On a remote hillside in Muhlenberg County, overgrown stone ruins are all that remain of an ambitious dream in the 1850s to produce and sell quality iron.
In 1855, Sir Robert Alexander, whose family made its fortune in the Scottish iron industry, decided to build an iron furnace along the banks of the Green River. Barry Duvall, a local historian, says that Alexander brought over 200 people and the steam engine from Scotland to build the iron furnace.
“In the meantime, he had people out at Paradise sawing lumber, building houses. And before long you had a full-blown town called Airdrie, Kentucky,” he said.
When it was completed, the iron furnace was the largest in the world. Hopes were high. All the ingredients for success were there: a rich supply of iron ore, an energy source in the form of the McClain Old Bank Coal Mine, and easy transportation via the Green River.
Building the furnace was one thing; running it was another.
“The process they tried to reproduce was not good for the iron ore they had in Muhlenberg County,” Duvall said.
Three attempts to run the furnace ended in failure. The first attempt blew out one of the boilers on the steam engine. A second attempt failed with an engine house accident. Alexander’s patience wore thin. He set a deadline, says Duvall: “‘If this thing isn’t running by this date, we’re quitting. That’s it.'”
On the third attempt they broke the shaft on the flywheel on the steam engine.
Alexander gave up. After spending over $300,000, he walked away from it all – the men, the ironworks, the town.
“I couldn’t imagine what the men must have felt, ” Duvall said. “You know, they left their homes and families in Scotland. They came here to work for Lord Alexander.”
Alexander set his sights on a new industry: Thoroughbred horses. He moved to Woodford County, where he established the enterprise that lives on today as Airdrie Stud.
As for Muhlenberg County, more coal found on the 20,000-acre site eventually helped make the county the world leader in coal production by the late 1960s and early 1970s.
All that remains of Lord Robert’s dream are the smokestack, the furnace, and numerous majestic archways. Friends of Airdrie Park is raising money to restore the furnace tower and the steam engine building.
Freddie Mohon, a supporter of Airdrie, hopes Old Airdrie becomes a park someday.
“It’s got so much history, and I see its future value to our county itself for people to come in and see … enjoy,” he said. “It is private property. But keep in mind, if we can all just be patient, two owners of the place have made it very clear that they’re willing to turn it into a public park. People want this. We just need to get it done.”
Local historian Jerry Durham looks forward to its restoration. “It would be nice if it could be eventually a state park,” he said.
Duvall says the old ironworks are one of a kind. “It’s huge, magnificent. I think it’s one of the most historic things I’ve ever seen.”
This segment is part of Kentucky Life episode #2009, which originally aired on February 7, 2015. Watch the full episode.