2022 Mining History Association

 

Brierfield Iron Furnace Tour

Tour Leader, Jack Bergstresser

Brierfield, Alabama
June 26, 2022

 

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The Brierfield Ironworks Historical State Park in Brierfield, Alabama, preserves the Bibb and Brierfield iron furnace site which played an important role in supplying iron to the Confederacy during the Civil War.

 

In 1861, Caswell Huckabee and other investors formed the Bibb County Iron Company.  Huckabee provided most of the capital and enslaved workers.  The No. 1 furnace was constructed and produced its first iron in November 1862.  In 1862, the company also began construction of a wrought iron rolling mill located near the Alabama and Tennessee Railroad.  A two- and one-half mile long tramway connected the furnace to the rolling mill.

 

Recognizing the importance of the furnace/mill complex and its high quality of iron for manufacturing naval cannons, the Confederate government purchased the Brierfield ironworks in 1863.  The No. 2 furnace whose ruins are seen today, was constructed adjacent to the No. 1 furnace (no longer present).  The Bibb Furnace was renamed the Naval Ordnance Furnace.  The rolling mill was completed.  The new furnace could produce 25 tons of iron per day and the rolling mill, 10 tons per day.  All production was sent to the Confederate Arsenal and Naval Ordnance Factory in Selma.  Production continued at these facilities until March of 1865 when they were all destroyed by Union forces.

 

After the Civil War, in 1865, General Josiah Gorgas, the ex-Chief of the Confederate Ordnance Bureau, and a group of investors formed the Canebreak Company which purchased the ironworks.  Giles Edward, a Welsh ironmaster, rebuilt the No. 2 furnace.  It was then renamed the Brierfield Furnace.  Gorgas was Superintendent.  He left in 1869 to become the President of the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.  His home is preserved as a museum on the campus.

 

From 1870 to its final closure in 1894, several different individuals and investor groups operated the ironworks.  Dwindling supplies of charcoal forced the construction of coke ovens which enabled the first commercial scale production of pig iron using coke in Alabama.  In the 1880s the operations thrived but eventually succumbed to competition from Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, iron and steel mills.  The Brierfield Ironworks was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.  Today it is administered by the Tannehill Historical State Park.

 

Abandoned Brierfield Ironworks after closure, c1905. (Alabama Archives)


View of the west side of the ruins of the Brierfield Furnace, c1930s. (Alabama Archives)



(Above) Tour Guide, Jack Bergstresser, describes the history of the Bibb and Brierfield Furnaces.

 

(Right) Dick Beach, Erik Nordberg, and Jack Bergstresser at the furnace.  Part of the brick structure was scavenged for home construction after abandonment.



The ruins of the No. 2 furnace are protected from further decay by a metal roof.


Close-up view of the construction of the furnace with the firebrick hearth.

Tram car display on the west side of the No. 2 furnace.

Closeup view of the east side of the No. 2 furnace.


Silvia Pettem and Ed Raines at the furnace.  Thanks for the photos, Silvia.

Ruins of the Brierfield Rolling Mill located about 2 miles from the furnace site and connected to it by a tramway, date unknown.  Only the foundations remain today.  (Alabama Archives)


Josiah Gorgasí house on the University of Alabama campus in Tuscaloosa is now a museum.  It was not visited on the MHA tour.

Through General Gorgasí leadership of the Ordnance Bureau, and its spin-off, the Niter and Mining Bureau, the Confederacy was able to supply its raw materials and manufactured armaments until production facilities were destroyed during the Civil War.

Photos courtesy of Silvia Pettem and Mike and Pat Kaas

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