Lee County’s Civil War-era furnace awaits reconstruction

The ruins of the long-abandoned Endor Iron Furnace, near Sanford, have been stabilized against further deterioration.
The ruins of the long-abandoned Endor Iron Furnace, near Sanford, have been stabilized against further deterioration. jmurawski@newsobserver.com

The best-preserved boulders are handsomely shaped to this day, considering they were chiseled back when the Civil War thundered.

But such survivors are getting harder to find at the Endor Iron Furnace, hidden in the woods in Lee County, an hour’s drive from Raleigh. Only the base of the furnace is visible, and most of the stonework is badly chipped, cracked or crumbled.

A year ago the furnace – which melted ore for the pig iron used to manufacture munitions and railway wheels to aid the Confederate cause – resembled a Mayan ruin disintegrating in the woods. Last year, as restoration efforts started, more than 600 fallen and loose boulders were removed, labeled, cataloged and mapped with the precision of an archaeological dig.

The rocks and fragments, arranged in neat rows at the site, mark the completion of the first phase of the restoration of the historic relic near Sanford. The effort to stabilize the structure has cost about $500,000, with a roof pitched overhead to prevent further erosion.

The hulking, moss-eaten rocks that once formed the inner and outer walls of the furnace now sun themselves in a clearing by the banks of the Deep River until local organizers can raise the more than $1 million needed to reassemble this mass into its original form.

“It’s got a long way to go,” said one of the volunteers, Robert Brickhouse, a retired engineer. “It’s a dream, and I’m an optimist.”

In the next stage of Endor’s reconstruction, crews will disassemble the rest of the bulwark, down to ground level. Then, upon a new foundation, the pyramidal structure will rise again – using as many of the original stones as possible – as the centerpiece of a future public park.

That is the long-term plan of organizers, who have been raising funds through The Railroad House Historical Association in Sanford. Organizers say they have exhausted private donors in Lee County and will next seek funding from wider sources, including trust funds, private foundations and governmental preservation programs.

Talented artists

The industrialists who financed the building of the Endor furnace in 1862 were war profiteers and in a hurry. Using slave labor and simple tools, they raised the furnace in less than a year. And yet, visitors to this slag-strewn area are struck by the attention to detail paid by the laborers.

Each of the four keystones once featured a carving of a face, perhaps the visage of a lion or a dog, their noses and eyes now scraped off by millions of raindrops. The cornerstones are chiseled to a tapered edge, with no discernible practical benefit. And the top of the pyramid flares out gracefully with corbels, creating a pleasing flourish.

“I think they just wanted to show off their talents as stonemasons,” speculated Mark Cooney, capital projects unit director of the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources, which owns the property. “These people were artists.”

During a recent site tour, Edenton stonemason Alex Givens displayed a collection of curios he has salvaged, including a lost chisel, dusted with rust powder. More than likely, the prized tool dropped into one of Endor’s murky crevices.

“Those things weren’t cheap,” Givens said. “I can imagine how it happened, and there was probably a lot of cursing that day, because he had to get a new one.”

Givens, a project superintendent with Progressive Contracting, handled the disassembly and cataloging, which occupied his crew from April to November. His logbook reads like an archaeologist’s ledger, each stone labeled by row, position, number and orientation.

8e-g SF: unrecognizable shape and unmeasurable;

6m-b SF: severely eroded, looks like a “glob” of mortar, stone and bricks;

3i SF int: crumbled apart while removing – no good;

4e WF: nice whole face – almost a cube shape.

‘A little volcano’

With only a quarter of the stones salvageable, most of the puzzle pieces will have to be replaced from the nearby quarry where they were originally mined.

The original stones weigh hundreds of pounds, one of them more than a ton. Each was hand-chiseled, dragged, winched, hoisted and positioned more than 150 years ago.

“They broke ground and technological barriers in a remote, hostile wilderness,” according to “The Men of Endor,” a 176-page historical account published in 2007 by The Railroad House Historical Association.

The outer stones of the furnace were pieced together without mortar. In the 1960s, when it was a century old, the structure was still intact and could probably have been re-fired, Brickhouse said. Then trees reclaimed their domain, sprouting between the crevices, their roots prying and cracking the boulders.

“Can you imagine – built in the 1860s and the thing was still standing pretty much intact into the 1980s,” Cooney said. “All I know is I got a lot more respect for those guys who built that – they knew what they were doing.”

The furnace in some ways operated like a nuclear plant. Once the smelting operating got underway, the furnace could disgorge streams of molten iron without interruption for 12 months, until a malfunction caused an unplanned outage.

The cool-down of Endor’s inner core took a week or more.

“At the base of the furnace, the crucible filled with liquid iron of about 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit, a dazzling white heat,” the history book explains.

After repairs were completed, it took a week to reheat the furnace with a wood fire. Then the men fed the blazing maw with charcoal, oyster shells and iron ore, and the iron flowed again.

“It was like a little volcano down here,” Cooney said.

Murawski: 919-829-8932

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