TRAVEL: Henry Clay Furnace adds touch of history to hike at Coopers Rock State Forest
On a recent trip to the Morgantown area, my wife and I drove to nearby Coopers Rock State Forest and hiked on one of the trails there called the Clay Run Trail.
The trail has nothing to do with clay or with running (although we were startled when a man and his dog ran past us).
Instead, at the end of the 1.6-mile path that’s marked with blue blazes, we found a massive, stone furnace built in the mid-1800s. It’s called the Henry Clay Furnace, and it’s on the National Register of Historic Places.
We knew the furnace was there, but we didn’t know how big and impressive it is. And we weren’t sure what it was used for.
Perhaps the summer heat was getting to us, but embarking on the hike, we somehow got the cockeyed notion that since it’s the “Henry Clay Furnace,” well, it must have something to do with firing pottery.
So very wrong, as we would discover.
The Clay Run Trail, according to a “Pocket Park Guide” we picked up in the gift shop, is rated as moderately difficult. It starts off flat and then starts descending gently into a valley where the big furnace is. The hard part, at least for me, was the hike back to the trailhead, which involves uphill sections.
I’m an older guy with a delicate back, so it was slow going for me. I think it would be an easy hike for younger, fitter folks.
We made the hike in late August, and the trail was full of grasshoppers determined to fly into our faces. Along the way, we spotted a variety of wildflowers, and there was a pretty stream next to portions of the trail.
We are inexperienced hikers, so the 1.6 miles to the furnace seemed, to us, like 5 miles. We also were slowed by rocky terrain in some spots, which meant that to avoid tripping, we kept our eyes on our feet and not on the forest scenery.
Sturdy hiking shoes or boots are needed, and, when we hiked it, there were some wet, muddy spots along the trail. A walking stick would not be a bad idea, either.
Midway down, we almost gave up and turned around. But we were determined to see this furnace that we thought had something to do with pottery. Maybe we could pluck some clay shards as souvenirs?
Once the trail flattened out again, we were deep in shaded woods, surrounded by lush vegetation and enveloped in silence. We heard no cars, barking dogs or lawn mower noise.
We crossed a couple of wooden foot bridges, and then we saw it -- the Henry Clay Furnace.
As we approached the 30-foot tall, pyramid-like stone structure, we saw panels set up next to it that explained its purpose and history.
It was our moment of clarity.
There were no busted clay pots from the 1800s strewn about, because this furnace, the first steam-powered blast furnace in what was then western Virginia, was built to produce “pig iron.”
We laughed at our stupidity.
Henry Clay, despite his name, did not, as far as we know, dabble in clay. I have, however, smoked a fine cigar branded “Henry Clay,” but I digress.
According to the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, Clay was born in 1777. He was a lawyer who represented Kentucky in both the United States Senate and House of Representatives.
He also served as Secretary of State under President John Quincy Adams. Clay ran for the presidency in 1824, 1832 and 1844, while also seeking his party’s nomination in 1840 and 1848. He also founded the Whig Party.
The West Virginia Encyclopedia (www.wvencyclopedia.org) has more information about the Henry Clay Furnace. According to an article written by Lee R. Maddex, Leonard Lamb erected the cut-stone furnace for Tassey, Morrison, and Company to supply pig iron to the nearby Jackson ironworks, an important regional ironworks.
The pig iron was sent to Jackson ironworks for conversion into wrought iron for use to make cut nails, while some iron was used to make cast-iron stoves. At the height of its operation, the furnace was surrounded by 100 log houses, a school, company store and church.
In 1970, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
I was unable to determine why the furnace is named the Henry Clay Furnace, but I assume it was to simply honor a well-known statesman of the period.
For a hike that includes beautiful woods, wildflowers and serenity -- with a bit of history thrown in -- the Clay Run Trail at Coopers Rock State Forest is an excellent choice.
Coopers Rock State Forest offers more than 40 miles of scenic trails of varying lengths and difficulty.
For more information, visit coopersrockstateforest.com or call 304-594-1561.