Archaeologists uncover remains of Pigeon Forge's origins

May. 17, 2013 @ 11:43 PM

A team of archaeologists from University of Tennessee and other agencies set up under the Old Mill General Store next to the Little Pigeon River Thursday to excavate remains of Iron Forge, the original forge for which the city was named.

Iron Forge, built in 1817, included a bloomery furnace and water-powered trip hammer to smelt and mold ore into iron bars.

"The forge was a small operation, a small forge," said Alan Longmire, a blacksmith and archaeologist in the environmental division of the Tennessee Department of Transportation. "There's iron ore all along the ridge up there by Middle Creek Road, and they would just bring that down here and put in the forge."

The dig team was looking for several different Iron Forge artifacts, including the furnace, hammer, water flume and water wheel. By 2 p.m., the team had made significant progress.

"We've been discovering, as we put things together, where the water wheel was, where the water drained out, how some of the pieces of wood we've found were related to the water wheel," said Elizabeth Kellar DeCorse, who led the UT Archaeological Research Laboratory Department of Anthropology team. "We found some sort of iron slag floor that we haven't quite figured out yet. There's more than what you see on the surface. There's a lot more information here that really needed to be documented."

Some of the artifacts were lying in plain sight. A large, mossy log with wooden spokes, resting in a shallow pool of water surrounded by rocks, was readily identified as the beam the original water wheel turned on.

DeCorse also thought they may have found the furnace, or at least where the furnace was located, as evidenced by the burnt soil.

"Color of soil is something we're always looking at as archaeologists. That told us there was something here," DeCorse said. "We're piecing it together, but with like half of the pieces missing."

The first part of the task was to identify where artifacts might be located and map the area.

"The weather is constantly changing what's left of the forge, so to document and get as much information as possible today was our purpose," DeCorse said.

At the end of the day, all the photographs, hand-drawn maps and gathered information would be taken back and assembled into a report.

"We're going to take all of our information back, put all of the computer data into a mapping system and map out what does remain here, and do a little more research and write a report that pieces all of this together," DeCorse said.

The team was only contracted by the Old Mill for the day, but DeCorse knows there is much more to find and wants to request funds, either from the state or elsewhere, for future excavation at the site.

"We've been talking about getting some kind of grant money to come back and do a lot more work with a lot more people," she said. "I mean, this is the beginning of Pigeon Forge right here. This is true history."

rhargett@themountainpress.com