Confirming reports of the existence of extensive and easily worked iron ore deposits in the southern part of the Utah Territory, Brigham Young issued “Mission Calls” to a predetermined cadre of approximately 120 frontiersmen and iron manufacturing tradesman, mostly from the British Isles, to establish an iron manufacturing plant there. Although it was unapproved, several took wives and families along. Originally called the Iron County Mission, the name of the enterprise was shortened by common usage to the Iron Mission.
This colony, under the direction of George A. Smith, departed Provo on 15 December 1850 and after a perilous winter journey arrived at the present site of Parowan, 250 miles distant, on 13 January 1851. Here they built a small fort and began farming operations needed to support themselves during the iron-manufacturing attempt.
Charcoal made from the extensive forests of cedar (Juniperus osteosperma) at the ore site at Iron Springs, twenty miles southwest of Parowan, was planned to fuel the blast furnace that was to be erected there. The work force was to commute from Parowan in organized shifts. Upon the discovery of coal in the Little Muddy Creek (now Coal Creek) nineteen miles south of Parowan, the blast furnace location site was changed to the mouth of Coal Creek, present-day Cedar City. Coal was mined six miles up the canyon and transported by wagon to the furnace located on the banks of the stream at the canyon mouth where the water for power was accessible. It was to be coked at the mine site later. The iron ore was to be transported from Iron Springs to the blast furnace by ox-drawn wagons. Limestone for the process was also abundantly available.
A small work force, recruited from Parowan, occupied the site on 11 November 1851. It was called Fort Cedar, Cedar Fort, and finally Cedar City. Once again, farming and survival took precedence over iron manufacturing. Newly arrived European immigrants were carefully screened in Salt Lake City and those with iron-making skills were strongly encouraged to move on to Cedar City to strengthen the settlement.
A small test furnace was erected during the summer of 1852 and some poor quality iron produced 29 September of that year. A small sample was rushed by special express to Salt Lake City where it served as proof that iron manufacturing in the Great Basin was an accomplished fact.
During the next six years many furnace test runs were made, with varying degrees of success. Many unforeseen problems developed, and the pig iron produced was mainly the product of experimentation in trying to solve them. The iron works were never fully operational in any commercial sense; although, on occasion, especially in 1853 and 1855, the blast furnace was operated on a short, sustained basis. On 8 October 1858 Brigham Young advised Isaac C. Haight, the director of the Deseret Iron Company, to shut the operation down. The assets of the company were gradually liquidated, culminating in a public auction of the remaining company equipment on 20 December 1861. Although all the elements for the successful establishment of an iron-making industry were present, the project failed in its basic objective: the making of pig iron and then making useful objects from it. The need and the desire were there. The basic ingredients for the blast furnace were present-abundant iron ore, fuel, water, limestone, and sand. A cadre of frontiersmen along with skillful and experienced iron workers from Europe and the United States were involved. However, there were also a number of major reasons that probably contributed strongly to the project’s failure.
The furnace and allied structures were too close to the banks of Coal Creek. The soil was too spongy to adequately support the weight of the works. Coal Creek flooded frequently, washing away diversion dams and/or inundating the entire operation, which was also too far from the ore body. The fire clay and sandstone used in the furnace lining, bosch, and hearth spauled, bubbled, and liquefied at temperatures lower than required in the smelting process. The power needed for furnace blast and related equipment came from a water wheel, with water supplied by mill races running directly from the stream bed. The water level in the creek fluctuated seasonably and with unpredictable flash floods. A steam engine acquired from Salt Lake City arrived too late to prove its value. Attempts to use both charcoal and coke (made from unsuitable coal), and the occasional use of “raw” coal and wood in the furnace, indicate that the riddle of inadequate and inappropriate fuel was difficult to solve.
An acute lack of circulating currency existed in the territory and little of it surfaced at the Deseret Iron Company. Laborers were credited on the company books for their services, against which they were to draw the necessities from the company store, which was also the church tithing office. Generally the labor credit exceeded the store inventory. Although there were some territorial and church cash appropriations, most of the help came in the form of labor tax assessments.
Weather in the area also was unpredictably bad and not conducive to sustained furnace operation. Snow, ice, drought, and grasshoppers had a deleterious effect. Extreme isolation, high marketing costs, and lack of personal and company supplies also impacted the problem.
The magnetite ore presented smelting problems for the English and Scottish iron workers which they tried to solve through on-the-job experimentation, although some hematite ore was found and easily reduced. The equipment and furnaces were mostly handmade.
Some management personnel had never seen a blast furnace, and some serious judgmental mistakes were made. The available management talent was also dissipated through many contiguous civic, political, and ecclesiastical offices. Top management jobs paid cash and were considerably higher paid than those of labor. Ethnic and cultural differences also created problems, fostering disunity. Personnel changes affected the efficiency of the operations. Church mission calls, defections, and excommunications took their toll of key personnel.
Hostile Indian actions caused constant concern and required individual and militia vigilance, interrupting the Iron Works. The Utah War was the last nail driven into the Deseret Iron Company coffin. Also, the Mountain Meadows Massacre in September 1857 could be considered the first armed skirmish of this affair. Over half of the Deseret Iron Company cadre were involved in it, including the leadership. This shattered the spirit of the enterprise. The strategic value of the iron works to an occupation force also may have been a factor in Brigham Young’s decision to close down the works.
Morris A. Shirts