As the Confederates invaded Kentucky in the summer of 1862, Josiah A. Jackson, outspoken Unionist and proprietor of the Red River Iron Works across the Clark County line in Estill, felt both his business and his personal safety under threat from the rebel forces in the state. Fleeing into the mountains to hide until the Confederates left the area, Jackson took sick and died, leaving the furnace without its skilled ironmaster. It is unclear whether the furnace ever produced iron again or what became of the workers both enslaved and free, but it seems unlikely that the blasts or the slaves who stoked them continued at the furnace after Jackson’s death. By the summer of 1865, Jackson’s creditors had successfully won a decision against his estate, which now consisted almost entirely of the furnace and its adjoining properties.[1] Buckner, as commissioner of the sale of the Jackson property (a service likely arranged through his and Jackson’s mutual father-in-law, Dr. Martin) wrote up a gleaming description of the property and its attractions. The purchaser would come into nearly 30,000 acres of land in heavy timber necessary for fueling any industrial enterprise and indicative of fertility, 1,000 acres currently in cultivation and another 400 of bottom land which could be put to the same use, the fine water courses which operated both the (already in place) saw and grist mills to support the bellies and the fires of the operation, and buildings of all description from worker housing—likely the old slave quarters—to blacksmith shops.[2] But who had the money to buy it?

With little free capital left in Kentucky and most white men too unsure about the labor market after slavery to hazard the investment in the iron property, Buckner recognized that he needed to attract attention from outside the state. His advertisement of the property and its attractions was not only shaped to appeal to old iron men of Jackson’s age, but progressive minded younger men of Buckner’s generation as well. Riding an oil speculation boom that had swept the down into the state from Pennsylvania in 1865, Buckner was keen to point out the encouraging “indications of the existence of Petroleum on these lands…as favorable as any in the State,” which was no small claim given the rich strikes in the Big Sandy Valley and in the southern counties near Cumberland Gap which had led some to assert “that this section will prove to be a very fine oil region.” If Kentucky’s agricultural wealth in land, livestock, and slaves had been dealt a serious blow by the collapse of slavery, Buckner and many of his political persuasion hoped that the state’s mineral wealth would inject new life into the economy and, eventually, restore the state to its former commercial prowess. And if the federal soldiers who had come from north of the Ohio to garrison the state had helped contribute to the collapse of the state’s sustaining institution since 1862, the industrial capital of those same states, fueled by wartime manufacturing contracts, could help reenergize the Kentucky economy, or so Buckner and his fellows hoped. “The historian hereafter of this great struggle will record with wonder how nature herself seemed to try to heal the fearful waste and loss of war” through the “most profitable natural discoveries of the century [that had] occurred between 1860 and 1865,” read a New York Times article about the new oil markets opening in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Kentucky. “While pouring out our means in the costly effort for upholding liberty and law,…the mountains and the oil wells have opened their treasures to restore the national wealth.”[3]

At a loss for what to do with slavery now dead, at least some white Kentuckians hoped that as the sun set on one era, a new one would dawn. The Observer & Reporter ran boosterish editorials encouraging the speculation in new sources of wealth alongside letters from despairing farmers casting about for new sources of agricultural labor. One town in Cumberland County, the paper reported, saw houses built and stores opened at astonishing speed, “and there is a universal cry for more room. Mechanics cannot be obtained for love nor money, and building materials are extremely scarce.” Some enterprising individuals, it was said, had even begun importing partially finished frame houses from Cincinnati to meet the demand spurred on by the eleven oil wells pumping out 100 barrels per day. Cumberlanders were “of but one opinion—that in less than six months the shipments will exceed 10,000 barrels per week.”[4] Hoping to catch the speculation prices at their height, Buckner’s ad ran in Cincinnati, Pittsburg, and Philadelphia in addition to placing the notice of the sale in the Lexington and Louisville papers in hopes of luring northern capital into the depressed market in Kentucky.

Playing the game of inviting northern capital to revitalize the state was necessary, thought Buckner and many of his fellow disposed masters, if the damage the war had done could ever be repaired. But in doing so, they courted potential disaster. They must see to it that it was only Yankee money, and not Yankee mores, that came into the state. White Kentuckians had seen the “horrors” which resulted when northern men had, according to Buckner and those of like minds, tempted gullible black men into leaving their happy homes in bondage and transforming themselves into the willing tools of federal domination. Before too many northern men were invited to Kentucky, Buckner and his friends needed to reconstruct as much of the old legal and social restrictions on African Americans as they could.

