In 1821 Walter Newman purchased approximately 900 acres in the western part of Shenandoah County and one year later began mining and refining iron ore in the area. He called his production facility “Liberty Furnace.”
Newman, and later his son Benjamin would operate Liberty until 1874 when it was sold to the Wissler family who had also purchased Columbia Furnace. The Wisslers, Frank and John, were responsible for expanding the two furnaces. Until then, iron production had been on the level of other, small family furnaces in the county.
Under their direction both Liberty and Columbia grew until over 300 persons were employed there. They were responsible for mining ore, refining it, transporting it to rail centers, harvesting lumber to feed the furnaces, and maintaining a wide array of company structures. From this time onward the operations at the furnaces would be economic center of this area of Shenandoah County.
Unfortunately, it also led to some problems as locals clashed with individuals brought in to fill vacancies, especially when the company began to hire African Americans. In 1881 a race riot broke out and the owners and black workers were attacked. This two day event ended when the Wisslers agreed to hire only white workers. This eliminated a major employment source for local African Americans and forced many to emigrate or settle for lower paying service jobs.
In 1884 a group of Philadelphia businessmen purchased the furnaces and named it Columbia Liberty Iron Company. They continued both operations until 1891 when the company was sold again to H.H. Yard of Philadelphia. He closed the Columbia Furnace and built a narrow gauge railroad, nicknamed the “Dinky” to haul the ore produced and goods to the furnaces and surrounding communities.
However, making a profit proved to be difficult. Legal battles between Yard and the previous owners compounded the sites problems. In 1905 the company was again sold and reorganized as the Shenandoah Iron and Coal Company who hoped to turn a profit by modernizing operations. Their efforts proved to be unsuccessful and the furnace the closed in 1907 and the land sold to Joseph T. Jackson who used the railroad to transport lumber from the area. It closed in 1917 after the area hills had been stripped.
Today the area bears little resemblance to how it would have appeared during the mining era. Nature has reclaimed the pits, former railroad grade, depot sites, and many related buildings. Only the main house and other structures survive.
The Truban Archives at the Shenandoah County Library maintains a large collection of items related to this furnace. For more information on it go to countylib.org/2017-0005