|The first iron smelting operation on the Pacific Coast was established in 1865 in Oswego, Oregon, a small village on the west bank of the Willamette River 8 miles south of Portland. The Oswego iron works operated intermittently from 1867 to 1885 under the ownership of three different companies: the Oregon Iron Company (1865–1877), the Oswego Iron Company (1877–1882), and the Oregon Iron and Steel Company (1882–1885). The blast furnace was the centerpiece of an industry that eventually employed more than 600 workers, owned 24,000 acres of timber, two mines, railroads, two town-sites, workers’ housing, barns, stores, and a cemetery (Hergert 1948:6; The Oregonian 1891).
The discovery of iron near Oswego in 1861 excited hopes that the West Coast could end its dependence on imported iron. In 1864 Oregon paid $19,740 in import duties on iron shipped 14,000 miles around the Horn (Hergert 1948:3). Western foundries struggled to meet the demand for iron and steel products in the rapidly growing region. The establishment of an iron works in Oregon was hailed as “one of the most important and useful enterprises that has yet been undertaken … on the Pacific Coast” (San Francisco Bulletin 1866).
On February 24, 1865, the Oregon Iron Company was incorporated by a group of Portland merchants whose investments in shipping and railroads, banking and real estate, and gas and water systems shaped the future of Portland as the cultural and commercial center of Oregon. Banker William S. Ladd was elected president of the company, H. C. Leonard, Vice-president, and Henry D. Green, Secretary (Hergert 1948:3). Controlling the means of iron production was part of their vision for a commercial empire in the Pacific Northwest.
The first pig iron was cast on August 24, 1867. Two weeks later, 50 tons of pig iron were shipped to San Francisco (Hergert 1948:5).
Despite this auspicious start, the company soon encountered difficulties. The furnace was fueled by charcoal and charcoal production was very labor intensive. In sparsely populated Oregon, where labor was expensive, charcoal was one of the company’s biggest expenses.
Competition from cheaper eastern iron and a dispute over water rights brought operations to a halt in 1869. Operations resumed in 1874 under new ownership, but the company still struggled to make a profit. To satisfy a judgment in favor of the company’s creditors, all the property of the Oregon Iron Company was sold at a sheriff’s auction in 1877. (The Oregon City Enterprise 1877). The next owners were experienced iron makers from the Hanging Rock Iron Region of Ohio. Ernest W. Crichton, Lamar B. Seeley, and Charles Donohue incorporated the Oswego Iron Company on March 9, 1878 (Hergert 1948:15). They made numerous improvements to the furnace and doubled its output. They also opened a new tunnel in the mine on Iron Mountain, built a railroad from the mine to the furnace, and enlarged the company’s timber holdings from 800 to 24,000 acres (Journal of the United States Association of Charcoal Iron Workers (JCIW) 1882). These improvements left them in debt and they decided to sell to Simeon G. Reed, who was eager to buy the company.
The Oregon Iron & Steel Company was incorporated on April 22, 1882. With financial support from railroad baron Henry Villard, Reed began ambitious plans to build a state-of-the-art iron and steel complex a quarter of a mile north of the original furnace. The old furnace was blown out for the last time on November 1, 1885. After many delays due to Reed’s difficulty securing financing and lawsuits over his management of the company, the new furnace was blown in on October 18, 1888 (Hergert 1948:17–31; JCIW 1886). The capacity of the new furnace was five times that of the old one. In addition to a state-of-the-art blast furnace, the company also built the first pipe foundry west of St. Louis, which produced gas and water pipe for Portland’s Bull Run water system and other cities on the West Coast (The Oregonian 1892; West Shore 1889: 232–238). The company's best year was 1890 when it produced 12,305 tons of pig iron.
Unfortunately, the expansion of the operation coincided with one of the worst depressions in U.S. history, the Panic of 1893 (Hergert 1948: 35). Because of the large investment required for iron making, many charcoal blast furnaces closed. Throughout its history, the Oregon iron industry was undercapitalized and struggled to compete with cheaper British pig iron as the tariff on imports was repeatedly reduced (The Oregonian 1893, 1894). The new furnace shut down in early 1894 and hundreds of workers lost their jobs with less than a week’s notice (Lake Oswego Public Library 2010). After repeated failures to revive the business, the furnace was sold to the Pacific Coast Steel Company in 1917. Oregon Iron and Steel retained ownership of the pipe works and continued to manufacture water pipe until 1928. Plans to start up the furnace never materialized and it was finally dismantled in 1929 (Daniels 1929:24–26; The Oregonian 1929).
Among the pioneer iron works built in Utah, Oregon, Washington, and California, the Oregon iron industry lasted the longest (27 years) and produced more iron than the other three combined (Daniels 1929:10–12). Portland’s wealth of cast-iron architecture was closely linked to the Oswego iron industry and remains a lasting legacy of that enterprise (Hawkins 1976:190). Today the 1866 furnace in Oswego is the only surviving nineteenth-century iron furnace west of the Rocky Mountains. It reportedly withstood an attempt to dynamite it in the 1920s (Lake Oswego Review 1965). After narrowly escaping several proposals to remodel or demolish it, the furnace was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974 (Oregon Daily Journal 1926; The Oregonian 1965).