Buckner sold the Red River Iron Works in 1866, but before long the site soon reflected the “horrors” Buckner and other white Kentuckians feared. When Buckner sold the foundry, ore mines, timber lands, and supporting farming tracts to Fred Fitch, he could hardly have known what the new owner had in mind for the complex. Things had seemed to go well at first. Preparing to invest in the oil and mining boom going on in Kentucky, Fitch, a New England native, sold his share of his Lexington drug store to his brother Frank and Bostonian Robert Bickford, who would continue to run the store in town. Though Buckner had advertized in papers across the northeast looking for outside capital to come revitalize the industry in Estill County, Fitch proved the perfect agent right under Ben’s nose. Having purchased the property in February 1866, Fitch tapped contacts in New York and Chicago to charter the Red River Iron Manufacturing Company with cash holdings reported to have been $1,000,000. The Chicagoans were particularly keen to integrate a local iron source into their efforts to rebuild railroad tracks and cars that lay in ruins in Kentucky and throughout the South and expand the network in the west. Just a year after the company was established, product was on its way northward. In Frankfort, “four large flat boats…laden with pig iron” amounting to nearly seven hundred tons was on its way up the Kentucky River eventually destined for Chicago “where it was sold at $76 per ton, for the purpose of making car wheels.” Fitch’s product was praised in that city as “superior to any in the country for this purpose, and commands ready sale at about 33 per cent higher price than any other iron.” The only problem with it was the poor transportation routes out of the Red River valley. When the boats were seen in Frankfort, they were stuck fast in the February ice, and reports were that “the means of reaching” the works “are so inadequate that it is really cheaper…to get iron from Pittsburg.” The entrepreneurial old Whigs in Lexington nevertheless praised the efforts. “It is enterprise. It is wealth to those who have organized and conduct the business and to our Commonwealth. But we wish to see more of this sort of thing, and hope before long to hear the clank of mills and shops throughout our city; to see the smoke rise from the steamboats on the Kentucky, and the locomotive crossing fields where he is not now known.”[5]

Spurred on by such language, eager to tackle these logistical challenges, and with the support of many local boosters of all parties, Fitch pressed on with his grand vision of the greatest iron foundry in the nation. Buckner had helped charter a road company from Winchester to the works, and Lexington papers on both sides supported a spur railroad line to link the city to the foundry. Confident of the future outlet for his products, Fitch ordered the building of a massive double stack furnace that could blast twice as much ore at a time, and began the construction of a new town from what had been a collection of small houses, barns, and work buildings. Fitch was so committed to seeing his grand project realized that he brought stone masons from Italy to shape the stacks, and that was only the beginning. He oversaw the leveling of hills, the building of tramways, the macadamizing of roads across the property, and began a massive timbering and sawmill operation to build his new company town that at its peak would employ more than a thousand men and house them on top of one hundred of their families. A three-story hotel and equally massive storehouse were the crowning achievements of the new settlement. With so much work, both skilled and unskilled, available, it was not long before black Kentuckians flocked to Fitch’s new town in hopes that the Yankee ironmaster might give them more reasonable wages, hours, and family accommodations than their former masters. He did. And that was the problem. As much as Buckner and the Democratic boosters in Lexington were excited to see industry and economic investment, they were not thrilled by Fitch’s integrated workforce and new town that was springing up without the guidance of conservative leaders of the community to prevent any unapproved of society between black and white workers.[6]

Now that Fitch’s vision was finally coming to fruition five years later, Ben and fellow conservative whites were terrified at the possible future the new Red River Iron Works heralded. White men and black men had worked side by side in iron operations in Kentucky since before statehood, but how would the old racial hierarchies be upheld when there was no longer the line of slavery to divide white and black workers? With no small amount of Union-Republican support in the mountains, what would happen if upcountry whites and Bluegrass blacks began living and working together? Might they find common cause with one another and challenge the power—economic and political—of the white Bluegrass elite who had reaped the profits of much of the state’s antebellum industry? Regardless of the quality of product that Fitch was producing, these questions were too serious to ignore after 1870 and the black ballot. The Kuklux initiated a series of raids to harass black miners as they dug ore on the Red River property for the new Fitchburg furnace in 1871, and when a new group of skilled black ironworkers relocated with their families to the company town, they were met with warnings to leave or else. These newest arrivals were in a particularly vulnerable spot, too. The initial lot of housing had already been occupied, so the new families set up quarters in a temporary cluster called “Needmore”—because they needed more housing—across a creek branch from the main town. Cut off from the protection of the main town, Needmore made an easy target for nighttime raiders.[7]

