Ironton can learn to market past from southern city

Published 12:00 am Thursday, December 8, 2005

Ironton’s past is filled with interesting characters, many of whom lived lavish lifestyles. Ironmasters Nannie Kelly Wright and city founder John Campbell were known for lavish parties, decadent furnishings and 1800s splendor.

I always envisioned the homes of these people to be virtual mansions at the time they were built. They probably were, too, but I recently saw something that dwarfed even my wildest dreams of Victorian-era furnishings.

Perched atop a sprawling mountain in 8,000 acres of lush North Carolina forest, the lesson in decadence that is simply known as the Biltmore stands as a testament to that era and the lifestyle that some of the nation’s elite must have lived.

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Even to my eyes and male sensibilities, the Biltmore is breathtaking in its size, beauty and the fact that it was built over a five-year period in the early 1890s. Though John Campbell’s Ironton home that is now the CAO office is still impressive, it would likely be swallowed by the Biltmore’s stables alone.

Still considered the largest private residence in America, the 250-room castle was built by George W. Vanderbilt. The family made their money in the railroad and shipping industry around the time period that Lawrence County’s iron industry was waning. And Mr. Vanderbilt was not above sinking that hard-earned family fortune into his new home.

The four-story home has more than 60 fireplaces, a bowling alley, an indoor swimming pool and much more. It included some of Thomas Edison’s first light bulbs, a fire alarm system, an electrical call box system for servants, two elevators, elaborate indoor plumbing for more than 30 bathrooms — when most houses didn’t even have one — and the ingenious new invention called the telephone.

But perhaps the most intriguing part was the way the Vanderbilt family has preserved the interior and done its best to recreate the past. The home still includes many of the famous works of art, thousands of George Vanderbilt’s books and countless furnishings. A chess set owned by Napoleon still sits with pieces waiting to be played.

Though Ironton may not have anything quite to the level of the Biltmore, we can learn much from this appreciation and marketing of the past.

The Lawrence County Historical Society has already done this to a small scale with the museum but these men and women who volunteer need the community’s help. County leaders must help market this attraction and develop other historic tourist attractions.

The Jail Restoration Committee is also making good strides by focusing on creating an Underground Railroad museum in Burlington.

All these are great but there remains much untapped potential. What about an iron furnace museum, an actual railroad museum or, a newly proposed idea, a high school football hall of fame or museum.

We may never have a Biltmore to market but we do have more that has been built to market. Maybe we can learn from our southern neighbors.

Michael Caldwell is managing editor of The Ironton Tribune. To reach him, call (740) 532-1445 ext. 24 or by e-mail at