The Mining of Iron Ore at Cornwall: An Unexpected Field Trip

While staying in Rome, we made a day-excursion to Birmingham to meet up with one of my former students (now a nurse at the university hospital). After touring the botanical gardens and doing a little letterboxing, we drove up to see the Vulcan, the largest cast-iron sculpture in the world. Designed by Italian artist Giuseppe Moretti and cast from local iron in 1904, it has overlooked the urban landscape of Alabama’s largest city since the 1930s.

Iron Ore Mining

Here, we also explored the museum where we were able to touch several ores mined locally: iron ore, charcoal or coke (a fuel and reducing agent), and limestone. Below the museum entrance was an entrance to a mining shaft where raw iron ore was extracted. The ore was then transported to nearby furnaces where it was refined and iron ingots were formed for further processing.

Doing a little letterboxing near the Vulcan

Iron Ore Furnaces

Driving through Birmingham, it is impossible to miss the Sloss Furnaces, where iron was produced for nearly 90 years (between 1882 and 1971 under various owners), giving rise to the city of Birmingham.  Though the National Landmark was closed on the day we were there, the web of pipes and tall smokestacks were still impressive and provided us with a glimpse into the great industrial past.

On the drive home, we noticed a brown road sign indicating an historical site.  Choosing to take this little detour, the signs led us to Cornwall Furnace, a quaint little park tucked away alongside Weiss Lake. Though all that remains is the furnace (the wooden mill exterior had deteriorated long ago), it was still impressive, and enabled us to visualize the past.

iron ore furnace at Cornwall

Samuel Noble is thought to have over seen operations here and production started in late 1862.  Iron ore, charcoal, and limestone would have been fed into the top of the furnace to produce the iron. There would have been a charging bridge coming from the top of the ridge to the top of the furnace stack to facilitate the loading of the raw materials.  Iron was then extracted from the bottom of the furnace and ran into sand molds to produce pig iron ingots.  The ingots were marked CORNWALL.

The pig iron ingots were then transported to the foundry in Rome, Georgia.  Once the bars were in Rome, they were transformed into various products that supported the war effort.  We later learned that many of these furnaces (found throughout the south) had been destroyed during the Civil War to prevent the Confederate army from producing more arms.

Buddy was particularly interested in these historical sites as mining has always been a fascination to him.  He even painted a mine shaft during the painting class later in the week.  When we returned home, he continued to inquire about the specifics of mining iron ore and as we researched, he made numerous references to Minecraft.  While making connections to his favorite game, it was clear that he was truly understanding the complexities of the process.

Upon our return home, we explored ore samples in more depth. You can read about our approach in my post,  A Peak at Ore Samples.

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