Sidebar 18: The Bluff Furnace - David Starbuck

Bluff Furnace was a traditional, charcoal-fired, blast furnace built in Chattanooga, Tennessee. In 1859, workers converted it into a cupola-type furnace fueled by coke. At the same time, they modified it from a square stone structure into a cylindrical boiler-plate stack. The conversion from charcoal to coke, which led to increased impurities, proved problematic, and in late 1860 the furnace was allowed to cool and was then abandoned. This short-lived furnace never went back into blast, and it lay abandoned until 1977 when the late Jeffrey Brown (University of Tennessee at Chattanooga) commenced excavations there that Nicholas Honerkamp and R. Bruce Council later continued.

During their fieldwork, under the auspices of the Jeffrey L. Brown Institute of Archaeology, Honerkamp and Council exposed a circular hearth surrounded by a six-sided base for the large cast-iron pillars that supported the stack of the furnace. Honerkamp and Council, like most archaeologists, have described their finds and the furnace operation in great detail. But they also viewed the site as representative of much broader trends. They saw the changes at Bluff Furnace as a response to some of the larger economic and technological forces faced by Southern industry on the eve of the Civil War. In effect, the changeover from charcoal to coke had been risky. The costs of modernizing had been too high, the coke was high in impurities, and the owners just could not obtain enough of the coke. Bluff Furnace faced insurmountable odds, and it ended in failure all too quickly. Still, Honerkamp and Council successfully related events and processes at Bluff Furnace to a much larger world.