National Guard soldiers paving the way for easier access to county’s Civil War relic
By David Anderson Jr.
Published June 16, 2009
Like an unconquerable fortress waiting out an enemy army, Endor Iron Furnace has silently battled the elements — hurricanes, floods, snow, wind and rain — for more than a century.
While the stone structure has endured, it bears heavy scars left from generations of neglect. Two of its four faces have crumbled away beyond recognition. Trees and shrubs slowly climb up and out of the giant smokestack.
If endor Furnace is to be around for another hundred years, it needs an ally. Local advocates have spent years building awareness and raising money to have the furnace restored and the land around it developed into a park, but the first real improvement to the site is just nearing completion.
Soldiers from the 875th and 881st engineering divisions of the National Guard have been working to build almost two miles of gravel road and a parking area to make the furnace site more accessible.
The road, scheduled to be completed June 27, will allow contractors to carry equipment and materials to the furnace site to stabilize the structure later this year. It will then provide easy access for nearly anyone who wants to visit Endor Iron Furnace, replacing almost two miles of rugged hiking trails that, until now, had served as the only path to the landmark.
Worth Pickard of Sanford is president of the Railroad House Historical Association — the organization that is heading up the fundraising and development projects on the 426 acres of state-owned land that surrounds the furnace. Pickard, 80, has been trying to get others interested in the furnace since he first saw it more than 40 years ago.
“It made me feel great to know that something’s going to be done,” Pickard said. “We’ve been hearing these promises for years and years and we’re finally getting something done.”
Endor Iron Furnace was built on the bank of the Deep River in the years leading up to the Civil War. A nearby deposit of iron ore provided raw material for Endor Furnace, as well as a smaller furnace a few miles upstream.
“The first history of any ore sold there was in 1862,” Pickard said.
The furnaces turned the raw ore into pig iron — a brittle metal that can be forged into stronger, practical applications. The pig iron was shipped along the river to sites where it would be further refined.
Ore from Endor Furnace was used to make bullets and guns during the Civil War, Pickard said. After the war, metal from the furnace found its way into the region’s growing web of railroad tracks and train cars.
“The ore ran out in 1874 and it’s just been sitting idle ever since,” Pickard said.
As the region grew, the furnace — sitting just seven miles from downtown Sanford — was largely forgotten.
The first time Pickard saw Endor Furnace was in the 1960s, already a century since the first blocks of ore were melted on its hearth.
In the 1960s visitors to the furnace had to park on Cotten Road and blaze a path more than two miles long through the woods. Just before the path reaches the river, the furnace — about 30 feet high and 25 feet wide — jumps into view. A stone bluff that rises above the smokestack keeps the ancient structure hidden from visitors until they reach the site.
Pickard compared the furnace to a great pyramid.
“When I saw it for the first time, it was still intact,” he said. “To think something like that was built in the 1800s when we didn’t have bulldozers and cranes.”
In the decades that followed Pickard’s visit, Iron Furnace Road was built along the first 7/10 mile of the path to create access to Big Buffalo Water Reclamation Plant. Next week, about 30 soldiers will bring the road to within a few hundred yards of the furnace.
WAR HALTS PROGRESS
U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge served as a liaison between local advocates and Guard leaders who began planning the project five years ago.
“It’s really an important part of history,” Rep. Etheridge said. “I can see it as a tremendous tourist attraction. It holds tremendous potential not just for Lee County, but for our region and our country.”
Work on the project has crept along over the years as many of the engineers and contractors originally slated to work on the project were deployed to Iraq to rebuild the country’s infrastructure. This summer enough soldiers were finally available to commit two weeks to get the road finished.
“I think this project is great because it gives us an opportunity to train, and at the same time give back to the community,” 1st. Lt. Luis Villavicencio said. “That is exactly the type of work that the National Guard is involved with.”
Sgt. Elizabeth Lee was one of the first soldiers to arrive on the job site. She has watched the hiking trail turn into a two-lane road with drainage ditches, a railroad crossing and a parking area.
“When we first came out, you couldn’t really see what it was going to be,” Sgt. Lee said. “I’m excited to see it done.”
Staff Sgt. Chris Jacobs lives in Rockingham. He is glad to be working on a community project so close to home.
“It’s something we can bring our kids to later,” Staff Sgt. Jacobs said.
His two daughters — 8 and 10 years old — visited the site before construction began, but he plans on bringing them back at the end of the month to see the new road.
THE FIRST STEP
Pickard hopes the road will allow people to see the furnace who have wanted to visit the site in the past but couldn’t make the long walk. He hopes an increased awareness will help the Railroad House raise the estimated $625,000 necessary to restore the furnace. About half of that amount has already been collected, Pickard said.
Before the area can be opened to the public though, more work must be done to stabilize the furnace, said Paul Barringer, chairman of the project committee.
In the mean time, Barringer, 41, is scheduling several free tours each year to take groups of interested citizens to the furnace. The next tour is scheduled for June 28 at 2 p.m.
Over the next four months, Barringer plans to have an engineer evaluate the furnace and draft a long-term plan for restoration. He hopes to one day see the furnace act as a centerpiece for a state park that will be one of many new parks spread along the Deep River.
“Ultimately I think that’s going to be really good for the state; It’s going to be really good for Sanford; It’s going to be really good for Lee County,” Barringer said. “The work that we’re doing now is going to continue building a foundation that will take us to where we need to go.”
“That’s the first step,” Rep. Etheridge said. “You’ve got to get to it and protect the integrity of the site.”
For people like Pickard who spent years working with the Triangle Land Conservancy to raise money to buy the land around the furnace and creating a fundraising campaign to restore the structure, the future is finally looking good.
Text and images copyright 2009 by The Sanford Herald/Paxton Media Group.
Used with permission.