Pamplin Media Group – Lake Oswego resident wins award for research on historic furnace


Susanna Kuo has spent years researching and documenting information about the former Oswego Furnace

COURTESY PHOTO CARLETON E. WATKINS, OREGON HISTORICAL SOCIETY COLLECTION - The Oswego furnace, located inside the tall building, was the first of its kind on the west coast. This photo was taken in 1867.

As a kid growing up in Lake Oswego, Susanna Kuo overlooked the Historic Iron Furnace in George Rogers Park.

“I think I took it for granted,” she said. “It was more like wallpaper.”

It might be an understatement to say her view of this important relic to the foundation of Lake Oswego took a 180-degree turn in the ensuing decades. After dedicating many years to researching and preserving the furnace, Kuo, alongside archeologist Rick Miner, received the Vogel Prize from the Society for Industrial Archeology for a paper that documented its history and inner-workings, as well as restoration efforts she helped conduct.

The prize, named after the society’s co-founder Robert M. Vogel, recognizes the best article to appear in IA: The Journal of the Society for Industrial Archeology over the last three years.

“I was very shocked and surprised. I just felt very happy when our article was published in IA because one of the things that first set me on the path of being fascinated by the Oswego iron furnace was a 1992 copy of IA that my father had that was all about iron furnaces. I read that and got excited,” she said. “It came full circle to actually get published in a journal. To win the Vogel Prize, I was over the moon.”

Built in 1866, the Oswego Furnace was the first of its kind on the West Coast and was a boon to industry because a previous lack of a local iron source meant that those dependent on iron had to ship it in from 17,000 miles away, according to Kuo and Miner’s report.

“The discovery of iron ore near Oswego, Oregon, in 1861 excited hopes that the West Coast could end its dependence on imported iron and reduce the flow of cash out of the region,” the report read.

The furnace lasted longer than others within the western portion of the United States and peaked in 1890 with the production of 12,305 tons of pig iron. However, the Oregon industry was undercapitalized and high costs related to labor and expensive limestone made business tenuous as it was, according to the report.

“In spite of these difficulties, the industry endured longer and produced more iron than the other three western ironworks combined,” the report read.

Abruptly, the furnace shuttered for good in 1894 following the economic crash in 1893.

“People were very disappointed. Their dreams were to be the Pittsburgh of the west or be the next Carnegie. How many Carnegies were there after all? Only one. It was a dream,” Kuo said.

Following the crash, Oregon Iron and Steel, which owned the furnace, shifted its focus to real estate and helped shape the development of modern Lake Oswego, Kuo said.

Kuo has a doctorate in English literature (with a specialty in folklore) but over time she said she started to become more interested in what she described as “material culture.” And she focused on the furnace specifically after spending time in a Japanese city that was centered around textiles in the same way that the Oswego area once revolved around the furnace.

“When I came back to the U.S., I looked at the iron industry and it hit me. I don’t know why it never did before,” she said.

Seeing that the furnace was starting to crumble, Kuo and others helped lobby the city of Lake Oswego to revitalize it and also conducted efforts to learn more about its inner workings via multiple projects conducted from 2004 to 2010.

During the project, Kuo documented the structure of the foundation beneath the furnace as well as the channels underlying the hearth and aspects of the heat exchanger, among other things. Kuo found the excavation efforts fascinating.

“I’ve been studying iron furnaces for 20 years now. I really can’t recall any report that really discussed the design and structure of the foundation, which is absolutely critical to holding everything up above ground. It turned out to be surprising for us. It wasn’t a simple platform sitting on it. It was more complex,” Kuo said, adding that the foundation had two tiers rather than simply being one massive pile beneath.

She added: “It was exciting and very informative to be able to have such a deep excavation. It was so deep they had to put a shoring box in, because you couldn’t have a man in a hole that deep and risk having it collapse on him.”

Teamwork, she said, was the key to the project. While she brought historical knowledge and understanding, Miner offered archeological skills. Kuo and Miner were inspired to write the paper after presenting their work at a national conference.

“One of the things that was really wonderful for me about this project was the teamwork of people with different kinds of backgrounds coming together, and as a result the project may be able to uncover more information than if you only had people with one type of expertise,” Kuo said.

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