Forging a Future for the Oswego Iron Furnace

Posted on: February 7th, 2013 by Lauren Walser

The restored Oswego Iron Furnace. Credit: Susanna Campbell Kuo
The restored Oswego Iron Furnace.

For more than a century, the Oswego Iron Furnace stood near the Willamette River in Lake Oswego, Ore., a fading relic to the city’s origins.

From its perch behind a chain link fence, its stones were falling, its brick arches were collapsing, and the surrounding landscape was overgrown, with plants growing out of the structure.

“We were growing increasingly concerned that the whole thing could collapse,” says local historian Susanna Campbell Kuo and member of the advisory board of the Lake Oswego Preservation Society.

And in 2002, when the city unveiled its plans to redevelop George Rogers Park, Kuo and several other residents noticed that there were no comprehensive plans to preserve the 44-foot structure.So they began researching, diving into the furnace’s -- and the city’s -- history, in order to learn more.

Built in 1866, the Oswego Iron Furnace was the first blast furnace on the Pacific Coast and was Oregon’s largest manufacturing enterprise in the 19th century, producing pig iron for foundries in Portland and San Francisco. Using the abundance of iron deposits in the hills near town, the furnace helped to build much of the Pacific Northwest’s infrastructure, as seen in many of cast iron-fronted buildings in downtown Portland, Ore.

It closed permanently in 1885, when a new, and much larger, furnace was built nearby.

Senior Archaeologist Rick Minor and his associates Julie Ricks and Bob Wenger from Heritage Research Associates explore the site. Credit: Susanna Campbell Kuo
Senior Archaeologist Rick Minor and his associates Julie Ricks and Bob Wenger from Heritage Research Associates explore the site.

“The furnace connects to our identity in so many ways, but it had kind of evaporated from the collective memory,” Kuo says.

Kuo and former mayor Bill Gerber took their findings to the city in 2003, petitioning for its preservation as part of the park’s redevelopment. In response, the city formed two citizen task forces to research and develop a preservation plan.

As part of the Furnace Restoration Task Force, Kuo, along with former city project manager Jerry Knippel, traveled to Sharon, Conn., to study a recently restored furnace constructed by the same builder as the Oswego Iron Furnace. They consulted with furnace restoration experts, weighed various options for stabilizing the structure, and finally put together a comprehensive preservation plan. Archaeologists worked on-site the entire time, exploring the structure’s foundation and looking for surviving features around the furnace.

The entire research process took four years.

“Nobody could have foreseen how long this would take,” Kuo says.

Cameron Orvin rebuilding the Casting Arch. Historic brick from Portland’s Brewery Blocks was used for the visible surfaces. Credit: Susanna Campbell Kuo
Cameron Orvin rebuilding the Casting Arch. Historic brick from Portland’s Brewery Blocks was used for the visible surfaces.

But the efforts paid off. In October 2008, the city council awarded a contract to Pioneer Waterproofing Company, Inc., and restoration began in early 2009. The project also received a Save America’s Treasures grant.

Then the basalt stone was repaired and, where needed, replaced. The four brick arches were rebuilt and recessed iron gates were installed in each. Then the furnace underwent a major seismic stabilization. A kiosk with eight interpretive panels was created, with historic photos and illustrations explaining the process of smelting and casting iron.

“If you saw it today, and then you saw photos of it from 100 years ago, you would think it was the same thing,” says Jude Graham, executive director of the Oswego Heritage Council. “They did an absolutely magnificent job.”

The restored furnace, the only surviving stone furnace west of the Rocky Mountains, was dedicated in the summer of 2010 to great fanfare.

The arch before and after restoration. Credit: Susanna Campbell Kuo
The arch before and after restoration.

Its success inspired other preservation efforts in town, including the creation of the Oswego Iron Heritage Trail. Additionally, the city’s Chamber of Commerce incorporated the furnace into its logo.

And for the collective efforts of the city and the many volunteers, the National Trust for Historic Preservation awarded the restoration with a 2012 Preservation Honor Award.

“It’s a monument to the nineteenth century capitalists who invested in the dream of iron, the stonemasons who built it, and the industry’s role in shaping the town,” wrote Lake Oswego Preservation Society president Marylou Colver in her letter of recommendation for the award. “It will continue to stand as such a monument and, given the accompanying interpretative panels, it will continue to provide a learning opportunity for those who come after us.”

Co-recipients included Heritage Research Associates; Historic Furnace Restoration Task Force; Miller Consulting Engineers, Inc; and Pioneer Waterproofing, Inc.

“A lot of people put a lot of effort into this,” Kuo says.

Adds Graham, "They took something unsafe and turning to rubble, and they turned it into something that’s beautiful, for everyone to enjoy. … It really connected the town in spirit."

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Do you have a successful preservation project in your community you think deserves recognition? Nominate it for a National Preservation Award! Applications for this year's awards are due March 8, 2013.

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Lauren Walser

Lauren Walser

Lauren Walser is the Los Angeles-based Field Editor at Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about history, art, architecture, and public space.

Local Preservationists, Restoration