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History will live on

Funding approval assures future of Oswego Furnace
by: VERN UYETAKE, MAIN FURNACE PHOTO COURTESY OF JERRY KNIPPEL

The original Oregon Iron Company sign from 1866.

The historic Oswego Furnace has been sitting at Lake Oswego's George Rogers Park for a long time.

Thanks to approval of a renovation funding project by the Lake Oswego City Council, it will be around much, much longer.

On Nov. 4 the council approved funding in the amount of $830,785 and awarded a bid to Pioneer Waterproofing.

'I'm very excited about this,' said Jerry Knippel, director of special projects for the city of Lake Oswego, who has been working on the furnace project since 2002. 'The furnace, in my mind, is the best remaining remnant of our iron heritage.'

For historic preservation activist Susanna Kuo, who has been an advocate for the project since 2003, the funding approval is truly a milestone.

'The furnace has been such an influential force in shaping our history, at least until the mid 20th century,' Kuo said. 'It is the oldest industrial monument in the state. It's a material reminder of our roots here as an industrial community in the wilderness.'

Built in 1865, the Oswego Furnace has stood as a remarkable reminder to the earliest days of this city, even though its smokestack has remained silent for over a century.

''Unique' is a word that really applies in this case,' Kuo said

However, not everyone liked the great relic. In fact, in 1965 four dynamite charges were planted in each of the four corners of its interior.

'Someone wanted it gone,' Knippel noted.

However, the four charges were only enough to shake up the interior, and with the renovation the furnace will look better than it has in decades.

'They're going to replace the chink stones and mortar,' Knippel said. 'The bricks in the arches will be replaced. Since the furnace is on the National Historic Register, the standards for renovating it are strict.'

'This is an effort at stabilizing and preserving,' Kuo said. 'It is not a restoration in the full sense of the word. Not only would that be much more expensive, but it would cover up the historic structure.'

Another key improvement: 'It's going to be seismically stable,' Knippel said. 'They're going to drill from the top down to the foundation on each of the four corners.'

Knippel is confident that everything about the furnace will turn out as planned, since Pioneer Waterproofing is one of the outstanding companies in its field. Its high-profile restoration projects include Crater Lake Lodge, Vista House, the Portland Art Museum, and Portland City Hall.

Knippel said that work is expected to start in January of 2009 when workers will 'wrap the entire structure in plastic.' The project is expected to take six or seven months to complete.

Once it is finished, several other additions are planned - an interpretive area and a memorial garden in memory of Bill Gerber. Knippel said it was Gerber, a former mayor of Lake Oswego, who inspired the renovation project in 2004 by approaching the city council with the idea for the effort. The result was the Historic Furnace Task Force.

Things proceeded slowly for a while. Funding was initially not approved, which Knippel said 'was a blessing in disguise because the restoration techniques available then were not appropriate to the furnace.'

A crucial development came in 2004, when Kuo and Knippel went on a 'whirlwind tour' in Connecticut to collect information on 11 historic furnaces. This led to the plan by Miller Engineering for Lake Oswego's historic furnace.

'Because of the tour we didn't have to re-invent the wheel, so to speak,' Kuo said. 'We saw techniques that had worked.'

With the renovation on the horizon next year, historic preservation in Lake Oswego appears to be most promising. The Oswego Heritage Council and the Historic Resource Advisory Board are planning to make the furnace the foundation of walking tour of this city's history as an iron-making center.

There is another good reason to celebrate the Oswego Furnace's renovation.

'It's going to be ready in time for Lake Oswego's centennial in 2010,' Knippel said.