Hidden Corners of History - The Life and Times of the First Female Ironmaster


Jim Heald

The Ashland Beacon


   The city was bustling. Along the river, barges were lined up, either for unloading natural resources bound for the blast furnaces or pig iron to be loaded for shipping to national or international customers, including buyers in England, France, and Russia, where it was used in constructing warships. During this industrial boom, the owners and managers of the numerous furnaces built some rather lovely houses in Ironton, Ohio.

   Four newspapers were in operation, and several foreign-language newspapers could be found at the newsstands around town. It was home to the Detroit, Toledo, and Ironton Railway, and streetcars rode the Ironton Petersburg Street Railway.

   Ironton also had its vices, as the variety of workers needed their places to blow off steam if you will. The racetrack was thriving, and saloons and brothels operated alongside chapels that offered discreet services for marriage ceremonies best not listed in the society pages.

   This was the world that Catlettsburg native Nannie Scott Honshell was born into in September 1856. Her father, Captain Washington Honshell worked the river before helping start the White Collar Line in Cincinnati. As a result, she got to travel extensively during her youth.

   Somewhere in her travels, she crossed paths with Lindsey Kelly. Kelly was born in May 1842 on a farm near Hanging Rock. In 1863 he became the manager for the Center Furnace, a charcoal furnace in Ironton. He successfully ran for state senator and served four years beginning in 1877. The two married in October 1879 and a son, Lindsey Kelly, Jr.

   After the turn of the century, Nannie Kelly experienced the loss of her family. In their house on South Sixth Street, her husband died of pneumonia at age 61 in 1903. Her son, dealing with complications from rheumatism died in 1904 around the age of 20 at a sanitarium in Cincinnati.

   As a result, Kelly would become one of the richest women in the world, as well as the first female ironmaster, the owner and manager of a blast furnace. It was once said of her that the only person richer than her was Queen Victoria of England.

   Kelly was the owner/manager of the Center Furnace of Elizabeth Township, just north of Ironton, and became the director of Kelly Nail and Iron Company, a position she inherited from her husband. She made trips to Cincinnati to stay current on the markets and keep her companies profitable. She also bought out some of the other blast furnaces in the Ironton area, making her the first female ironmaster in the world.

   Kelly remarried in October 1906, this time to a Daniel Gregory Wright, a Philadelphia financier who was 21 years her junior. Also in that year, the Superior Portland Cement company paid her $100,000 for the Center Furnace.

   Her second marriage ended in 1919. Mr. Wright caused a bit of a shock to the area when he asked the court to grant him spousal support from his wife.

   It was said of her that she was a sharp, shrewd businesswoman. Kelly was open to her employees and servants to the point that no one working for her desired to join a union. If there was a problem, they could approach her and together they worked it over until it was solved.

   Kelly was a world traveler, going around the globe three to four times and making 14 trips overseas. On one trip she was introduced to King Edward VII of England. The dress she wore for that adventure is on display at a museum.

   In a small cup, she had a collection of small diamonds that helped sustain her financially after the Stock Market Crash of 1929. In her remaining years, she lived in the Frederick Hotel in Huntington, West Virginia, and later the Marting Hotel in Ironton, where she celebrated her 90th birthday. She died in December 1946.

   More information about Nannie Kelly Wright can be found at www.lawrencecountyohio.com.