200th birthday of Ironton founder

Published 12:00 am Monday, January 14, 2008

It’s a date the rest of the state may not get excited about. But every Ironton school child ought to know today is the 200th birthday of the Ironton’s founder — John Campbell.

While there’s no known party going on, Campbell left southern Ohio a significant legacy that is worth celebrating.

Both an industrialist and an abolitionist, Campbell was born in Georgetown in Brown County, about 35 miles east of Cincinnati. Seeking adventure Campbell took his life savings of $600 and bought a part interest in an Ohio River steamer company.

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Through his travels up and down the waterway, he met Robert Hamilton, who had opened up the iron furnace industry around Hanging Rock. That introduction to the booming pig iron industry was all it took to bring out Campbell’s entrepreneurial skills.

Teaming up with other investors or on his own, Campbell built the Mt Vernon, Greenup, Olive, Madison and Monroe furnaces in the area. These were among the ones that turned the area into an international pig iron supplier.

In the early days of the boom, furnace owners relied on teams of oxen to haul the pig iron from the furnaces throughout the countryside to barges on the river. Campbell felt there must be a more efficient way.

“All these

men were competitors in business, but they needed a railroad,” Virginia Bryant of the Lawrence County Historical Society, said. “They were bringing it in by ox cart. They had to find a way to get that iron ore to the river. Twenty-four men including Campbell went together to form the Ohio Iron and Coal Co. Its main purpose was to build a railroad from Elizabeth Township in.”

Originally the line was called the Iron Railroad and later became the DT&I, whose tracks once ran down Railroad Street.

“They were smart enough to know wherever the railroad met the river, there would be a community to spring up,” Bryant said.

Campbell and others agreed to buy the farm land where Ironton now stands from

W.D. Kelly. In June 1849 the first lots of the newly platted town were sold.

But founding the city was only one of Campbell’s accomplishments. He was also a staunch abolitionist, as were many of the furnace masters.

Bryant tells that Campbell had a barn close to where the downtown First Presbyterian Church is today. There, a number of African-Americans who worked for Campbell helped run the Lawrence County portion of the Underground Railroad that offered a passageway to freedom for escaping slaves.

“He could have been imprisoned,” Bryant said.

The new Iron Railroad was also pulled into duty as iron carts with false bottoms often ferried slaves from the river to the next underground stop.

“They would put the fugitives in and cover them up with blankets and get them to the Jackson County line,” Bryant said.

Campbell died in 1891 at the age of 83. His funeral was one of the largest in its day. His body lay in the large parlor at his home at Fifth and Lawrence streets and then was conveyed to Woodland Cemetery in a cortege of more than 60 carriages.

A newspaper account recalled, “People congregated in throngs, testifying to the universal respect for which he was held. The attendance included everybody, of all beliefs, colors, conditions, the rich and poor, the old and young.

“Never was there such a funeral in this town.”