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Park reopens with lesson in history

by: Susanna Kuo, Participants at the reopening of George Rogers Park read information about the historic iron smelter Saturday.

After five years of research and discussion, more than 200 residents attended the reopening of George Rogers Park Saturday.

At the confluence of the Willamette River with Oswego Creek is the 29-acre George Rogers Park.

The lower level is now equipped with a vine-covered gazebo entrance, several picnic tables and three barbecue pits built with the slag residue of the iron ore mined in the park's historic smelter.

At one point visitors could not see the river floating a few feet from the park due to overgrown flora but residents now have a place to overlook a sliver of the Willamette River. In place of the former vegetation is a bench lined with views and large rocks meant for roosting. A full staircase descends to an open shore along the Willamette River.

'It's this nice little secret down here,' said Kathy Kern, special event coordinator for the city's Parks and Recreation Department.

Also, the city put in handicapped access to the waterfront and a full staircase - so residents can reach the water to enjoy it.

Saturday, citizens filed through a breakfast line fit for an ironworker - with stacks of buttermilk pancakes, fresh berries and sizzling bacon from the Lake Oswego Farmer's Market - as a part of the festivities.

The park was named after George Rogers or George Rodriques, born in Madiera, Portugal in 1888, who worked with the city to preserve the smelter and develop the park.

Mayor Judie Hammerstad, who spoke to gathering revelers during opening ceremonies Saturday, acknowledged the park's latest stewards: Jim Figurski of Green Works, the architect who redesigned its lower level, and Heritage Research from Eugene, responsible for the archeological excavation of the smelter.

Hammerstad also thanked Susanna Kuo, a local historian who is a member of the Oswego Heritage Council, who spoke to crowds at the park's reopening.

Other than seeing the changes, the reopening gave residents a chance to read about the park's history and its smelter, a historical landmark that was the first iron furnace built on the West Coast.

Using a hand-built bisected diagram to educate citizens about the interior of the smelter, Kuo answered questions from the burgeoning crowd.

'What makes the furnace resistant to heat?' asked one voice from the crowd.

'Well, it is called ganister,' said Kuo about the interior layer of the foundry. 'It is ground and mixed with clay to make fire-clay.'

The stone furnace, its exterior made with local basalt and limestone, was operated between 1867 and 1885, pumping out 10 tons of iron a day.

At its inception, it was considered to be one of the finest pieces of masonry on the West Coast. Restoration of the smelter has been in the works since 2001. Archaeologists are currently probing the smelter's foundation and restoration plans and fundraising are expected to follow, with completion of the project now targeted for 2008.

Dave and Mary Park, long-time residents of Lake Oswego, were delighted to see the changes to the park and progress on the smelter's restoration.

'We live above Iron Mountain Trail,' said Dave. 'We've watched (the park) develop over the years and having Susanna tell us about this is just fabulous.'

This restoration effort was aided by a $100,000 'Save America's Treasures' grant from the National Parks Services. The state Preservation Office also recognized the city's efforts to support the Oswego Iron Works.

'They said it is unusual for a city to support a historic area so much,' said Kern. 'But the city recognizes the worth of this waterfront and will keep this land to ensure the quality of life of its community …

'Because when you have a venue like this, people will come.'