Brass Valley: The Fall of an American Industry

Brass Valley: The Fall of an American Industry
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Saturday, March 10, 2012

Anatomy Lesson




PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL:  I was back at the foundry again yesterday, hoping to get a shot of the the billets just after they rise out of the pit in which they are formed, glowing like the monoliths in 2001. What I found instead was that the furnace was still shut down, scattered in pieces and unrecognizable to me. However Mike's and Willy's coaching a few days earlier had taught me at least to find the molds. You can see them here; one is behind the broom handle, a quarter of the way down (Click the picture to enlarge it). The other is just to the left of the first.

When the furnace is shut down, the men who regularly run the foundry, work on refitting and repairing it, and as always Mike was happy to show me around.  There were other men there too, engineering staff with the tools to install and test new hydraulics and gas lines and electrical circuits. There is no repair man to call on equipment like this, no single book from which to order the replacement part; what breaks, you fix, what fails, you remake. When conditions change, you innovate. 

Unfortunately, much of their work on the furnace happened in tight spaces and was not visually interesting, so I went off and explored other parts of the campus. I'm told that once, 3000 people worked here. In the foundry alone they said there were 8 large furnaces and many smaller ones. Other shops on the campus processed the new metal from the foundry into wire and rods. In my explorations I passed through what must have been the main engineering shop, row after long row of immense tools and benches, bits and chucks and widgets all in neat, graduated rows, enough to keep at least 100 engineers busy repairing, sharpening, building new. Several hours later I returned to the foundry and the lone furnace, last piece of equipment in operation on the campus.

While I was gone the crew had remounted the crucible on the new hydraulics they had been installing, and the hydraulics were extended, tipping the crucible steeply. It seemed the perfect shot to explain the anatomy of the furnace. In front of the crucible and looking a bit like two fire hydrants, are the plugs (perhaps one of the men will tell me if there is a better term) which close the bottom of the billet molds. The plugs have been raised high, more hydraulics refitted there. 

When I was back at the factory today they were relining the runner box with some sort of material like clay, and they were testing gas lines to the furnace blast. Flames were coming out of the leveled crucible, a picture I missed. They expect to start it up on Tuesday. Before the furnace can be put into operation, the hood will be refitted over the furnace (as shown here). Then the large cover which holds the molds will pivot on the track, back over the plugs, and the plugs will rise into the bottom of the molds. 

The metal tipped from the crucible flows through the runner box to the distributer cups above the molds. As the copper cools, the founder lowers the plugs, and the solid end of the billet drops down and becomes the new plug. Then he tips the crucible to send more fluid metal flowing toward the molds.

I thought about the small cohort of people who were repairing and maintaining this lone furnace, the genius they shared, the bonds they developed, a culture; then I multiplied that many times as it was when the Valley was filled with factories, and families whose children rose through the mills.  Then I thought about the dark sheds around me here, not the empty benches and idle tools, but the culture that had vanished, engine of initiative and innovation. How do we renew that culture, refuel that engine here, where everything is disposable and wealth is digital and what we need comes from somewhere else?