Bluff Furnace was Chattanooga’s first heavy industrial site. This blast furnace was built in the 1850s by ironmaster Robert Cravens. The furnace produced raw iron from local iron ore and was originally fueled with charcoal. In May 1860, it was converted to a coke fueled furnace—the first in the South. Coke is a modified form of coal that burns cleaner and more efficiently. The furnace was designed to operate nonstop with workers constantly loading ore, fuel, and flux, as well as tapping the finished product. The furnace only went into blast twice: the first run produced 500 tons of iron, and the second run ended in failure. In November 1860, the lining in the hearth gave way. Molten iron escaped and ruined the furnace as the iron chilled and solidified.
The hot blast machinery was dismantled and moved to Shelby, Alabama, by Confederate forces. During the Union occupation of Chattanooga, the furnace base was used as a lime kiln. Eventually the site was forgotten and was slowly buried under eroding soils.
In 1978 archaeologists with the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC) rediscovered the site and then fully excavated it in 1981. In 2010, UTC partnered with Mark Making, a local nonprofit dedicated to community-based public art, to create an artistic interpretation of the furnace’s processes, history, and place in Chattanooga’s industrial past in a way that visitors could understand and appreciate. A 50-foot high replica of the Bluff Furnace cupola sits directly on the site’s actual foundations. Vinyl covering over a stainless steel frame contains painted images and information relating to the site’s history and significance.