company dissolved their partnership in 1831 and Edwin and Ira Jordan, operating as B.J. Jordan and Company, became the sole owners of the Lucy Selina. In 1852, in an effort to gain a competitive edge, the new partners began work on a hot-blast furnace, which would be larger and more productive than the Lucy Selina. This steam driven furnace, named the Australia, became functional in 1854 (Russ et al. 1993:10).
The furnaces at Longdale were used to produce iron for the Confederate cause during the Civil War. Joseph R. Anderson of Tredegar Iron Works, bought the Australia Furnace to supply Confederate forces with rails, cannons, and munitions until the end of the war. After 1865, the Australia and the Lucy Selina, which was rebuilt in 1863, were abandoned. Local legend says that the Australia was torn down soon after the war and its stones used to build a nearby church (Lacy and Didier 1995:5).
In 1870, William Firmstone bought the Lucy Selina and 22,000 acres of land from the
Virginia General Assembly and the Longdale Iron Company was incorporated in 1871. During the 1870s,
the complex experienced a boom following the construction of the company town, establishment of
small grade rail lines to transport raw materials to the furnace, and the construction of many
industrial buildings. By the 1880s, between 200 and 400 workers were employed at the furnaces and
mines (Hotchkiss 1881-2:5). In 1874, the Lucy Selina, updated and renamed Longdale No. 1 produced
the first coke smelted iron in Virginia. A second coke furnace, Longdale No. 2 was also
constructed at this time. With the introduction of the coke furnace, Alleghany County became the
lead iron producer in the state. In fact, the county's population rose over 65% during the 1870s
(Russ et al. 1993:11). These two coke-fueled furnaces were in use until 1911, when competition
with the larger iron and steel companies in Pennsylvania and Ohio made them obsolete.
In 1991, Washington and Lee's Laboratory of Anthropology began investigating the Longdale Iron Mining Complex in the George Washington/Jefferson National Forest. We have used data from historical documents and interviews in conjunction with archaeological excavations and surveys to answer a series of research questions we articulated at the initiation of our work. We are concerned with: what impact the mines had on the local economy, how the industry altered the demographics of the area, how the industry impacted the local environment, to what extent the communities were isolated, how far the mining operation extended into the surrounding mountains - as demonstrated by locations of industrial features such as collier's pits, mines, railbeds, and other features- and what the lifeways of the people working at the mines and living in the communities were like. In the context of this last point, we have concentrated on the excavation of domestic structures to learn about the variations in economic status, ethnicity, social roles, variations in sex and age, job skills, criminality, recreation, religion, and avocational interests.
The survey in 1991 revealed 29 structures (Russ et al. 1993:1). Since then, more than 50 additional structures have been recorded in the Longdale Mining Complex. We have been focusing our excavations on domestic structures in the hopes that we can discover more about the people who lived and worked in the complex. At this time, 19 structures have been intensively excavated and 21 have been tested. We have grouped the domestic and industrial structures into four distinct communities based on their locational and physical attributes. The communities are located on three and a half miles of terraces along Simpson Creek. The segregated clustering of domestic structures into architecturally distinctive neighborhoods may permit cultural insight concerning the residents of the mining town. We have been trying to find out if the communities are stratified based on ethnicity/race, job skill, socioeconomic status, or a combination of the above.
Community I is located 4.5 miles northeast of the town of Longdale Furnace and consists of 35 structures. This community is broken down into four discrete groups or clusters. Artifacts recovered as well as a study of the architectural remains provides evidence for the significant differences in economic status of the residents in these four clusters (Russ et al. 1997).
Cluster One is the southwesternmost group. It is comprised of eight structures; three of these have been excavated. The structures were two stories in height, averaged 547 square feet in size, and had limestone foundations, brick walls, cellars, entrances along the southern walls, and central hearths. All but one of these structures is associate with an ancillary feature, a stone lined pit that is located approximately 100 feet from the structure . Excavation of these pits has lead us to believe that they were used for cold storage. These structures were initially occupied in the 1870s. An assessment of the relative cost of ceramics associated with the structures indicates the families occupying them were of middle-class economic status (Russ et al. 1997:6).
