Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Mystery Hands and Tunnel at the Bourbon Furnace

The Bourbon Iron Furnace was the one of the earliest industrial facilities in what we know as Kentucky.  In fact, when it went into operation around 1791, the iron making facility was the first west of the Allegheny Mountains.  The facility looked much different than it does today; only the furnace stack remains.  At the time of it's operation, the Bourbon Iron Furnace smelting site had various structures around it used to house workers, store supplies and protect the site from Native American raiders.  The furnace remained a strong and steady operation, even producing cannon balls and shot for the United States Navy that were used at the Battle of New Orleans in 1812.  Operations at the site ceased in 1838 and all the structures, spare the famous stack, were dismantled. 
The faint trace of the hands in the furnace
One of the most curious things that is noticed about the furnace site is the handprints that are on an iron support beam. The handprints are not imprinted or recessed into the beam, but are brought outward in a relief feature; as if the hands were melted into the metal.  To see these mystery hands, you have to go into the bigger entrance of the furnace stack that faces Slate Creek.  About midway on the iron beam are the small hands pushing outward.  I have heard two tales of how these hands ended up in the metal.  One tale is that a slave was caught stealing and as punishment, his hands were burned into the hot metal while the furnace was in operation.  Another tale is that someone fell into the furnace and in an attempt to catch themselves, they reached up and touched the hot beam, melting their hands off.  We may never truly know how those hands were forever etched into the iron, but the victim was most unfortunate.

Thomas Deye Owings became sole owner of the Bourbon Iron Furnace in 1810, a year before Owingsville's establishment.  By 1814, Owings had built his residence a couple of miles north of the furnace in the heart of today's downtown Owingsville.  Elaborate galas were held at the Owings House and famous dignitaries graced the mansion at various times.  It is rumored that the whiskey that Owings provided at these events was distilled on the Bourbon Ironworks site, and to keep bandits or Natives from hijacking the distilled spirits, a tunnel system was built to connect the Owings House to the furnace. 
The tunnel entrance was allegedly in the basement of the Owings house in a discreet location, possibly via a secret door behind a fireplace or a trap door in the floor.  In the early 1980's, the Owings House was purchased by the Byron family.  I've spoken to Tom Byron, Jr. about the tunnels and he asserted he had never found a tunnel, but did find a small passage behind a mantle that led nowhere.  The construction for the tunnel would have been a daunting task for anyone to undertake, even in this modern age.  Owingsville sits high atop a ridge that us underlined with thick rock layers.  The distance to the furnace is a couple of miles at a gradual, steep grade, crossing a few small streams and old springs along the way.  The natural barrier that would have had to have been over  come was Slate Creek, which borders the ridges and valleys below Owingsville.  So far, no trace of such tunnel has ever been found along the banks of the creek.

One Winter day in 1998, I did some inspections on buildings in Owingsville as part of a firefighting pre-planning project.  Under the sidewalks and streets, there is a tunnel system that goes under North Court Street to Main Street.  I gained access to this tunnel system (with permission, of course) and was quite astounded at the subterranean world below our city.  These tunnels were used as a drain system I was told and we could look up at man holes and storm drains along the curbs.  We did find a staircase that led up to street level in front of the row of shops across from the Owings House, but no other access past that. 
These days, most of the tunnel system is off limits and inaccessible.  It is possible that over time, these old tunnels may have been the basis for the tale of the Bourbon Furnace tunnel; no one knows for sure entirely. For now, the furnace site holds the mysteries of the hands and tunnel, and is unlikely to reveal anything beyond what is speculated.

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