John Campbell came to the Hanging Rock area just outside of future site of Ironton in 1832 to work as a clerk. Campbell became involved with J. Riggs & Co. along with Andrew Ellison. Together they constructed several iron furnaces throughout Lawrence County. In the 1840s, Campbell assisted in the construction of iron furnaces in Greenup, Kentucky, Gallia, Madison, and Monroe Counties in Ohio. From 1845 to 1851 Campbell laid out plans for the city of Ironton. By 1851, Campbell constructed his home at 305 N. 5th Street, which still stands today. Campbell’s pig iron industry put Ironton on the map. Ironton became the largest producer of the specific type of iron before, during, and after the Civil War. However, beyond Campbell’s innovative business practices, he was a kind person to all people. Campbell used his house as a station on the Underground Rail Road. More notable was the network of men he worked with to conduct safe passage for runaway slaves.
On January 14, 1808, John Campbell was born into a farming family in Brown County, Ohio. But he did not come to this area until 1832. He arrived at Hanging Rock at the age of 24 with less than $1,000. From this small investment he became a very wealthy man and the founder of Ironton, Ohio.
Campbell began his road to success when he became the proprietor of Mount Vernon Furnace. At Mount Vernon he formed a partnership with Robert Hamilton and Mr. Andrew Ellison. He remained the superintendent at Mount Vernon from 1835 to 1846.
During this time, he married Elizabeth Caldwell Clark. They were married at the Pine Grove Furnace by Reverend Dan Young on March 16, 1837. Together they had seven children, Mary J., Martha, Emma, Clara, Albert, and Charles. One child died in infancy and was not listed by name.
In 1846, he and his family moved to Hanging Rock. It was during that year he proposed a new town above Hanging Rock. With James, O. Willard, John Peters, Dr. Caleb Briggs, and James W. Means he signed an agreement to found a new town. In June of 1849, the first lots of Ironton were sold and in 1850, he and his family moved to the new town.
However, Campbell almost left the region earlier in his life. One of his first jobs was as a superintendent then as a clerk at the Lawrence Furnace working for the J. Riggs & Co. He felt his employers did not appreciate him and was literally on the way out of town when Andrew Ellison stopped him.
Even though he had a rocky start, John Campbell went on to become an accomplished businessman. He worked in fourteen furnaces. Eight of which he contained an active interest in. He also helped build eleven furnaces, including: Greenup Furnace with Campbell, Peters, and Culbertson in 1844, Olive Furnace with John Peters in 1846, Gallia Furnace in 1847, Keystone Furnace in Jackson City in 1849, Howard Furnace in Scioto County in 1853, Washington Furnace with John Peters & Others in 1853, Madison Furnace in 1854, and Monroe Furnace in Jackson City in 1856. Monroe Furnace upon completion was the largest coal furnace in the region.
Furnaces were not the only businesses with which Mr. Campbell was associated. He was the prime stock holder and president of the Ohio Iron & Coal Company in 1849. In 1850, Campbell, Ellison & Co. built a stove foundry. Campbell founded the Iron Bank of Ironton in 1851. In 1853, he became the largest stock holder of Kentucky, Iron, Coal, and Manufacturing Company. Lastly, he was a stockholder in the erection of the Star Nail Mill, also known as Belfont Iron Works.
But there was another side to John Campbell. He had a humanitarian side. Campbell was a strong abolitionist which probably can be traced back to an early association with Reverend John Rankin. Campbell went on to help fugitive slaves and his house and one of his furnaces was a stop on the underground railroad.
On August 30, 1991, John Campbell’s life came to an end. According to his death record, he died from uremic poisoning, a condition resulting from advanced kidney failure. He was buried in Woodland Cemetery.