YOUNGSTOWN -- The steady rain had eased up a bit but the air was still cold and damp as Barb Riebe, Dick Gregg and Brittany Wylie pulled buckets of rubble and soil from the tunnel.
With each scrape of shovel and pick, they came a bit closer to unearthing the path that ran behind the Mill Creek Furnace in the early 1800s.
"You're standing on ground that hasn't been stood on in 150 years," said Riebe, of Youngstown.
Riebe, a Youngstown State University anthropology major, and her co-workers are part of a team of volunteers excavating the furnace site near Pioneer Pavilion in Mill Creek Park. The project is headed up by Dr. John White, professor and chair of the anthropology and sociology department at YSU.
The Mill Creek Furnace, built in 1831, was the last charcoal-burning furnace in the Mahoning Valley, operating into the late 1840s or early 1850s, burning coal in its last years.
Brings history closer
White said unearthing the furnace will add another attraction to the park and give park-goers a glimpse of history. The excavation itself brings together community members to work on an academic project, he added.
"This was the birthplace of iron making," White said. "It's just important to learn about history. ... The only way to get some facts is by archaeological excavation.
"I like the way you can use archaeology as a way of drawing the public in on the academic things academics do."
The furnace had sat for more than a century, buried beneath the park, when the group of anthropology students, historians, retirees and volunteers began to dig it out. When they started last April, only two rocks atop the furnace were visible on a hill in the park. Now, the furnace has emerged from the embankment.
"I love history. To me, this gives me hands-on history, to touch things people haven't seen in, how many years?" said Wylie, of Hubbard, also a YSU anthropology major.
"Last week we found the stem of a clay pipe," added Riebe.
Dan Madden, an attorney from Ashtabula County, also is among the excavators. His father worked in a Union Carbide steel mill in Ashtabula, and Madden used to work there during summers. This is his first dig.
"I love digging up history," he said. "I didn't know what to expect. It's very interesting now that we're down to the level of finding things from 150 or 160 years ago. Just finding bolts and tools is fascinating."
Gregg, of Boardman, said he, too, is fascinated by the history of the furnace and the number of people it employed. Trees were hauled by wagon from as far away as Canfield to provide charcoal for the furnace, he said.
"This has been laying here for almost 200 years and it would lay here another 1,000 years if we hadn't come along," said Gregg, a retiree who has worked on several other digs in the United States and abroad. "It shows the public what the past is about."
Iron-making process
White said the furnace used about an acre of trees per day for fuel, operating 365 days per year. While the furnace employed more than 100 people, about 80 worked just to chop wood.
The logs were stacked in circular mounds and slowly burned to create the charcoal.
The furnace's conical 40-foot stack was built against an embankment to allow workers to more easily haul the charcoal, iron ore and limestone -- used to remove impurities -- to its top.
The furnace's flame was kept constant using either water wheel-powered bellows or pumping leather tubs. A temperature of 2,400 to 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit was needed to melt the iron.
Once melted, the materials dropped through an air space of heat and gases into the lower vessel of the furnace, called a crucible, where slag would separate from the molten iron "like grease on top of your gravy," White said.
Workers turned out 2 tons of iron each day, depositing slag nearby.
The furnace was built by James and Dan Heaton and was the first blast furnace in Youngstown and the third in the Mahoning Valley.
The Heatons also built the area's first furnace in Struthers, which White and a crew excavated in 1974. He's curious to see how this one -- built 30 years later -- is different.
As White explained the workings of the furnace, site workers shared excitement as they uncovered chunks of slag with its marblelike blue-green swirls.
White turned a piece that looked as if it had been glazed. The slag, a glasslike substance, held manganese, potassium, sulfur and other elements.
"Believe it or not, they put in a cruddy piece of stone and some charcoal and out comes iron and this stuff," he said.
As White stood in front of the furnace on a recent dig day, he said the area at his feet is where hot iron would roll off to be molded into slots called ingots -- or pig iron -- and sent to blacksmith shops or refineries, where they were softened and pounded or cut into desired wrought iron shapes. Other molds created cast iron frying pans, Franklin stoves, Dutch ovens, trivets, firebacks and other household items.
"Anything you have in your kitchen made of cast iron was made in a furnace like this," he said.
A shed above the molding floor would prevent rain and water from hitting the hot molds -- a drip could cause the 2,500-degree iron to explode. Workers would avoid the hot casting floor by walking around the furnace via the tunnel curving around its back.
John Phillips of Louisville, Ohio and Patrick Donaldson of Youngstown, both YSU anthropology majors, pulled debris from the opposite side of the tunnel, working toward Riebe, Gregg and Wylie.
"It's what I want to do for a living. I've wanted to do it since I was 3 years old," said Phillips.
"It's an Indiana Jones complex," said Donaldson, " ... the thrill of finding something."
"At the end of the day you get a sense that you really did something," Phillips added. You can see your progress."

Don't Miss a Story

Sign up for our newsletter to receive daily news directly in your inbox.