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Originally published: 2011-11-18 11:03:58
Last modified: 2011-11-18 11:05:56

Centennial Spotlight: A glimpse of the iron mines at Cranberry

Michael Hardy / (news@averyjournal.com)

Every week in 2011, The Avery Journal-Times is celebrating the 100th birthdays of Avery County and Banner Elk with a Centennial Spotlight compiled by members of the local community. This week, we continue to provide answers to the 100 questions about Avery County posed in our print editions in January and February. 

Some say a picture is worth a thousand words. And usually, those people are right. It would indeed be great to have more old photographs, of Newland, and Banner Elk, of the Keener family in Ingalls or the Blalocks of Montezuma. 

However, words can also be used to paint a picture of distant times from our past. Sometime in the first decade of the 20th century, before Avery County was even created, Fred A. Olds came for a visit. Olds (1853 to 1935) was a journalist, historian and lecturer from the Raleigh area, while occupying various positions like state ordnance officer and quartermaster general (1880s). He is probably best known for his work in preserving and disseminating North Carolina's unique history. Olds was largely responsible for North Carolina Hall of History in Raleigh, better known today as North Carolina Museum of History. 

Throughout his life, Olds traveled over large portions of North Carolina, recording his observations for the benefit of readers not only among his contemporaries, but also for us today. 

During the industrialization of Southern Appalachia, the iron ore mines at Cranberry were critical and remain a central part of any conversation on the period. Iron has been coming out of the ground at Cranberry since the late 1700s. It was mined during the Civil War by the Confederacy, until June 1864 when it was destroyed during Kirk's raid. The mines at Cranberry were the reason East Tennessee and Western North Carolina Railroad was built. The mines experienced their heyday in the 1880s, 1890s, 1900s and 1910s. By the advent of World War II, the mines were closed, and while there was talk and exploration into the option of reopening them, they never went back into service. For much of the 19th and early 20th centuries, iron coming from Cranberry was the only non-agricultural export coming out of our area. 

Olds' written portrait of the Cranberry mines gives us some interesting information. In one particular piece he refers to children being used in the mines. The first child labor laws in the United States would not be passed until 1914 in Arkansas, and not nationally until 1938 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Fair Labor Standards Act. 

Another interesting part of the account is Olds’ description of the iron ore being formed into U- shaped bars, and then fitted on the backs of oxen for a trip out of the area. During the Civil War, Peter Hardin, a local slave, is believed to have driven a wagon loaded with iron ore to Burke County and the terminus of the local railroad for shipment to casting facilities for the war effort. 

This is part of an article by Olds, which appeared in Charlotte Observer on April 3, 1910:

“North Carolina has one great iron mine, which all through the panic was in full operation, this being at Cranberry. General Hoke was for many years interested in this mine and in fact was a great developer of it. He was president of the corporation up to four years ago. A visit to this mine will be found very full of interest to any one, as in many respects it is unique. The little narrow-gauge railway wriggles its way up Toe River to within three miles of the mine and then wriggles some more along a small tributary stream, the grades being remarkably steep and the cog-wheels of the engine, which engage one of the rails, making a noise which resounds far and wide through those wild and rugged mountains, where the world seems set on edge. 

“The Cranberry mine is odd by reason of the way in which the ore is taken from it. If you figure to yourself a hall shaped somewhat like a big pumpkin, and then image that you have thrust your thumb and found fingers, the thumb below the fingers, into the pumpkin, you get an idea of the lower opening into the mine, into which the ore cars run, and of what may be called the eyes or openings above. Day and night the work goes on and thrice a day the battle of Gettysburg is fought all over again, so to speak, for early in the morning, at noon and late in the afternoon the dynamite is turned loose to break up the ore-masses, wither in the great galleries or chambers of the mine of at its front. It is a frightful looking place, and the half light which comes in from the great eyes and blends with the murk of the smoky galleries, which lead in seven directions into the mountain's heart, makes the 200 workmen seem like creatures in another world. These galleries run back 1,500 feet into the mountain and reach down in sweeping curves ... 

“General Hoke told me once that this ore was among the purest in the United States. Only that some of the Spanish mines equals or surpasses it. Extremely fine specimens are shown in the state museum, and in appearance these are almost as pure as meteorites or bolides, which are also on view there. General Hoke said that in the old days the iron was made in a Catalan forge, the ruins of which yet remain. That was long before the days of railways and so oxen were used for transport purposes. Their backs were covered with pads made of straw, on which were lashed the iron bars, bent in the form of the letter U, and thus the precious stuff was carried into North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia and made into gun-barrels and all sorts of other things. Very famous gun-barrels were made out of this particular iron. 

“What a contrast there is between the old and new methods in a mine like this. Up to not many years ago, before the electric magnets came in, the ore, broken up quite small, was passed along on bands between rows of pickers, mainly children, who with their hands picked out the stone, leaving only the iron. Now the magnets, operated by dynamos, do all of this work to perfection, and the ore is not only washed but picked with the greatest care, fails into the cars and is thence carried up the mountain, across the great divide and then runs down to Johnson City, Tenn., to the smelters and converters, from which it comes out very pure steel, in great request all over the country. 

“When the writer was at the mine Mr. Weedon was most attentive and careful in explaining all these things. It looks very simple, yet when one thinks of how, step-by-step, these processes have been evolved it shows what trained minds can do and is another illustration of how necessary electricity has become in this way as well in hundreds of others. Now there are gotten out of the mine a hundred tons of ore daily, and such care is taken that but a small part of this is other than iron, so as to leave as little as possible for the magnets to do. One of the attractions of the place is the noonday salute, when the dynamite is let loose at the large masses of ore at the mine front, in a sort of semi-circle. Fire and smoke, the latter yellow and boiling outward and upward, make one think of the heavy guns in battle, and of what it must have been to march up Cemetery Hill at Gettysburg, in the face of a mile of roaring cannon, served with the greatest rapidity and accuracy.”