The land on which Bernheim is located has a deep and lasting interconnection with the local iron industry of the 19th century. Iron smelting, like salt production, was a major industry in this area and was a primary factor in its deforestation. Its legacy continues to be felt throughout the arboretum and forest.
The local iron industry centered around two iron furnaces in Bullitt County used for the production of pig iron. Pig iron derives its name from the appearance of the molten iron which flowed from the furnace into a large pool and was then diverted into several smaller pools for easier handling and transportation. The resulting iron was said to resemble a sow with a litter of suckling piglets. The first furnace in this area was the Salt River Cold-blast Furnace, located just a few miles south of Shepherdsville. It was followed by the Belmont Hot-blast Furnace located east of the town of Belmont. Both furnaces were less than two miles west of Bernheim. The construction and operating dates for these furnaces are not firmly established but both operated in the first half of the 1800’s and were out of operation by the end of the 1860’s.
These furnaces had a great impact on the area. The iron ore was obtained from the upper slopes of the knobs of eastern Bullitt County and of Nelson County. Much of that land is now part of Bernheim Forest. The furnaces also required locally quarried limestone both for their construction and as a necessary element in their daily operation. Like the salt furnaces in the area, the iron furnaces also needed a great quantity of fuel. Workers at the furnaces cut down trees throughout the area and converted it to charcoal. When burned, the charcoal produced the high temperatures smelting required. It is estimated that each of the furnaces required an acre of trees to be cut each day to produce this charcoal. Together, the operations of the salt and iron industries resulted in the nearly complete deforestation of our area.
Today, other echoes of this industry are still with us. The Cull Hollow area of Bernheim was named for the rocks which were rejected (“culled”) for not being rich enough in iron to be worth hauling to the furnaces. (Guerrilla Hollow Loop trail also goes near numerous piles of culled rocks). Iron Ore Hill Loop trail’s name reflects the pivotal role that Bernheim land played in the iron furnace operations. In addition, when the Salt River Furnace was dismantled after it went out of operation, the large limestone blocks it was constructed from were reused. They were first used to construct a bridge over the Salt River. Later, when that bridge was replaced, the blocks were recycled once again and were used to build the Sunset Amphitheater and the Silo Stage, both at Bernheim. It is our good fortune that the scars produced by this industry have faded and no longer detract from the great natural beauty of Bernheim.
A large part of the information on the local iron industry comes from excellent work done by the Bullitt County History Museum in Shepherdsville which has my gratitude for their cooperation.
–Ken Johnson, Volunteer Naturalist