Happy Birthday Ironton

A Look Back at How Ironton Was Named

Written By: Nicole Cox

In the early 1840’s Ironton didn’t exist. The area consisted of tracts of farm land but out in the county there were already 11 iron furnaces (UnionPine GroveEtnaVesuviusBuckhornVernonHeclaLawrenceLa GrangeCenter and Olive). Iron was transported by oxen to Hanging Rock where it was put on boats on the river. But carrying heavy pig iron on wagons over the rough, hilly terrain was time consuming and many times the boats had to sit and wait.

A young and industrious iron master named John Campbell suggested building a railroad to replace the oxen. His friend and business partner, Robert Hamilton, agreed. But they could not agree on where to put this proposed railroad.

After several heated discussions, Mr. Campbell disregarded Hanging Rock and moved up river to the site which would become Ironton. On March 23, 1849, he and several associates formed the Ohio Iron and Coal Company, whose principal purpose was to build the Iron Railroad. They got to work buying the farm land, surveying the property, and laying out the town built around the terminus of the railroad.


Earliest known photo of the Iron Railroad showing the “Essex,” built in 1837 and was delivered to Ironton via a river barge

John Campbell and fellow ironmaster William D. Kelly gave more time to the paper work in organizing the new town than did others, and their office, Campbell, Ellison and Company at Hanging Rock, was the headquarters of the new company. Charles Campbell, son of the founder, told the story almost 50 years after the town was founded, that his father had several times stated that in naming the new town he wished to include the name “iron” but did not want a two word name like Hanging Rock.

It was in February 1901 when George T. Walton wrote from Burden, Kansas, to an Ironton newspaper and gave the following information: “After my father, Thomas Walton, made a topographic survey of the lands above Storms Creek, under the direction of John Campbell, William D. Kelly and others, I made a rough plat of grounds; there was a meeting of the directors of the town company called to meet at the office. There were present John Campbell, W. D. Kelly, Dr. Briggs and the other members, and I had a plat that I had drawn. The general plat was accepted, subject to modifications, upon actual measurement of the grounds.

“The naming of the town was then discussed, pro and con and a number of names were suggested. I sat listening and conjuring up names. They wanted a name, one that would suggest business of the new city to be. I thought, as the original of my family name was Wall-Town, why not write the city Iron Town, abbreviated as my name, to Ironton. I wrote the name on a piece of paper and handed it to John Campbell. He jumped up as quick as thought and said in his emphatic manner, “That’s it, George; that is the name — Ironton… Write it on the map, George!”

“No vote was taken, or question put… I suppose right there, at the office of Campbell, Ellison & Co., the first time that word was ever written, I wrote it.”

Land grant given to John Campbell from the US Government, taken from the 1949 Centennial edition of the Ironton Tribune. This certificate was granted from the now defunct General Land Office at Chillicothe, Ohio.

Ironton has enjoyed 168 years of prosperous industry and still utilizes the same resources now as in the beginning. Many of the original homes still stand as well as relics of the iron furnace industry. An abundance of artifacts of Ironton’s history can be found at the Lawrence County Museum at 506 South 6th Street. The Museum opens for the season on Sunday, April 2nd at 1:00 p.m.

Nicole Cox is a trustee for the Lawrence County Museum and Historical Society and owner of LawrenceCountyOhio.com