Perhaps Ironton is best known for its Memorial Day Parade, the oldest, continuously held Memorial Day Parade in the Country. Ironton was formed in 1849 and became the county seat of Lawrence County in 1851. With a name like Ironton, it's not hard to guess the main industry in town. It was in fact pig iron, which was common to many areas of southeast Ohio. In fact, Ironton was the world leader in pig iron manufacturing for more than a half century.
Today, Ironton is rich in its history and is one of only a handful of small southeastern Ohio towns that is seeing their population increasing over the last several years.
Located near the southern tip of Ohio in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, it is possible from the right viewing location to see 3 states: Kentucky, West virginia and of course Ohio. Just north of Ironton is the Wayne National Forest which is almost a quarter million acres in size and stretches across 12 Ohio Counties. Ironton is a community with great pride.
In 1868 the Grand Army of the Republic established May 30 as Decoration Day to commemorate soldiers who died during the Civil War. That was when Ironton had their first parade.
Over time, Decoration Day was changed to Memorial Day and the date was changed to the last Monday of May. Although the name and date of the day of honor has changed, Ironton has continuously held that day special as a day of memorial and honor to America's fighting men and women, making their parade the oldest continuous Memorial Day Parade in the Country.
Ironton and Lawrence County have a long association with America's military. Lawrence County, which was formed in 1816, was named for James Lawrence, a naval hero who commanded the USS Chesapeake. It was Lawrence's dying command during a naval conflict against the British ship HMS Shannon that is still remembered today: "Don't give up the ship!" In honor of Lawrence's bravery, Commodore Perry had a flag sewn that he flew on his flag ship in the Battle of Lake Erie later that year, that said "Don't give up the ship!"
A relatively new tradition held in Ironton is the "Ironton Rally on the River" held in late August. This motorcycle rally is a 4-day festival of music, bikes, events and fun that include a car show, bike show, beer gardens, bands, and lots of vendors,
John Campbell who came from Ripley Ohio, developed the hot blast iron furnace that revolutionized the iron industry in the mid 1800s. He purchased a large track of land near what was called Hanging Rock where a number of iron furnaces had been creating pig iron for a number of years. But it was Campbell's "hot blast" iron furnace that revolutionized the iron industry in the mid 1800s. Along the southern edge of his tract of land, on the Ohio River. As John Campbell was making plans for this new venture, he spoke with a geologist (Dr. Caleb Briggs) who had surveyed the area back in 1838. When Campbell mentioned that he was going to build a town in the area, Dr. Briggs suggested the name Iron-Town. But Campbell objected to the length of the word and decided on the shorter version Ironton.
Within 3 years, Campbell had constructed a short railroad that extended about 3 miles back into the Hanging Rock region. With the completion of this railroad, he was then able to transport the iron ore down to his furnaces located along the river. At the time, it was obvious that Ironton would become an important industrial center and so it was decided to move the county seat from Burlington to Ironton in 1851 where it has remained.
It was at Ironton that John Campbell built his Big Etnas Blast Furnace, the largest in the world. Campbell's hot blast furnaces helped produce the world's need for quality iron in the later half of the 19th Century. During the Civil War, besides the railroad cars, this furnace also produced heavy cast iron cannons. After the war years, the furnaces and foundries produced iron for the warships of England, France and Russia. A railroad was built that shipped Ironton's iron to Detroit where it was used by Henry Ford during his early car manufacturing. At the peak of iron production in Lawrence County, there were 23 blast furnaces operating.
Over the years technology changed for iron, making the once high-quality iron produced here, not as desirable. The once easily accessible iron ore found in the Hanging Rock area, had pretty much been depleted and the iron ore began to give out and the big furnaces closed down.
John Campbell (1818-1891), founder of Ironton, was an iron master and president of the Ohio Iron & Coal Company, a Presbyterian, and an abolitionist.
Campbell's house and barn, which he built in 1850, became a stop on the Underground Railroad for slaves crossing the Ohio River from Kentucky. Fugitives were concealed here and furnace wagons transported the escapees northward by way of Campbell's furnaces in Lawrence and Jackson counties.