Community Activism and Historic Preservation: Sutter Creek’s Historic Knight Foundry
The story of Knight Foundry is essentially the story of a community. When it was first established in the early 1870s, the foundry supported the growing town of Sutter Creek by affording local men regular employment, allowing them to provide for their families, and giving them pocket money to spend at local businesses. Foundry operations supported the booming mining economy with technological innovations, as well as pragmatic equipment and repairs.
Decades later, with the gold mines long closed and the fate of the foundry in jeopardy, the residents of Sutter Creek responded by stepping in to support the preservation of the foundry (Fig. 1). Local experts and enthusiasts were soon joined by historic preservationists, industrial archaeologists, history buffs and the like. The commitment to preserving the foundry is a story of foresight, perseverance, disappointment, generosity and dogged determination. Anyone who has seen the constant movement of belts and gears, heard the whir of the waterpower and watched brilliant white-hot iron being poured has found themselves spellbound by a technology that is both of the past and dynamically reaching toward the future. It’s not a sight easily forgotten, and it is a history that is absolutely worth preserving.
Knight Foundry, located in rural Sutter Creek (Amador County), Calif., is the last waterpowered machine shop and foundry left in existence in the United States. Opened as Campbell, Hall & Company in the early 1870s, it was active during the peak of Sutter Creek’s hardrock mining and population boom. Stamp mills pounded in Mother Lode cities 24 hours a day, and capital from the financial centers of the nation, and the world, flowed in to run the mines. By 1873, the operation had been purchased by Samuel Knight and partners, and the sign “Knight & Company, Foundry & Machine Shop” was to become an intrinsic part of the community’s history (Fig 2).
Perhaps most famous for the Knight Water Wheel, used in some of the earliest hydroelectric facilities in the western U.S., foundry products were used in the hardrock mines and other industries locally, nationally and abroad. While the Knight Water Wheel would eventually become overshadowed by the more efficient Pelton Wheel, it remains a critical achievement in the story of hydro power (Fig. 3).
When Knight died of pneumonia in 1913, he left the majority of his foundry to his workers, beginning a legacy of community involvement and input that continues to this day. It was eventually purchased by two of these employees, C.H. Norton and D.V Ramazotti, and operated with a focus on mining and mill products into the late 1940s (Fig. 4). The closure of the mines during World War II effectively brought to an end the golden era of hardrock mining, and Knight Foundry changed its direction and ownership in order to survive. From the late 1940s until his death in 1970, the foundry was operated by Herman Nelson, with a focus on products for Amador County’s growing logging industry.
In 1970, Carl Borgh purchased the foundry. His ownership was a critical link in the preservation of Knight Foundry, and his legacy can perhaps be seen as one of transition – from fully operating foundry to an emphasis on skills preservation. Knight Foundry operated commercially until 1991, when economic conditions forced Borgh to close up shop. The following year, in July 1992, it was reopened as the Historic Knight & Company Foundry, Limited by Ed Arata and Robin Peters, who leased the facilities from Borgh.
Arata was ideal for the foundry, a historian with deep roots in the county’s Italian community and a direct link to the foundry through his grandfather, Elbridge Post. Post’s apprenticeship during the early years of operation at the foundry had earned him the title of Master Mechanic. Arata's and Peters’ vision was the beginning of the foundry’s life as a heritage tourism site, as opposed to a strictly commercial enterprise. The rise of “cultural heritage tourism” as a growing industry marked a very promising milestone in historic preservation for many rural communities.
Arata and Peters initiated the idea of tourism and education, which has continued to be a primary goal in the foundry’s preservation. The Historic Knight & Company Foundry offered tours, school field trips and, most importantly, an “Industrial Living History Workshop” that consisted of three days of hands-on experience. 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 extremely limited since. In the absence of operations, the foundry slid into physical decline.
The 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. In 2011, it was recognized as one of America’s Most Endangered Historic Places. In 2012, the non-profit Knight Foundry Corporation was awarded a substantial California Heritage and Cultural Endowment grant for acquisition and preservation, but ownership of the foundry could not be secured and the grant was lost. Negotiations by the City of Sutter Creek to purchase the foundry were unsuccessful again in December 2015, and the Knight Foundry Corporation dissolved.
In December 2016, on-and-off again negotiations between the City of Sutter Creek, the newly formed Knight Foundry Alliance (KFA) and the foundry owner resulted in the donation of the foundry property and buildings. After nearly two decades of negotiations, the City of Sutter Creek obtained the title to Knight Foundry. In addition, the city, with the support of KFA, was able to raise the $325,000 necessary to purchase the equipment, tools and historical documents – critical historical artifacts linking the foundry to its industrial past – that remained inside the foundry. These funds were raised in large part by a $50,000 donation from the local chapter of the Native Sons of the Golden West (Fig. 5), as well as an anonymous $85,000 donation to the project. The mission of the Knight Foundry Alliance is: "To protect, preserve and restore the Knight Foundry’s historic structures, features and operations in order to convey its local and regional importance as a unique 19th century industrial facility.”
Knight Foundry has long been recognized by industrial archaeologists, historians and historic preservationists as a critical historical resource. Indeed, the Society for Industrial Archaeology chose Knight Foundry as one of their chapter namesakes, and chapter members were active in attempts to preserve the foundry. For historical archaeologists, deposits associated with the foundry have the potential to inform on the daily lives and working conditions of the men employed at the foundry, as well as the relationship between labor and management. Given that Samuel Knight left the foundry to the workers when he passed away in 1913, the archaeology may reflect an alternative narrative on labor relations. In addition, with its history of continuous operations, the Knight Foundry is in a distinct position to inform upon changing technology of foundry production over time, even into the 21st century.
Possible archaeological features at the foundry include privies, surface scatters, hollow-filled refuse features and related refuse, combined with the structures, material culture and artifacts of daily operations. The archaeology, when combined with the well-preserved documentary history of the foundry – in the form of Sanborn maps, construction blueprints, foundry and forge orders, pattern drawings, receipts, oral histories, etc. – has the potential to tell the story of industrialization from the local community to a national level (Figure 6).
While the archaeological potential of Knight Foundry is well understood by the KFA Board, no ground-disturbing activities are currently planned for the foundry property. The immediate preservation emphasis is on stabilization of the buildings. Plans for historical archaeology preservation will be part of the future focus of Knight Foundry’s conservation. The future of Knight Foundry is not as a static display but as an active, operating industrial heritage site offering tours, classes, workshops, vocational training and internships. The KFA sees the preservation of the foundry moving in a direction of a self-sustaining, community-based operation.
The author’s appreciation goes to KFA Board members Ed Arata, Frank Cunha and Robin Peters for their assistance with this article. Interest and expertise in iron working, fundraising, heritage tourism and historic preservation are sought for fundraising and daily operations at Knight Foundry. Please contact Ed Arata at firstname.lastname@example.org or the Knight Foundry Alliance at email@example.com. Donations toward the preservation and operations of Knight Foundry are greatly appreciated. Further information regarding the foundry is available at http://knightfoundry.com/. Regular project updates and photos can be seen at the foundry's Facebook page.
The following books, literature and articles were referred to in writing this article and provide a rich source for those interested in pursuing the history of Knight Foundry in further depth.
- American Society of Mechanical Engineers, 1995, Historic Knight Foundry: A National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark
- California Department of Transportation, 2010, A Historical Context and Archaeological Research Design for Townsite Properties in California
- Samuel Knight Chapter of the Society for Industrial Archaeology, 1998, A Strategic Plan to Preserve Knight Foundry
- Wooten, Kimberly and R. Scott Baxter, 2006, Sutter Creek, Arcadia Publishing