Nannie Kelly Wright (1856-1946) was probably the only woman ironmaster in America’s history. Wright was the daughter of the famous riverboat commodore Washington Honshell, who helped form Cincinnati’s White Collar packet line. She was said to be the second richest woman in the world during the early 1900’s.
Wright hadn’t set out to become an ironmaster; she married into the business. In 1879 she wed Lindsey Kelly, who was serving one of two terms as an Ohio representative. His father, William Dollarhide Kelly, was an ironmaster, banker and farmer. In 1842, the elder Kelly had leased Etna Furnace, and in 1851, the Lagrange Furnace. By 1849, W.D. owned the land that is now owned by the Ohio Iron and Coal Company, and the Ironton railroad. In 1862 W.D. bought a five-year lease on the Centre Furnace at Superior, OH, and Lindsey took over its management the following year.
By 1891, Centre Furnace and the other Kelly holdings in real estate and finance were in distress. From 1894 to 1897 the iron industry in this country was practically at a standstill and stocks were worth about 15 to 20 cents on the dollar. Buyers at that price were scarce. Centre Furnace went into receivership.
Nannie Wright, a close observer of political and financial affairs, reasoned an upward trend was due. She paid the taxes and in 1899, using her own money, she bid on the furnace and 12,000 surrounding acres at auction, for $19,950.
Wright learned the iron business, renovated the furnace and the company houses provided for the employees, and began hiring workers when many were out of work. She conducted regular property inspections and made regular weekly trips to Cincinnati. Many times she would go down to the furnace and work along side the men. It was often rumored that when she worked down at the furnace, she dressed as a male (she denied this). Centre Furnace was one of the first companies to produce and ship iron by rail during the Spanish American War.
Wright’s business interests revolved around Centre Furnace and the Kelly Nail & Iron Co. of Ironton. She served as director of the latter institution for years and was also financially interested in the Belfont Iron Works, Ironton Engine Co., and Ironton, Huntington, Cincinnati and Catlettsburg banks.
Nannie and Lindsey had only one child, a son named Lindsey. The younger Lindsey had rheumatism, and as a child had spent time in Texas hoping for some sort of relief. He died in Cincinnati in 1904, only 20 years old. Lindsey had died the year before. The distraught widow began to travel frequently, and left the iron business in other hands for awhile.
She set out on her first world tour in 1898, took another in 1906 and a third in 1913. In all she crossed the Atlantic 14 times in years when it was the unusual rather than the ordinary. In London she was presented to the Court of St. James during the reign of Edward VII.
In 1906 Wright sold Centre Furnace to the Superior Portland Cement Co. In 1908, Nannie, age 55, married D. Gregory Wright, age 34. They divorced in 1919. During these years, Wright kept her stocks in Centre Furnace and other family holdings, but in 1923 she decided to sell many of them. She invested the profits but lost her home and most of her wealth in the stock market crash of 1929.
Despite such great losses, Wright was able to lead a comfortable life. She moved into the Marting Hotel in Ironton and by selling off such personal assets as jewelry and art managed to support herself until her death on September 12, 1946.
sources: Profiles of Ohio Women, 1803-2003, by Jacqueline Jones Royster, Ohio University Press, 2003
Nannie Kelly Wright, compiled and edited by Virginia S. Bryant, Lawrence County Historical Society, 1989