Nestled in a corner of the beautiful Gold Rush town of Sutter Creek, you’ll find the only remaining water-powered foundry in the United States. Established in 1873 to supply equipment for the Gold Rush and other developing industries of the new state of California, Knight Foundry operated continuously, with little technological change, until 1992. The doors were closed and padlocked in 1996, preserving this time capsule for future generations.
For many years, I had walked around the site, peering through dust-covered windows, eager to catch a glimpse of the past. Old cranes stood idle, drive belts looked as though they had just paused, iron stock and molds sat stacked around the buildings, giving the impression that the foundry was poised for a re-awakening.
The doors are indeed open again! After nearly 20 years of negotiations, the city of Sutter Creek has obtained the title to the complex. Under the direction of the Knight Foundry Alliance, tours of the main buildings are available on the second Saturday of each month—or through special arrangement.
After an interesting and informative video about the history and background of the foundry, visitors begin their tour in the machine shop, led by knowledgeable docents. The 150-year-old equipment, much of it built right there in the foundry, is still in working order. It’s driven by an overhead system of belts and pulleys.
Visitors pass into the pattern shop next and learn how an idea is transformed from a wooden model into a solid iron object or piece of equipment. Patterns for iron facades on some of the buildings in Old Sacramento are on display, along with pictures of the buildings themselves, which are still standing—a legacy to the enduring craftsmanship exhibited at the Knight Foundry.
The original Knight water wheel is a major attraction. It’s currently being repaired so the complex can once again operate on waterpower, as it did throughout its life.
The tour ends in the furnace room, where participants learn how the iron was melted and poured into molds. Visitors are then given the opportunity to wander through the foundry at their leisure, asking the docents questions any questions they have and taking all the photos they want.
The tremendous effort put forth by the Knight Foundry Alliance in order to have this historic site open to the public is commendable. The foundry has been recognized as a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark and would make a wonderful destination for a fall outing. The foundry site, http://knightfoundry.com, provides all the information you would need to plan a memorable trip back in time.