Iron making in South Carolina began toward the end of the colonial period. Production was first reported in 1773, when Colonel William Wofford built an ironworks near the present location of Spartanburg. These early establishments were destroyed by the British during the American Revolution, but the industry revived after the war, and several furnaces were in operation by the end of the century. As late as 1808, iron making was reported to be one of the few domestic manufactures carried on for sale in the backcountry region of the state. The iron belt extended across what were the four northwestern districts of York, Spartanburg, Greenville, and Pendleton. Major iron operations included Hill’s Iron Works in York District, South Carolina Manufacturing Company in Spartanburg District, and Nesbitt Manufacturing Company and King’s Mountain Iron Company on the upper Broad River.
Poor transportation facilities made the industry of greater importance locally, with farm implements forged from the backcountry domestic pig and bar iron in the earlier period. By the mid-1820s, larger manufacturing companies expanding their market to the lowcountry, the exhaustion of local ore supplies, and the Panic of 1819 combined to force the closing of several operations in the iron belt. The center of production relocated to the banks of the Broad River, near the Spartanburg-York boundary. In capital investment, the industry peaked around 1840, and iron production in the late 1840s exceeded four thousand tons a year. By the mid-1850s, eight furnaces were operating in the upper Piedmont, four of which were in Spartanburg.
From 1795 to 1856, there were no substantial changes in the size or basic principles of operating furnaces. Manufacturers relied on water to power blast furnaces, until droughts in the 1840s forced the purchase of steam engines. Yet, until the Civil War, steam was used primarily as an auxiliary force. Larger operations relied on African American labor, with local or northern whites hired for skilled work and managerial positions.
In the decade before the Civil War, the rapid increase of anthracite furnaces in the North began to drive more expensive charcoal iron from the market. Without railroads in the backcountry until the 1850s, and with increased competition from urban foundries, local iron producers struggled to maintain their market. By then, South Carolina iron was suffering from a depletion of timber resources and a reputation for inferior quality. Eventually, the railroads made available a better and cheaper iron from the North.
In the late nineteenth century, southern iron became unsuitable for conversion into steel by the then dominant Bessemer process, and many of the iron enterprises experienced shifts from southern to northern control. Further, the industry suffered from the pricing system known as “Pittsburgh plus” and the subsequent basing point system until the mid–twentieth century. Many smaller plants have turned to electric arc furnaces for steel making, and the Georgetown Steel Company of South Carolina was the first in the nation to use Direct Reduced Iron in this type of furnace. But the southern steel industry faces competition from abroad and difficulties in maintaining productivity, as represented by the closing of Georgetown Steel in 2003.
Chapman, Herman Hollis. The Iron and Steel Industries of the South. University: University of Alabama Press, 1953.
Clowse, Converse D. Economic Beginnings in Colonial South Carolina, 1670–1730. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1971.
Hoover, Calvin B. Economic Resources and Policies of the South. New York: Macmillan, 1951.
Lander, Ernest M., Jr. “The Iron Industry in Ante-Bellum South Carolina.” Journal of Southern History 20 (August 1954): 337–55.
Moss, Bobby G. The Old Iron District: A Study of the Development of Cherokee County, 1750–1897. Clinton, S.C.: Jacobs, 1972.