In 2003, the Lake Oswego City Council appointed a citizen task force to study options for preserving the furnace. A Save America’s Treasures grant paid for archaeological work and an engineering plan to stabilize the structure (Historic Furnace Restoration Task Force and City Staff 2008). Restoration work began in January 2009 and was completed in February 2010. The project subsequently received three awards: the 2012 Richard H. Driehaus National Preservation Award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the 2013 BAC Craft Award for Best Restoration Project from the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers, and the 2013 DeMuro Award for Excellence in Preservation from Restore Oregon.
The furnace site covers an area of approximately 5 acres bordered by the Willamette River on the east and Oswego Creek on the south. A long terrace extends across the north side. On the west, and shortest side, the land slopes down to the creek.
This area represents the original furnace site, which was purchased in two parcels. On January 26, 1864, Henry Dodge Green purchased 4 acres at the mouth of Sucker Creek (present-day Oswego Creek) along with a water rights easement to the east end of Sucker Lake (now Oswego Lake). On July 5, 1866, the Oregon Iron Company purchased two additional acres, which cover the area of the charging terrace (Oregon State Archives 1941).
A large complex of wooden buildings surrounded the furnace. The principal structures were the stack house, casting house, blast house, blacksmith shop, and the covered bridge that linked the furnace to the hill behind it (The Oregonian 1867). Raw materials were stored in large sheds on this hill, which was known as the “furnace bank” or the “charging terrace” (footnote 1). By building next to a hill, iron makers solved the problem of hoisting tons of raw materials to the top of the furnace every 15 to 20 minutes. They simply wheeled cartloads of charcoal, limestone, and ore across the bridge and dumped them into the open top of the furnace (Gordon 1996:14–15; National Park Service 1983). The flow of materials followed a continuous downhill path from the charging terrace to the river where the pig iron was loaded on ships.
The furnace site remained in iron company ownership for 80 years. In 1945 the city purchased it for the town’s first public park (Fulton 2002:109). As a result, the site retains all of the natural features that made it a good location for an iron furnace.
The Iron Making Process
Elemental iron is rarely found in nature. To obtain pure iron, mineral ore (iron oxide) must be “smelted” to remove the oxygen. The type of ore mined in Oswego was bog ore or limonite, a hydrated form of iron oxide (Pumpelly 1886: 470, 496–497). The most efficient way of smelting iron is in a blast furnace, which consists of an inner wall of firebrick and an outer wall of stone enclosing the space where smelting takes place. At the Oswego furnace, air was blown into the base of the chamber through blast pipes that were cooled by water constantly circulating in a metal sleeve to prevent the pipes melting in the heat of the furnace.
Workers called “fillers” fed limestone, charcoal, and iron ore into the open top of the shaft every 15 to 20 minutes. As the solid materials descended and liquefied, a chemical reaction “reduced” or removed the oxygen from the iron. This transformation took place in the widest part of the shaft called the “bosh” where the temperature was around 2,800 degrees Fahrenheit. Molten iron collected in the bottom, which was known as the crucible or the hearth. Slag, containing the impurities from the ore, floated on top of the heavier iron. The furnace operated 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It shut down only when there was a need for repairs or a drop in the market for pig iron (Gordon 1996:119–120).
Attached to the furnace was the “casting house,” a large open building with a sand floor. Several times a day the keeper opened the “slag notch,” a hole on top of the dam stone, and let the slag floating on top of the iron run into a pit on one side of the floor. Once cooled, the slag was broken up and dumped on the riverbank. Every 12 hours, workers called “guttermen” prepared molds in the sand. When enough iron had accumulated in the bottom of the furnace, the keeper broke a clay plug in the dam stone, releasing a stream of white-hot metal. The iron poured down a long channel and filled the trenches in the sand. Early ironworkers saw a resemblance in the pattern of molds to a sow nursing piglets so they named the long trenches “sows” and the short ones “pigs.” When the ingots had cooled, they were broken off the sow with a sledgehammer. A bar of pig iron was typically about 3 feet long and weighed a little over 100 pounds (Gordon 1996:121–124). Pig iron is a crude form of iron, which must be further refined to make all kinds of iron and steel products.
The enormous acreage owned by the company was necessary for its mining and charcoal operations. There were two mines, the Patton Mine on the south side of the lake and the larger Prosser Mine on the north side, which provided three-quarters of the ore. Charcoal making was the company’s biggest expense because it was so labor intensive (The Oregonian 1876). More than half of the company’s workforce was engaged in charcoal production and the majority were Chinese woodcutters, who cut old-growth Douglas-fir into cordwood for the charcoal burners or “colliers.”
(1) See historic photos of the stock houses in the Lake Oswego Public Library (LOPL #165 and #859) and the Oregon Historical Society (OrHi #1455, #21592, #21593, #21594, #21596).
This history was authored by local historian Susanna Kuo