Historic furnace to get stimulus funds

FITCHBURG — Sometime around 1947, the story goes, a moonshiner operating in a remote Estill County hollow was bothered by the outsiders who kept showing up to look at the large stone structure near his still.

The moonshiner lugged dynamite into the Fitchburg Furnace and detonated it. The structure, once the world's largest iron furnace, was damaged inside.

But its tons of tight-fitting, hand-cut exterior sandstone blocks still stood where they were placed shortly after the Civil War.

Now, thanks to $250,000 in federal stimulus funds, the furnace may be getting replacement stones from the same sandstone quarry that produced the original ones. Also planned: Archaeological work to help explain how the furnace operated, and fixing drainage problems that threaten to undermine it.

The project, announced last month by the U.S. Forest Service, is expected to continue work over the last several years to prevent the historic furnace from falling apart. The furnace is on land that is part of the Daniel Boone National Forest, but is miles away from other parts.

The earlier project, which is just wrapping up, was paid for with $670,000 earmarked in late 2004 by U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky.

A local group called The Friends of the Fitchburg Furnace, which had lobbied Bunning for the money, thought it would be enough to restore the historic structure.

Some of the money went to putting a roof over the furnace (after a small jungle of trees was removed) and shoring up a corner than showed signs of collapsing.

But the group was disappointed that more wasn't accomplished. Robert "Skip" Johnson, a leader of the group, said he blames the University of Kentucky's Center for Historic Architecture and Preservation, or CHAP, which was contracted by the Forest Service to oversee the work.

"They did stabilize that corner and put a roof on it, but that's about all there is to show for $670,000," Johnson said.

Chris Jenkins, who until recently was the archaeologist for the Daniel Boone National Forest, said some of the money went to historical and archaeological research that had to be done before structural work could begin.

But Jenkins, who also hoped that stones could be replaced as part of the original work, said the project was delayed when the people running CHAP left for jobs elsewhere.

"It cost us about a year of time," Jenkins said.

Clyde Carpenter, who is chairman of the UK Department of Historic Preservation, said Jenkins is mistaken.

"Some of the people who were in charge of that project did leave, but there were engineers working on the project and they had to come up with a scheme for stabilization, and that took time," Carpenter said.

At one point, according to emails between UK and the Forest Service, Julie Riesenweber, who was acting director of CHAP, suggested that the Forest Service find someone else because CHAP was "without staff suitable for overseeing the project."

Gene Baker, a Forest Service engineer, replied that he was worried that the change could cause more delay or a loss of the money Bunning had secured.

UK's contract called for stabilizing the furnace, not restoring it, Carpenter said. That work was done by private engineers paid through the university, he said. CHAP was disbanded a year ago, Carpenter said, because the department wanted to concentrate on scholarly instead of applied research.

Jenkins, who recently left the Daniel Boone to take a job with the Army Corps of Engineers in Seattle, said the Forest Service applied for federal stimulus money to complete the work on the furnace.

Jenkins said he's not sure how the work will proceed.

But it will, he said, provide employment, which is what the stimulus package is designed to do. In this case, stone masons and archaeologists will be hired.

The sandstone structure is unusual because it actually is two furnaces, side by side. The dynamite blast damaged only one side. But the arch that leads into the other side is being held up by timbers until more stone can be cut to fit some that are missing.

The quarry that supplied the original stones is not far from the furnace — "You probably could shoot a gun and hit is," Jenkins said — but it is miles away by road.

Lee Padgett, director of the Methodist Aldersgate Camp and Retreat Center across the road from the furnace, is working with landowners to get permission to take a shorter route, Jenkins said.

Padgett, who is a member of the Friends group, also is working with UK to get a final $25,000 from the Bunning money designated for educational purposes. Michael Speak, the dean of UK's College of Design, said his office is working with the group to meet the many stipulations tied to the money.

Fixing drainage problems will require returning some of the area around the furnace to its original contour, which could uncover a wealth of information and expose parts of the furnace that haven't been seen for well over a century, Jenkins said.

He also hopes to be able to replace some of the interpretative signs that now are on the furnace to present new information learned in the last several years.

When the work is complete, he said, Estill County will have an unusual but out-of-the-way treasure for locals and tourists alike.

"It's really cool," he said. They've got a piece of history that is unique in the country. It's one of the great things about Kentucky and I don't think a lot of people know about it."