'Everything here started with the iron industry,' says LO's Susanna Campbell Kuo
by: Cliff Newell, Susanna Campbell Kuo of the Oswego Heritage Council shows off one of the new pieces of the “Oregon’s Iron Era” exhibit at the Oswego Heritage House.  Kuo served as curator of the exhibit. Below: The exhibit opened last October and new items were added following the Lake Oswego Festival of the Arts.

A small, booming industrial town, full of smoke and fire and producing iron for America's great industrial age of the late 19th century.

It is hard to think of Lake Oswego that way now, but that's the way it started, and that is why the Oswego Heritage House's exhibit, 'Oregon's Iron Era, 1865 to 1928,' is so important for presenting the heritage of this city.

'Everything here started with the iron industry,' said Susanna Campbell Kuo, a member of the Oswego Heritage Council, who organized the exhibit. 'It was Oregon's greatest industry and it shaped Lake Oswego. It laid out streets and neighborhoods. It drew settlers. It created the Lake Corporation.'

Opening in October of last year, 'Oregon's Iron Era' brings back the past with photos, models and artifacts of a time that is fascinating for history lovers.

n Firebricks imported from Scotland. Nondescript in appearance, they were built to withstand temperatures of up to 2800 degrees. 'Those furnaces were as hot as a volcano,' Kuo noted.

n Photographs by the great photographer Carlton E. Watkins. The superb detail and clarity in these photos of the iron works, now the site of George Rogers Park, not only show Watkins' remarkable talent but his sheer hard work in carting around the huge glass plates necessary for photography in the late 1800s.

n Horseshoes, spikes, cannonballs, iron-made toys, and a couple of ultra-heavy pig iron 'sows,' which were the raw materials of the fiery furnace.

n Pieces from the Ladd-Tilton Bank in Portland, almost a palace in ornate ironwork that can today only be appreciated in fragments and illustrations.

'Portland was like a mud city,' Kuo said. 'Thanks to the iron company, it gained some dignity. There was a huge transformation from Portland being a muddy frontier town.'

Besides all of the photos and art, there are the words (thus the exhibit's subtitle, 'In the Words of Oswego's Industrial Pioneers') of the iron men and women themselves - the tycoons and the workers - many of them veterans of the just-completed Civil War. Quotes were found to fit nearly every piece of the exhibit, either directly from the time or from reminiscences by the history makers.

'You can find out exactly how it felt to go into a mine and a lot more,' Kuo said.

The ugly side of the times is not ignored. The iron company imported 150 Chinese men, called 'Chinamen' in the vernacular of the day, who were illegally brought into the country from British Columbia. In a city of such small population, some people took harsh notice of their presence in 1867 and made a strongly worded protest to the company.

This was an early glimmering of the notorious 'Yellow Peril,' in which immigrant Asian workers were demonized by newspapers, politicians and other wrathful sources. But the Oregon Iron Company didn't back down and the 'Chinamen' stayed.

The exhibit just got better. Right after the Lake Oswego Festival of the Arts some new additions were brought in: Four panels showing archaeologists working at the site of the great furnace and plans for restoration; a model, split in two, of the furnace; more pieces of cast iron from the Ladd and Tilton Bank.

'For us in Lake Oswego, this is important because it was the most important part of our early history,' Kuo said. 'If we don't know about this, we don't know who we are.'

The exhibit pays much attention to the great stone furnace, the centerpiece of the whole industry here and now the object of a major restoration effort by the city of Lake Oswego and the Oswego Heritage Council. The project has already received around $200,000 in grants, but Kuo said that much more money would be needed for completion.

'I hope people will come to look at this,' Kuo said. 'We want to make them aware of our unique history.'

'Oregon's Iron Era' is now on display at the Oswego Heritage House, Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, call the Oswego Heritage Council at 503-635-6373.

Susanna Campbell Kuo is the photo editor of the book 'Iron, Wood and Water: An Illustrated History of Lake Oswego,' which is available for purchase at the Oswego Heritage House located at the intersection of Tenth Street and A Avenue.

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