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Forging a link to history

In a shuttered Gold Country factory, love of the past may help America's last water-powered foundry pour molten iron again.

August 08, 2007|Eric Bailey | Times Staff Writer

SUTTER CREEK, CALIF. — Off the bustling main street of this erstwhile Gold Rush boomtown, up a lane from the B&Bs and renovated brick storefronts and flocks of tourists, a bulky and aged factory looms like an elephant at a tea party, its windows cracked and its corrugated steel roof long ago overtaken by rust.

For better than a century, the industrial menagerie inside Samuel Knight's iron foundry stirred and shaped the community.

Back in the day, the mammoth blast furnace belched flame and spit out molten metal, its smokestack singing like a pipe organ. Built in 1872, the foundry predated electricity. Water piped from a Mother Lode flume spun old-fashioned turbines, the biggest nearly 4 feet across.

Balanced like a watch, a system of shafts and buffalo-hide drive belts transferred that locomotion throughout the factory, 60 different machines gyrating in a symphony of industry.

Knight Foundry is America's last water-powered 19th-century ironworks. Closed for the last decade, its machinery silent and its blast furnace moldering, it teetered toward demolition, the sad end for so many industrial heirlooms.

But a few folks, true believers in the faith and labor of pouring iron, are working hard to see Knight Foundry sing again. They yearn for the return of the old-time ironmaster. Russ Johnson might be the last of that line.

He landed a job at Knight Foundry toward the end of the run, back in 1989. Burly and bearded in his 20s then, Johnson had already dabbled in heavy construction, hanging Sheetrock and hefting concrete. He figured cast iron was a natural next step.

"The work just kept getting heavier," he says with a laugh.

His arrival came long after Knight Foundry had already become an industrial anachronism.

Small-town foundries were once as pervasive as potbellied stoves on the Sierra's west slope, transforming iron into things big and small: pickaxes and ore carts, cable car parts and fancy streetlight poles.

As other foundries faded away, an unbroken line of owners and employees at Knight kept finding jobs requiring specialization that the 20th century's big automated factories couldn't muster. "Onesies and twosies," Johnson called them -- reproductions of long-defunct Model A parts and ornamented pillars for the California statehouse. The sort of stuff, he said, that a modern foundry won't touch "unless it's an order for 10,000."

When Johnson slides open the big wood front door of the old foundry, remembrances of his first day still rattle the walls for him.

Men were swearing and sweating. Water-powered machinery hummed gleefully. Johnson loved it.

"I could cuss and get dirty and produce something that at the end of the day I know is going to last a long, long time," he said.

Cobwebs now hang from dark corners. Dust coats the rafters. Pigeon droppings speckle the floor. But gloves and tools rest waiting, suspended in time as if work stopped yesterday.

Johnson learned his craft from old-school workers, some in their 90s, who had manned the foundry for half a century. Retirees like molder Wendell Boitano and master patternmaker Ernie Malatesta often showed up as if they were still punching a clock.

While shooting the breeze, they passed along tricks of the trade -- the secrets of shaping a three-dimensional pattern out of sugar pine or mahogany, the delicate craft of creating a perfect mold and war stories about iron pours gone sweet or sour.

Such men were Johnson's link all the way back to Samuel Knight, the Gold Rush and the last days of the Wild West.

A ship's carpenter from Maine, Knight came west in 1863 with a head full of ideas. He took the hydraulic principles of the gold fields and applied them to industry, creating a new type of water turbine, the Knight Wheel. Dozens of curved cups at the wheel's edge tapped the high-pressure force of flowing water to produce enough horsepower for a whole factory.

His foundry manufactured much of the Mother Lode mining equipment. Soon, smaller versions of Knight's water wheel were powering industry and small appliances.

If he had been good at promoting his work, Knight might have been rich and famous. Instead, competitor Lester Allan Pelton grabbed history's limelight, perfecting an even better turbine.

Knight stayed at his Sutter Creek factory, running it for four decades.

Before his death in 1913, Knight willed the foundry to his employees, starting a practice of blue-collar inheritance that lasted generations.

That line of succession finally broke when the last of the employee-owners died in 1970. That was when Carl Borgh, an aerospace engineer from Southern California, came in to have some parts cast and ended up buying the factory. He vowed to run the foundry just as it had been run for a century.

Borgh also took on human rehabilitation. He often hired men who were down on their luck, assembling a devoted crew from a motley mix of guys who had trouble with the law, the bottle or both.

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