SANFORD — When visitors approach on foot, the pyramidal structure arising from the Piedmont loam resembles an ancient Maya temple, shaded by the wooded banks of the Deep River.
For generations of Lee County youngsters, the abandoned Endor Iron Furnace served as a lovers’ getaway, a secret meeting spot and a staging ground for overnight camping trips. These kids learned from parents and old-timers that hundreds of their ancestors – both free and slave – had toiled round-the-clock at this smelter to supply the Confederacy with the pig iron for making munitions.
After nearly a half-century of dreaming, wishing, talking and planning for a restoration of this stony relic to its original condition, area residents and preservationists finally are set to begin work early next year.
They are racing to save the 150-year-old time capsule from becoming a pile of rubble. The rugged structure has suffered extensive damage in the past quarter century – one wall has caved in, and time’s wrecking ball is aiming dangerously close to the arched portals that support the stones above.
“If we lost that arch, we’re going to lose that structure,” said Mark Cooney, director of capital projects for the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources, which owns the property.
It’s not always easy explaining to outsiders why anyone would want to pay more than $1 million for reconstructive surgery on a sagging industrial plant, and turn it into the centerpiece of a 400-plus acre recreation area. By way of analogy, they point to other historic landmarks – covered bridges, water mills, warehouses – that attained symbolic status in their communities.
“It’s like the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse,” Cooney said. “It has outlived its purpose, but people spend millions of dollars to move it and save it.”
Mostly, they say, come out and see for yourself. So last month, volunteers offered one of their periodic guided tours to lead visitors through this slag-steeped scrapbook, fashioned by the brawn of the region’s Industrial Age.
The easiest approach to the Endor Iron Furnace today is by canoe from the Deep River, which laps the shore within view of the dilapidated furnace.
Arriving by car is another story. It takes driving down a restored logging road and hiking the rest of the way in, often side-stepping obsidian-like shards of slag the workers tossed aside. There are no signs or guideposts along the way; a locked gate greets visitors at the entrance to the gravel access road.
Though built by war profiteers, the Endor Iron Furnace was no slap-dash affair. It was assembled without mortar, not unlike the imposing architecture of the ancient Incas in Peru. The stones, probably hoisted by pulleys and winches, were meticulously cut to fit together as snugly as puzzle pieces.
The restoration project has a certain whiff of fantasy. With the aid of digital technology, the volunteers plan to reconstruct the furnace, some four or five stories in height, by putting back every stone – in its original position.
“Computers can put this thing back together,” said Robert Bridwell, the restoration project manager whose day job is director of planning and development for Sanford and Lee County. “This furnace came out of the geology and the dirt this county was built on.”
Stones not interchangeable
The stones – hewn by hand, are not interchangeable and some weigh more than 1,000 pounds. Replica slabs will have to be fashioned for damaged originals that can’t be salvaged.
During the Civil War and shortly thereafter, men labored here to coax streams of molten iron from a superheated cauldron of iron ore, limestone and charcoal. The resulting pig iron was shipped by barge or by rail to Fayetteville to be refined further into nails, rails, rail wheels, cannonballs and guns.
The furnace likely blazed at more than 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, said Bob Brickhouse, a volunteer and board member of the Railroad House Museum, a county historical society whose members have planned the project for decades. Those searing temperatures are comparable to a nuclear plant’s reactor core during atomic fission.The money-making venture petered out shortly after the Civil War, when the earth here yielded the last of its iron ore.
Today, the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources owns the property and leases it to the Triangle Land Conservancy. The two organizations are finalizing a memorandum of agreement that will allow the Land Conservancy to begin restoration, Cooney said.
Early next year, stones that have dislodged – scores of them – will be located, identified, inspected, measured and catalogued. By this time next year, the volunteers hope to have dismantled much of the furnace, stone by stone, to assess its structural integrity.
In the 1960s, when Brickhouse, now in his late 80s, visited the site , the Endor Iron Furnace was largely intact, as verified by photographs from the era.
Time taking toll
Today, the pinnacle has been sheared off, the boxy stones laid waste by downpours, freezes and felled trees.
The process of decomposition, though glacial, is perceptible to the naked eye: A grove of saplings sprouts on the slantindicular crest, their nutrient-greedy roots prying loose the uppermost layers of brownstone boulders.
Toward the back side of the furnace, a rectangular colossus tilts at a precarious angle, possibly the next in line to fall. Gaps between some of the stones are large enough to accommodate a well-fed snake.
Money is the primary obstacle to completing a project of this scope, and the reason it has taken so long.
The project has cost more than a quarter million dollars so far, largely to shore up the mile-long access road, add a crossing to the Atlantic Coastline rail track, and conduct archeological surveys. That money came from private donations.
The Railroad House Museum has about $300,000 in the bank, largely from those private donors, including a $100,000 bequest from Hugh Carr, a former museum chairman and one of the early advocates for saving the furnace. Completing the project, which could take a decade, could cost as much as $1 million more in donations, foundation gifts and government grants, supporters say.
Recently, a Boy Scout troop visited the mossy ruins to clear out underbrush and prepare the site for the restoration work. After all these years, Brickhouse said, “We’re going to be doing things rather than studying things.”
Staff writer Richard Stradling contributed.