June 20, 2018
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Historian urges repairs to state treasures

EX;OORING LOCAL HISTORY Brownville Elementary School pupils spent Friday afternoon Friday learning about the history in their backyard. The students visited Katahdin Iron Works where they met with local historian William Sawtelle and Maine Forest Ranger Gary Cook, who discussed the region's importance. Sawtelle, (second from left) stopped to point out what the property looked like in the 1880s to students (from left) Adam Stetson, Harley Brooker, Faith Sickler and Justin Valvo . (Bangor Daily News photo by Diana Bowley)
By Diana Bowley, BDN Staff

TOWNSHIP 5 RANGE 9, Maine — “Rare” state historic monuments that draw tourists to eastern Piscataquis County are crumbling, and a local historian fears their condition will deteriorate further without major repair.

The condition of the blast furnace and charcoal kiln at Katahdin Iron Works “sickens” local historian and author William R. Sawtell, of Brownville, who said his calls to state officials have been ignored.

“It’s a rare treasure that we have in this area that’s a tourist site. It draws people to this area, and people going through Gulf Hagas visit it,” Sawtell said Thursday. “It should be repaired.”

Tom Desjardin, historian for Maine’s Bureau of Parks and Land, said this week the two structures have been repaired fairly regularly. Some of the problems are caused by vandalism and others by the weather.

“Like a lot of our structures, they weren’t designed to last as long as they have, and we’re trying to keep them together,” Desjardin said this week. “It’s an issue that’s a concern and something we obviously would like to do. It’s just a question of trying to figure out a way to get the money.”

Sawtell, author of “Katahdin Iron Works and Gulf Hagas Before and Beyond,” said there is a gaping hole about 6 feet in diameter in the back of the blast furnace and some bricks have been removed from the remaining kiln. Graffiti have been left behind on both structures. The kiln has been gated off by the state.

The two structures are the only remnants of a large settlement that was carved in the wilderness in 1843 near the rich iron ore deposits of Ore Mountain, according to Sawtell. At one time, the settlement had a large hotel, a brothel, a general store, a train station, several outbuildings and homes. The ore was removed until the late 1800s, when the demand for raw iron declined, making the operation unprofitable.

The kiln — the only one of 16 remaining — the blast furnace and the land that both are situated on were donated to the state by General Chemical Co. The state did extensive restoration on the two structures in 1966.

Despite that extensive work, Desjardin said, some “pretty major work” still is needed. A restoration engineer retained by the state a few years ago pegged at $300,000 the cost to address the water issues and cracking so that no further work would be needed for 20 to 30 years. That cost takes into consideration the long haul for supplies to get to the isolated site, he said.

Desjardin said his department had included $100,000 in its budget to do enough work to keep the structures stable, but the funds have been used for other priorities such as erosion at Popham Beach.

The $7.5 million approved by voters in the fall of 2007 for improvements to state parks and historic sites has been spent, but about $33 million to $35 million more is needed to make other necessary repairs in the short term, according to Desjardin.

An infusion of private capital to help with the improvements might be one answer, Sawtell said.

Desjardin said the state would welcome private capital to help make the repairs under state guidelines. Until then or until another bond is approved, patching and temporary work will continue at the site.



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