The furnace that gives this ghost town its name stands silently now, what’s left of it soaring above the grassy indentation that was once its millrace.
Furnace Town, located near the southern tip of Maryland’s Eastern Shore (and about 30 miles from Ocean City), is green, shaded by lofty loblolly pines. Birds sing in the branches and a cool breeze carries the scent of spring flowers.
So it’s hard to imagine this brick furnace, filled with local iron ore and oyster shells, roaring at temperatures of 4,000 degrees. The area stripped of trees. Houses and shops bustling with the 300 or so residents who lived here.
The Nassawango furnace gave the town its purpose. Built on the site of an old mill, the furnace operated from the 1830s to 1850. It ran continuously, consuming bog ore from the Nassawango Creek by the ton. The unrefined “pig iron” was transferred to boats and sent to Baltimore and Philadelphia for further processing. Once the furnace was shut down for good, there was very little to keep the town’s citizens and it became a ghost town.
And yet, the town comes to life on Sundays and during special events — with a broom maker, blacksmith, weaver who come to remind visitors that this was once a real place. Little of the original town remains but small historic buildings from other parts of Worcester County have been moved here. The broom house used to house strawberry pickers before serving as a place to make brooms. There was a broom in mid-construction and I wished for the broom maker to be there to show how that bundle of grasses would become a full-grown broom. Charts on the wall do a good job explaining the steps.
A weaver was creating a delicate purple shawl on the Sunday of our visit. I watched as she threaded the nubby wool into place, not on a loom but on a frame similar to the potholder frame I used as a little kid. (Anyone remember those?)
This shawl, like others she has made, are for sale in the shop — and like other artisans, she takes custom orders, too.
A large blacksmith shop has room for lectures or demonstrations — but it was quiet during our visit. No matter. We were delighted to walk through and amused by the wonderful iron sculptures guarding the place outside.
A former church now houses the park’s museum. A model helps explain how the furnace operated and there are plenty of archaeological treasures and stuffed local fauna to interest the truly curious.
In addition to the historical sites, visitors can walk through the Nature Conservancy’s swamp forest trail adjacent to the town, walk through the gardens or shop in the little store at the entrance.
Bring your imagination. It’s hard to believe this bucolic space was once home to 19th century heavy industry. A pleasant, informative way to spend a Sunday afternoon.
It opens for school groups and special occasions. And you can stop by on Sundays 1-5 p.m. during the warmer months.
© Text and photos Mary K. Tilghman