The second cluster of fourteen structures is to the northeast of cluster one. Three of these have been excavated. The structures exhibit more architectural variability. They are larger, averaging 632 square feet, have two hearths variously placed within the structure, an expanded floor plan, and have substantial well-defined and mortared foundations of dressed limestone. Additionally, each of these buildings has a cellar. The artifacts indicate occupation by families of middle-class economic status beginning in the 1870s (Russ et al. 1997:7).
Ten domestic structures are included in cluster three, which is located farther to the northeast still. These structures are relatively small single-story dwellings that average 443 square feet in size. They have limestone foundations, no cellars, and well-defined hearths with fireplace openings on both sides. Initial occupancy dates to circa 1880. The spatial arrangement in the structures and lack of kitchen-related artifacts suggests a "dormitory" form of housing for individuals of a lower socioeconomic strata (Russ et al. 1997:7).
The fourth cluster consists of three domestic residences located east of Simpson Creek on rather prominent terraces that are approximately 100 feet above the creek. All three of these structures have been excavated. They are the largest domestic structures within the complex, averaging 883 square feet. Two are L-shaped structures with cellars, internal hearths, and associated storage pits. The third structure in cluster 4 is rectangular and has a cellar. This is the only structure that has a well associated with it. However, this building does not have an associated storage pit. Artifacts from these structures indicate an initial occupation of circa 1870, and a high socioeconomic status for the occupants (Russ et al. 1997:8).
It is the location of the cluster 4 structures that is particularly interesting; each is
at least 600 feet from any other structure. The isolation of the structures is complimented by
their topographical position. The structures are on high terraces, looking down on the rest of the
community. We suspect that their positioning speaks to a sense of self-importance, if not
dominance, of the other residents (Russ et al. 1997:8).
Field school students tested Community 2 Structure G in the spring of 2002 and 2003, and Paul La Raia '04 analyzed artifacts from the site in the summer of 2003. This research reveals that Structure G was occupied in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth century. The structure has a 28x15-foot sandstone foundation with a central brick hearth. Students dug shovel test pits on 10-foot intervals on all four sides of the structure and excavated 3x3-foot units inside the foundation as well as in the building's eastern yard where test pits had revealed artifact concentrations. The more than 4,000 artifacts recovered from this site include window glass (n= 370), container glass (n= 1156), ceramics (n= 656), and personal items such as buttons (n= 32), jewelry (n= 2), and the handle of a child’s eating utensil. Other artifacts include leather shoe parts (n= 25), forks (n=2), and an overall clasp.
Community III consists of 16 structures on the eastern bank of Simpson Creek, approximately
one mile from Longdale Furnace. The simplicity and small size of these structures, in conjunction
with the artifacts recovered, suggests a low socioeconomic status for the occupants of Community
III. These structures average only 169 square feet. Oral history indicates that this area was a
"shanty town" first occupied by slaves and later by low-status workers (Russ et al. 1997:9).
We are also investigating ancillary features such as charcoal making sites or collier's pits, transportation systems, and iron mining features to gain a more complete picture of the nature and extent of life at Longdale. A study of these ancillary features will provide us with a more accurate representation of the scope of the operations in and around the mining complex. It will also allow us to assess the amount of environmental degradation in the area, as well as give an indication of the amount of labor needed to run the mines (Russ et al. 1997:3).
During the spring of 2000, the Laboratory of Anthropology worked to find the location of the Australia furnace. This task was made difficult not only because the furnace was torn down in the late 1860s, but the probable area of the furnace has seen a lot of modern disturbance. We decided to contact a resident expert metal-worker and blacksmith Lee Sauder, to assist us with a pedestrian reconnaissance of the project area. Mr. Sauder enjoys producing iron in a small, modern iron furnace and is extremely knowledgeable as to the functions of old furnaces like the Australia.