The Fitchburg settlement was many things and the Red River Iron Works wore many hats, but paramilitary defense force was not one of them. With the company either unwilling or unable to protect the Needmore families, the Klan drove nearly four hundred people from their new homes and the bright future it promised them. Crippled by the poor transportation routes and the inability to locate—and protect—a labor force, Fitch closed his operation the next year and began looking elsewhere to put his new vision for Southern industry into practice. Along with Fitch and his furnace, Kentucky shunned their first chance to overhaul their decimated economy and reorder it along the lines of their neighbors across the Ohio. As Fitch looked to take his vision elsewhere—he ended up in Birmingham, Alabama—Kentucky’s Democratic leaders began searching for a model of industrialization, modernization, and economic revitalization that did not threaten the racial status quo which had underlay antebellum industry within the state.

The collapse of Fitch’s experiment in the face of racial violence was a prime example of a bitter split among Kentucky’s Democrats regarding the continued violence and lawlessness that plagued the state. Henry Watterson of the Louisville Courier-Journal was the leading figure in Kentucky’s New Departure movement—a preview of the New South boosters to come later in the century. New Departure men in the state had criticized the legislature’s inaction on the “Kuklux bill” as enthusiastically as had many Republicans. Representing a powerful business and railroad investment faction in with the Democracy—interests favored by both Buckner and W. C. P. Breckinridge—Watterson began to worry about the continued violence discouraging the economic development of the state in much the same way as the Red River Iron Works tale was then unfolding.[8] It was effective in the short term, but would it end up isolating the South when it most needed reinvestment? Despite this rhetoric, the Republicans claimed, even the New Departure men would be no better than the Democrats of years past. The “‘New Departure’ has brought itself to acknowledge the popularity of the Republican principles,” read one warning. However, “It hopes to win by clothing the wolf in the lambs skin.” Another concluded, “If then any colored person votes for a Kentucky Democrat he votes to make and keep himself a slave.”[9]

[1] Buckner and Morton M. Price issued a call to Jackson’s creditors to bring forth their claims against his estate in the Lexington Observer & Reporter of Sep. 19, 1865.

[2] For the text of this advertisment, see Lewis, For Slavery and Union, 27.

[3] Buckner’s papers contain receipts from the Cincinnati Commercial, Pittsburg Commercial, and Philadelphia Inquirer for running the ad. It appeared in the Observer & Reporter for some time, including on Nov. 29, 1865 and included notice of the same ad running in the Louisville Journal. New York Times, Feb. 16, 1865. For a very popular prospectus on the oil regions of Kentucky as seen in 1865, see J.H.A. Bone, Petroleum and Petroleum Wells, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1865), 137-41.

[4] On the oil boom in Cumberland County, see Lexington Observer & Reporter, Jan. 13, 17, 1866.

[5] Lexington Observer & Reporter, Aug. 30, 1865; Don F. Fig, A History of the Fitchburg Furnace, n.d., n.p., Library of the Kentucky Historical Society, 42; Lexington Kentucky Gazette, June 5, 1867.

[6] Lexington Kentucky Gazette, Feb. 2, 1867; Fig, Fitchburg Furnace, 42-54.

[7] Wright, Racial Violence, 38-9.

[8] For example, see Watterson’s Courier-Journal editorial on Mar. 24, 1871; Thomas L. Connelly in “Neo-Confederatism or Power Vacuum” noted that the New Departure allied Louisville with the booming tobacco market in Western Kentucky against the old Bluegrass counties, Lexington included, and the mountains of the East. It is certainly true that Lexington’s Democratic press often criticized Watterson’s editorials and spoke out against the New Departure. However important these economic considerations were, however, the discussions of violence and racism were equally present and certainly as heated throughout the New Departure debates among Democrats.

[9] Lexington Kentucky Statesman, Jul. 18, Jul. 11, 1871.

Copyright © Patrick A. Lewis 2015