Knight’s Long Day
Once upon a time Carl Borgh worked for McDonnell Douglas as an aerospace engineer. “I worked on a telemetry system to bring back data from space vehicles.” Borgh is a tall, powerful, capable-looking man in his early sixties; it’s no surprise to find out he was good at what he did. “Trouble was, the longer I was there, the more management stuff I had to do. I was getting further and further away from what I liked.”
If it was your call, you’d probably put Carl Borgh in management too. But it turned out to be a mistake, because after a while he quit and started his own consulting business. “Du Pont hired me to build a bulk unloading system. I needed these little dolly wheels, and somebody told me about the Knight Foundry up in Sutler Creek.” So one day he drove up from Los Angeles, and the trip took him three hundred miles to the north and a hundred years into the past.
Sutter Creek stands in the heart of gold country, atop the mother lode that fueled the great rush west in the middle of the last century. Among the hordes drawn by the sparkle was a Maine man named Samuel Knight, who worked his way around the Horn as a ship’s carpenter in the 1860s. In California he found himself building a lot of water wheels; the mines needed power, and water was plentiful and free. In time he developed a special wheel of his own, an enclosed unit in which the water jetted under high pressure from a slit nozzle against buckets fixed to the rim of the wheel.
In 1873 he established a foundry and machine shop. He built and sold his water wheels, and the company went on to manufacture pipes and ore cars, stamp mills and dredgers, the pumps for the Bunker Hill Mine, and the hoist for the South Eureka Mine. By the turn of the century the Amador Record could celebrate the fact that the county was “favored with one of the largest and best-equipped foundry and machine shops in the state.… They have lathes that swing 10 feet in diameter, a planer that takes in 4 feet square and 16 feet long.
This was the shop that Carl Borgh walked into twenty-five years ago, and it hadn’t changed. All that big machinery saluted by the Amador Record was still there and still working. Borgh liked what he saw. “By the end of that day I’d told the owner I wanted to talk about buying the company.” In 1970 he did it. “But only on the condition that all the workers stayed. I became their apprentice. The foundry foreman had been there thirty-five years; the cupola operator—he’s the guy who runs the furnaces—had been here twenty. When Wendell Boitano, the patternmaker, left, he’d been working fifty-eight years. His dad, Louis, was here fifty-five.”
The aerospace engineer had to learn all the basic processes that built the Industrial Revolution. He suggests something of the scope of the operation simply by turning a valve. It lets water dropping nearly four hundred feet from the Amador Canal come surging into a forty-two-inch Knight wheel, and with a powerful chugging—a high-pressure water engine sounds like a steam-driven one—the factory shudders into life. Shafting spins high overhead, and all around there is the industrious slap of the belting that drives the machinery. “There’s fourteen, fifteen machines,” says Borgh, walking among them toward the pattern shop, where lie stacked hundreds of painted cogs and gears carved from native sugar pine. Water, like electricity, can be diverted anywhere, and the patternmaker’s lathe has its own small turbine; there are a dozen different ones in the shop. The Knight Foundry is the last working factory in the country to run on waterpower.
The heart of the operation is the foundry room itself, dominated by two coke-fired cupolas. The larger of them can melt one thousand pounds of metal at a time, and Borgh can cast up to four thousand.
Friday has always been pouring day, when the cupola would spill its incandescent contents into dirt molds formed around the patterns. Today is Friday, but the furnaces are cold. Nothing is being made.
Borgh looks around the quiet room. “Construction is down, and mining is down, even the ag business. … California’s been insulated from serious economic effects since World War II, but it’s finally caught up to us. I haven’t had any work since June.”
Borgh is hanging on, hoping to find someone who will recognize his foundry for the national treasure it is and preserve it. “I feel very lucky. This place has given me a good living for more than twenty years.” He nods to two big lathes, one capable of turning six feet, one nine. Outside the window in another building is a monster sixteen-footer, tall as a house. “You know, I look back to when I was doing all that high-tech work now, and it just seems like a dream. This is the real stuff. Here.”