Roanoke Valley’s Early Iron Mines – Raymond Barnes

by Raymond Barnes

Originially published in the Journal of the Roanoke Historical Society, Winter 1967 (Vol. 3, No. 2)

Reprinted Here By Permission of The Roanoke Valley Historical Society & Museum, 1996, under original web article “Tales of the Magic City” (S. Warren, Warren Design Studio, Inc.)

The extensive deposits of minerals stored by nature in the mountains of Virginia were, for the greater part, unexploited until after the War Between the States.

The lead mines near Fort Chiswell enjoyed early development, but the rich seams of coal in Western Virginia were not tapped until the newly organized Norfolk and Western Railroad in 188285 extended lines into the mountainous regions. It must be emphasized that Virginians were not unaware of these mineral resources – they simply did not have the capital to exploit them, and this factor, taken in connection with the limited demand for coal in the Southland, left development unencouraged until rail lines permitted an outlet.

In the Roanoke-Botetourt area it was common knowledge that a superabundance of low grade brown hematite iron ore could be easily mined. Locally, the “Speedwell” furnace of Robert Harvey was in operation at present Starkey before the turn of the 19th century. The slag heap of the “Cloverdale” furnace is still in evidence just south of the overhead crossing of the railroad on Rt. 11. Additional charcoal-fired furnaces operated in the other sections of Botetourt.

When in 1881 it was announced that the Shenandoah Valley Railroad would connect at “a point at or near the town of Big Lick,” an issue of the Salem Times-Register carried an item that Maj. William Lewis (owner of “Lone Oak” formerly standing off Franklin Road) and several associates were camping in the highlands near Big Lick, “to find out what these mountains were made of.”

That western Virginia had large deposits of coal, iron and lead was well known long before these lodes were exploited. From early days the lead mines at Fort Chiswell were worked at a profit, for this much-needed mineral, used primarily for moulding bullets or securing window panes, has sold at a premium for many years. Many wagon loads of lead passed over the Blue Ridge on a now-abandoned road en route to Williamsburg or in later times to Richmond.

Western Virginia is rich in brown hematite ore deposits, but the iron content is low. Much of this ore was smelted in small charcoal fired furnaces. The famous “Speedwell” furnace on Back Creek at Starkey produced a particularly fine iron until it was destroyed by flood around 1825 and never rebuilt.

About halfway between Buchanan and Troutville there is a small settlement called Lithia. On the exact site of the old railroad depot, Joseph R. Anderson around 1854 operated a furnace he called “New Cloverdale.” Anderson and his successors mined over 200,000 tons of ore off the adjoining property. Although the plant ceased to operate in 1874, the settlement continues in existence.

In the Roanoke direction, the next iron mine was at a station called “Houston,” named for an official of the Crozier Iron Furnace which operated for years in northeastern Roanoke on 9th Street at the railroad.

Today anyone familiar with the appearance of hematite-bearing rock or soil can see abundant evidence of this mineral by a casual stroll in our surrounding mountains. The curious can watch excavations for drainage ditches or basements to see if a vein of this ore is uncovered and such lodes are often exposed. Unfortunately, the ore content is low grade.

Ferdinand Rorer, early promoter and local capitalist, a man of vision, prospected in a more scientific manner. He uncovered on the west ridge of Mill Mountain substantial ore deposits. Mineral rights were secured and a charter for the Rorer Iron Company was granted January 15, 1883 (City Charter Book 1, p. 72, Salem (sic)).

A narrow gauge railroad was constructed, from the mine about half a mile north of present Rt. 220, just below Peakwood Drive. The roadbed ran east immediately in front of Piney Grove Church, then on a bee line to where the Winston Salem Division tracks were laid in the early 1890’s. The little road ran up to cross Colonial Avenue, then down the brow of the hill, northwestwardly to a railroad trestle spanning Murray’s Run.

From there it paralleled the Roanoke River (over the same bed now occupied by the belt line tracks) to an ore wash. Still going west over a fill of such a sandy composition, contractors over the years since its abandonment carted it away for use in mixing concrete. The little road crossed the river just below the present Wasena Bridge, then via a deep cut paralleling Ferdinand Avenue, proceeded west to emerge at a point west of 10th Street, S.W. It then ran in a north-westwardly direction over the hills down to the N&W’s West End Yards to a loading platform about 16th Street, S.W.

Rolling equipment consisted of a “dinkey” engine and about 15 cars of the “dump” type. By this time the little road was ready for operation, a considerable tonnage of ore was mined, awaiting transportation.

In early Roanoke, Mr. Rorer occasionally entertained guests by giving a picnic, the climax of which was a free ride in empty dump cars out to the mines and return.

Crozier Furnace, an early and leading industry of the new town of Roanoke, had a huge plant at Ninth Street, S.E., and the railroad but it did not utilize ore from the Rorer Iron Mines, but instead that shipped here from some western counties. The Rorer ore found a market at Ironton, Ohio.

Rorer had financial reverses, and men including Samuel Coit, William Welch and a Mr. Brody took over leadership of the concern, until the Virginia Iron, Coal and Coke Company (organized originally at Pulaski) came into possession of the corporate properties. (Incidentally, VICC moved its home offices to Roanoke in 1908 and has been here since (sic)).

At the mine itself a nice little settlement grew, with small frame houses for workmen (some of which are still standing) plus the inevitable commissary. A post office was established, known as “Gale, Virginia.”

Wages ran about a dollar a day for common labor but an application to secure such a humble job required references of good character.

When the Roanoke and Southern Railroad (presently the Winston-Salem district of the N&W) was constructed in the early nineties, the narrow gauge line was abandoned west of the new railroad and the ore wash located on McClanahan Run (ofttimes called Ore Branch), which parallels the Winston-Salem line. Here there were facilities to load “washed” ore directly onto freight cars. For some years local ore continued to be sold to plants at Ironton, Ohio.

After the Virginia Iron, Coal & Coke Company took over the mines, this corporation came into ownership of the old Crozier Furnace and smelted local ore there.

In addition, VICC opened a new ore deposit lying east of the present Ogden Store on Rt. 119 and extended the “dinkey line” to the new mines. A crossing was made at the lane on the north side of the store, now a hard surfaced county road. A little line ran down the bottom on the east of 119 to the ore wash.

The original Rorer mines became in the early 1900’s a favorite objective of Sunday walks, adventure trips for boys, and in the fall offered a bountiful crop of chinquapins which grew on the abundant bushes located around the abandoned diggings. A small colony of colored people took over the “Gale” settlement.

When the apparent inexhaustible Mesabi deposits were opened near lake Superior to produce high grade ore, the brown hematite of the local section could not compete, but the mines still operated on a limited scale. When World War I brought new demand for iron from any source, our local mines enjoyed a burst of renewed popularity.

It is not recalled just when operations ceased or the narrow gauge tracks were removed, but it was probably in the early twenties.

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