We placed excavation trenches and test units around the possible area to try to find the furnace and its extent. The testing reveled areas with large amounts of iron fragments (more than 100 lbs. in some units) which were recovered using magnets. Other exciting finds were a portion of a pig of iron and a metal ring which may possibly be a tuyerure arch nozzle. Although no foundation of the furnace was uncovered, two binders which may have been used on the furnace were recovered during the testing. Such binders are used to help stabilize the exterior of the furnace. The binders are the strongest artifact evidence that support the existence of the Australia Furnace at this location. These binders are unique to building of furnaces and may give us slight clues as to the location of the corners of the base. Furthermore, it is unlikely that binders would have been removed from there original location. During the last week of the excavations, a layer of sand was encountered in one of the units. This layer was bisected and removed. It turned out that the sand layer was approximately one foot in depth and was probably part of the casting floor. The artifacts and features have lead us to believe that we have located the Australia Furnace.
An 1885 land deed between Mansfield King and the Longdale Iron Company indicates that there was a company store located east of the Lexington and Covington Turnpike between it and Simpson Creek (Alleghany County Deed Book, No. 9.: 285). At this time, we have not been able to find this structure. We do have evidence that residents did not rely exclusively on goods from the company store. There is little evidence of agriculture except for informants mentioning that many people had their own gardens to supplement what they could buy (Karsman 1996:6; Wilson 1996:6). Moreover, some informants also have mentioned that while they were allowed to keep cows for the dairy products, they were prohibited from raising pigs, since pigs would only be used for meat, forcing them to rely on the company store for pork products (King and Cherry 1992:3). However, this claim has been contradicted by others who said that both cows and pigs were raised by the residents of the community (Wilson 1996:6). The canning jars and lids that we have found during our excavations suggests that some people did rely on canning foods to supplement what they could buy (Karsman 1996:18). The fire arms-related artifacts and faunal remains that we have found suggest that the residents of Longdale also hunted to augment their diet.
Yet, the presence of a company store does not necessarily mean that Longdale was economically isolated. Many of the artifacts found to date suggest that items were also privately brought into the community. While some of the items might have been part of the inventory of the store, the wide variety of products suggests private importation of goods and interactions beyond the community.
We have used Smith and Miller's systems of evaluating the relative cost of various refined ceramics to determine the socioeconomic status of the residents of specific structures. The ceramics document a wide variation in wealth and, combined with other artifacts indicate that there was a differential access to goods and services. We have indications that at least some of the residents of Longdale benefited from the influx of goods both imported and domestic. This importation of goods contradicts the idea that Longdale was an isolated community. It also indicates that at least some of the residents had the means to purchase luxury items.
Collier's pits, transportation systems, and iron extractive features were all contributors to the environmental degradation around the mining complex. The burning of wood in collier's pits would have produced an immense amount of smoke and heat. The erosion caused by the removal of trees or construction or charcoal production, poorly constructed roads, and mined areas would have been detrimental to the environment. This erosion would have resulted in sediment discharge into the watersheds. Additionally, leakage from the mines and the stream-choking tailings piles may also have altered the water supply. Combine all of that with the smoke produced by the furnaces and the trains and it paints a grim picture of the environment around Longdale. The large number of patent medicine bottles found at Longdale seems to indicate that the residents suffered from health problems caused by the intense pollution from the mines.
Unlike many other nineteenth and early twentieth century sites where archaeology takes a
backseat to documentary data, our work at Longdale is hindered by a lack of such data. When the
mine closed in 1911, people moved away from the area, taking their records with them. For instance,
many of the original Jordan and Irvine business papers dating from 1824-1832 are located in the
historical society in Madison, WI (Holland 1958:132). Additionally, a mining community may not
generate as many documents as other site types and what documents are produce may not be carefully
saved compared to other sites. For example, when we excavated Liberty Hall, an eighteenth century
academic site, we found that most of the records, including trustee's minutes, bills, receipts, and
vouchers had been carefully curated (McDaniel et al. 1994). The records we have found from
Longdale are spread around the United States and are very incomplete. Yet, through the
archaeological investigations at Longdale, we are slowly piecing together a clearer picture of
what life was like for the nineteenth century iron miner as well as the assessing impact the
industry had on the region.
Picture of Longdale Excavation, Spring 2001
Picture of Diagnostic Plate found at Longdale