Three years ago, a group of about 75 people gathered near the border of Lee and Chatham counties to tour and learn about the future of the mammoth Civil War-era gem located there. Back in 2014, that future was promising. The Endor Iron Furnace — a 153-year-old, 40-foot-tall stone structure used to melt pig iron to make weapons and other supplies for Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army — would be restored thanks to painstaking record-keeping and preservation by state engineers and would one day become the centerpiece of a state park, attracting history buffs, hikers, nature lovers and Deep River kayakers alike.
That dream will remain a dream for the foreseeable future, as fundraising to fully restore the furnace has all but stopped, and hopes that the project could find its way into an ever-tightening state budget are nil.
That’s not to say there isn’t hope. In the five years leading up to that 2014 gathering, Sanford’s Railroad House Historical Association led the way in raising more than $300,000 to restore the furnace, which was literally crumbling after a century of neglect. The organization, which worked closely with the Triangle Land Conservancy and the Department of Cultural Resources, estimated it needed $2 million to fully restore the site. What the $300,000 allowed them to do was deconstruct the unstable parts of the furnace, marking and taking away the loose stones and securing them off site.
“Cultural Resources contracted with Progressive Contractors to carry out the project, and they successfully removed the stones from the upper portion of the furnace, down to the arches,” said Jimmy Randolph, who helped lead the fundraising efforts. “As far as I know, all of the privately raised funds were expended on this effort, and that is where we stand now.”
The Endor Iron Furnace remains an unknown to many living in Lee and Chatham counties, likely because it’s hard as hell to get to. It’s accessible only by an unmarked paved road that dead-ends into a private drive. After that, it’s a mile on gravel and another quarter mile on a dirt trail. Or you can kayak right up to it on the Deep River.
The paved road was only recently named for one of the iron furnace’s strongest supporters — the late Worth Pickard, former president of the Railroad House. Pickard visited the Cornwall Iron Furnace in Pennsylvania before the 2014 event and studied how that state turned its Civil War relic into a tourist attraction, complete with a park and museum.
“I was there for two hours on a Saturday morning, and I counted several cars out there, all of them with license plates from outside of Pennsylvania,” Pickard told the crowd at Endor. “I talked to the curator, and he told me about how they raised holy hell to get the state to spend money on a little ol’ furnace. But they did, and it’s paid off many, many times over.
“That’s where tourism starts,” Pickard said from his golf cart, breathing tube under his nose and oxygen tank at his side. “I mean, look at it. It’s gorgeous out here. This could be one of the finest parks you’ve ever seen.”
Pickard’s dream is now a longshot, but it’s not completely gone, says Woody Seymour.
“It will take state funding and large contributions to finish the job,” he said. “We’ve done all we could, and [the Railroad House] just isn’t set up to raise over a million dollars. I just hope I live long enough to see it fully restored.”
The greenway that bears the Endor Iron Furnace name did receive good news this week. Monday night, the Sanford City Council discussed the future of the 1.5-mile trail that runs along U.S. 1, and mulled the idea of issuing new bonds in February 2018 to expand the trail.
According to City Councilman Sam Gaskins, the expansion plans will connect the greenway at Kiwanis Park on Wicker Street to the YMCA and Central Carolina Hospital, then on to Horner Boulevard (along Wicker) and along the creek from the King Roofing building to Sanford City Hall. How much of this can be done will depend on costs and potential grants that could be leveraged from the bond issuance, Gaskins said.
There are no plans for the other end of the greenway — where it ends behind the old Lee-Moore Capital building — because of the uncertainty with the Endor Iron Furnace. Initial plans had the greenway running all the way do the furnace, ending at the potential state park.