The Vagabond – Early iron ore mines in Gadsden- Part 3


The Vagabond recently started a new series about the iron ore mines around the Gadsden area and how they got started. There is surprising history to be found.

As mentioned earlier in the series, the early settlers knew the presence of iron ore in the Gadsden district. John S. Moragne, one of the area’s first settlers, discovered the outcrops of red iron ore in and near Gadsden in 1850. Soon after, Moragne engaged in the surface mining of the iron ore. He employed a few persons to pick up the loose ore on the surface and to dig shallow trenches along the outcrop. The ore was hauled by wagons to steamboats.

After The War between the States, Moragne developed the mines. Later upon completion of the railways in 1870, the iron ore was loaded on cars and shipped to distant furnaces.

Moragne took considerable interest in the development of the mineral resources of the district and was awarded a medal at the Alabama State Fair for the finest specimen of iron ores on exhibition.

In the late 1870’s, Thomas O’Conner started the O’Conner Mining Company and opened up red iron ore mines on Shinbone Ridge. Hundreds of tons of iron ore, mostly red hematite from the ridge, were usually stored at the plant site. It was at first hauled in by wagons, but a railroad spur eventually was built to the mines.

The O’Conner Mining Company shipped much of this ore to the Wabash Iron Company at Terre Haute, Ind. It was so superior to other ore that the company decided to move its furnace to Gadsden.

In 1881 this relocation resulted in the construction of the Coosa Furnace, the first charcoal iron maker and the first blast furnace in Etowah County. It was built in North Gadsden by the side of what is now Albert Rains Boulevard and north of the present Gadsden Water Department. It began making iron in 1883. O’Conner was a heavy stockholder for the mine as well as the Gadsden’s Coosa Furnace Company.

The first railroad spur to the Shinbone Ridge iron ore field was built in the late 1870’s by the Tennessee & Coosa Railroad (later the Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis Railroad).

The engineers laid out a route that started to branch off the main line on Locust Street and to run back of the site of the Gadsden Ice & Fuel Company’s plant. 

From the hill, in the rear of the plant they planned and built a high trestle that crossed the flats on Town Creek to the Standifer hill just north of what became the Tennessee, Alabama & Georgia Railroad depot. 

A trestle also crossed Tuscaloosa Avenue near the Standifer Spring. The spur then ran along the foot of the ridge to the mines several miles out from the city.

The trestle across the creek bottoms was built at a high elevation and was probably the costliest route available. The spur climbed to the mines at a rather steep grade. It is recalled that on at least two occasions cars loaded with ore got loose and raced from the mines all the way to Attalla, a distance of around seven miles, but there was never any serious damage or any fatalities. The wild cars made a lot of noise that could be heard all over the town.

In those days, braking was done altogether by hand and there were occasions when loaded cars broke loose at the mines with brakemen aboard. In some instances the flight was stopped on the main line inside the city.

The mines produced large quantities of red hematic ore, which assayed an unusually high quality of metallic ore, the highest in Alabama. The quality was the cause of the first blast furnace being located here. 

It was later of sufficient quantity to supply sufficient hard ore for two furnaces here and two at Ironton, four stacks owned by the Alabama Company that succeeded the Alabama Consolidated Coal & Iron Company, and was itself succeeded by the Sloss Company.

It is believed that there is still much iron ore in the ridge. The lSloss Company and a Japanese company also mined the tip end of the ridge on Tuscaloosa Avenue.

Back in the 1880’s, several paint mills were established in the city to grind and pulverize this red ore for a basis for paint. The mills did a large business all over the country.

The same sort of ore was mined at Attalla. At both places, the veins stand straight up in the mountains. The Gadsden veins pitch down into the valley at the foot of Lookout Mountain toward Attalla and those in Attalla pitch in this direction. Attalla was the largest shipping point in Alabama during the late 1880’s.

The O’Conner Mining Company maintained a big commissary uptown on the north side of Broad Street on the 300 block. It was a busy place on paydays and Saturday nights. In fact, it had about the largest trade in town for quite a while. 

The famous O’Conner iron ore mine came to an end when Thomas O’Conner was caught up in a duel in downtown Knoxville, Tenn. It was an incident later chronicled by Mark Twain in his book, Life on the Mississippi.

O’Conner had walked out of his bank, and as he reached the sidewalk, a man named Mabry stood directly across the street on the opposite corner while a third man named Lilliard stood on the same side of the block. All three had shotguns and opened fire at the same moment. All three dropped dead in their tracks.

Thomas O’Conner was a bank president and one of the richest men in Tennessee. The famous “duel” shook Tennessee to its foundation and caused a big sensation all over the United States.

All of Gadsden shut down their businesses, as O’Connor was well thought of and honored. The death of O’Conner had considerable effect on the industrial fortunes of Gadsden for many years.

The famous O’Conner duel at Knoxville caused many in Gadsden to discuss the tragedy because O’Conner, a Knoxville banker, owned and operated extensive and highly productive iron ore mines in Gadsden. 

He was the first to open major mines on Shinbone Ridge, and for a number of years the O’Conner Mining Company did big business here in Gadsden.

The O’Conner mines soon were sold to the Gadsden Iron Company, headed by A.L. Crawford, who was the son of the furnace company president A.J. Crawford. 

The Crawford’s built a steamboat and about half a dozen barges to haul wood for the beehive ovens. In fact, the Crawfords had two steamboats, named the “Crawford” and the “Annie M.” 

Stay tuned for Part 4!

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