Industrial Archaeology at Michigan Tech
Industrial Archaeology (IA): The recording, study, interpretation, and preservation of the physical remains of industrially-related artifacts and sites.
Master’s Degree: Tech offers a master’s degree in IA, a unique program in the U.S.
West Point Foundry (New York)
Carp River Forge Field School (Michigan)
Fayette State Park Hotel (Michigan)
Gowell Mill and Dam (Michigan)
Death Valley National Park Gold Mining ruins (California)
Copper Harbor mining sites (Michigan)
Port St. George 18th Century Sugar Plantation (West Indies)
Nonesuch Copper Mine (Michigan)
Contact: Dr. Patrick Martin (906-487-2070; firstname.lastname@example.org)
Making History: Tech Archaeologists Uncover West Point Foundry
by Paula McCambridge
Michigan Tech industrial archaeologists are rebuilding history by plotting, mapping, and preserving it at the nearly two-century-old West Point Foundry, located near the small New York tourist village of Cold Spring.
The foundry, constructed in the 1820s, is an example of America’s industrial stronghold in ironworks during that period of time, as well as early 19th century entrepreneurial spirit.
Gouverneur Kembel, a wealthy American businessman in the early 1800s, grouped investors, established the foundry and found immediate success producing canons. Perhaps the most well known of the foundry’s products is the Parrott gun, named after Robert Parrott who introduced rifling into American canons. Rifling, previously used in British cannons, increased aim and distance.
“This is a powerful example of American business,” said Michigan Tech Professor Patrick Martin, who is heading the foundry team, “but by the middle of the 20th century, most of the buildings had been taken down—it was a very muddy and derelict landscape.”
That brings us forward in time 182 years when the only structure left standing on the 87-acre tract is the multi-storied red brick office building. That’s where Michigan Tech’s team of archaeologists and students will first turn their attention.
cornerstone"We’ve decided, for the initial phase, to focus on the office building,” Martin said. “It’s something tangible and concrete. It’s a logical first step to rehabilitate that building.”
As it stands now, the once-imposing center of foundry administrative activity, is reduced to peeling walls, a nearly absent staircase, and buckled floors.
Martin envisions the building once again standing as the center of a busy site—this time around possibly as a visitor’s center and gallery.
Industrial Archaeology (IA) is the recording, study, interpretation, and preservation of the physical remains of industrially-related artifacts and sites. The remains may be as old as a seventeenth-century bloomery forge, or as recent as an abandoned 20th-century steel mill.
Michigan Tech’s IA master’s degree is unique in the United States and one of the few in the world to explicitly study industrial archaeology. Students study archaeology, historic preservation and history of technology. They also gain practical experience at sites like the West Point Foundry.
At the Cold Spring site, the archaeologists plan to compile a bibliography of information scattered across the eastern seaboard, conducting a field study and mapping the grounds, then rehabilitating the office building.
Assistant professor Tim Scarlett led a group of graduate and undergraduate students to the site in 2002 to map the grounds.
“Our mapping of the complex resulted in the discovery of new features every day, leading to a better understanding of the site and its methods of production,” said graduate student Alicia Valentino.
In its prime, the foundry was a leader in ironworks, running a blast furnace to make iron, large water-powered lathes, casting shed, pattern shop and machine shops. The blast furnace was a 30-foot-high stone structure with arches on all sides and bellows powered by a large waterwheel.
Photographs of the original ironworks exist, and comparing the former with the present has given mappers perspective.
The foundry ceased operation by the early 20th century and became the location of several businesses including a silk printing company. A battery and hearing aid factory was ultimately found to have been dumping industrial waste into the nearby watershed.
“There were enormous sums of cadmium. It was one of the nation’s first Superfund sites,” Martin said.
Having now recovered from its period of pollution, Martin said the land is an example of the interwoven evolution between industry and nature. Cold Spring was chosen for the foundry site because of the abundant natural resources for power and fuel. With resources exploited and contaminated throughout its varied incarnations, it raised questions about business and responsibility that is now part of the foundry-site story.
“Gouverneur Kembel and company took advantage of these things and made this smokey, dirty place, and when they were done, it was back to nature,” Martin said. “The trees are now grown up. There’s this story to weave—nature to industry to nature over time.”
The foundry’s future came together with Michigan Tech’s through a chance meeting aboard the Queen Mary.
In 1996, the site was purchased by the Scenic Hudson Land Trust, an environmental group. A representative of that group happened to be at the same party as Martin.
“At a cocktail party on the Queen Mary, a man comes up to me and says, ‘I hear you’re the guy to talk to about Industrial Archaeology?’ He was with Scenic Hudson,” Martin said. “He became convinced that what this site needed was industrial archaeology—someone who knew about blast furnaces—what a blast furnace was—and that was us.”Archway
Michigan Tech serves as the institutional headquarters for the Society in Industrial Archaeology. The university has raised its profile in that field significantly over the last few years.
Tech’s work will not pinpoint the foundry alone. Industrial history gains meaning through its relationship with the community in which it was established. In the case of the West Point Foundry, Cold Spring plays a role in fleshing out the history and future of this place, Martin said.
“There is a connection between the foundry and the town,” he said. “This is where their history comes from. This is where their future is. It’s a very big, very complex kind of a thing.
It’s going to mean some good research opportunities for our students,” Martin said. “These are the real-world kinds of projects that our students are ultimately going to do here at Tech.”