Back to Your Roots: Knight Foundry
As usual, this December editorial will be more reflective than instructive. We will take a glimpse at some history to see what we can learn and how we can help to preserve it. Let’s take a look at a historic preservation effort in Sutter Creek, Calif.
Located in gold-rush country, Campbell, Hall & Company opened in the early 1870s. The foundry was purchased by Samuel Knight and partners in 1873 and was renamed “Knight & Company, Foundry & Machine Shop.”
Knight was quite the engineer, inventor and entrepreneur. Five years prior to purchasing the foundry, he invented the Knight Wheel. After several improvements, the final design began use at the Lincoln Mine in Sutter Creek in 1875. Hydroelectric power was effectively “invented” with the Knight Wheel, which doubled the efficiency of early water wheels, thereby improving hydraulic (impact) mining. By the 1890s, catalogs show that more than 300 of these wheels had been produced and were in use all over the western U.S.
An impressive canal system was designed to supply water to these new industries and mines, which required hydraulic power to operate. The Amador Canal – a 60-mile-long canal system – actually supplied power to operate Knight Foundry using a Knight Wheel. Throughout its history, Knight Foundry was water-powered.
Knight Foundry operated commercially until 1991, when economic conditions forced the shop to close. The following year, it was reopened as the Historic Knight & Company Foundry, Limited by Ed Arata and Robin Peters, who leased the facilities. Arata, a historian, had a direct link to the foundry through his grandfather, Elbridge Post, who was a master mechanic there in its early days.
The foundry continued to operate until 1996, when the last pour was conducted, ending over 120 years of continuous operation. In 2000, the foundry was closed to the public, and access and operations have been limited.
Knight Foundry is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark and is registered as California Historical Landmark #1007. The American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) designated Knight Foundry as one of their National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmarks in 1995. In 2011, it was recognized as one of America’s Most Endangered Historic Places.
Back in the 1990s, the foundry engaged in a number of active educational opportunities. Beginning (again) in 2018 are tours for grade-school students with hands-on activities. Students will make a sand mold, and docents will pour the mold using pewter. Once the foundry has its metal-casting facility up and running, basic aluminum casting classes will be available.
Of possible interest to our readers is a variety of planned adult-education classes. The long-range goal is to re-create a program from the 1990s called “Industrial Living History Workshop,” which consisted of a half-day history of Knight Foundry followed by hands-on workshops in patternmaking, machining, blacksmithing and molding. Each workshop lasted for a half day, and students rotated through all four. On the final afternoon, the molds the student made were poured.
In addition to these programs, the foundry offers guided tours on a regular basis. Over time, special demonstration days will be added where volunteers demonstrate actual operations such as machining and casting. Brief operation of a few machines is included in the current tours, but the demonstration days will be much more comprehensive.
If you are interested in connecting with your metal roots through Knight Foundry, contact Ed Arata at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tax-exempt, year-end personal and corporate donations (knightfoundry.com/donate-now/) toward the preservation and operation of the foundry are greatly appreciated. Further information is available at knightfoundry.com/, and updates and photos can be seen on Facebook at www.facebook.com/knightfoundry/.
Some of the information for this editorial came from an article by a local historian, which can be read at www.industrialheating.com/KF.