Industrial Archaeology

I recently had the great pleasure of attending the Society for Industrial Archaeology’s annual conference, held in Richmond, Virginia. The SIA is an interdisciplinary professional organization dedicated to the understanding and preservation of industrial history and artifacts.

While there, I gave a presentation about my recent research topic, the historic manufactured gas industry of Massachusetts, and its environmental legacy. The other conference presentations covered a very wide variety of topics, ranging from the restoration of a historic pumphouse and dancehall in Richmond, to mapping pre-Civil War copper mines in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (where masses of nearly-pure ‘native copper’ weighing hundreds of tons could be found in rock fissures), to how exactly do you preserve and restore a Cold War era CIA spyplane to use as a monument, when some of the materials used in the plane’s construction remain top secret?

Tom Tar Wars

Just a little environmental consultant humor….

The SIA is a pleasantly diverse organization; I shared a seminar panel with Frederic Quivik, a professor of industrial history who frequently serves as an expert witness in environmental litigation. He spoke on legacy issues associated with contaminated mine tailings used as railroad ballast in Idaho Also on the panel was Simon Litten, a retired forensic chemist with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, who spoke about the origins and industrial uses of PCBs and some of their lesser-known cousins, such as polychlorinated naphthalenes (e.g. the old Halowax products).

The conference also included a number of fascinating tours, including: visits to Fort Monroe, the Newport News waterfront (including a view of the now-decommissioned aircraft carrier USS Enterprise), the archaeological center at Jamestown, and the Virginia Mariners Museum, where parts of the warship USS Monitor of Civil War “Monitor and the Merrimack” fame are being painstakingly restored through a fascinating chemical electrolysis process.

Just a note—alliteration aside, only Yankees still call the Confederate ironclad the Merrimac, even if we usually forget the ‘k’. South of the Mason Dixon line, she is always and forever the CSS Virginia.

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An interior view of one of the gun batteries at Fort Monroe

 

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An excavation showing part of the footings under an interior wall at Fort Monroe, where specially-made triangular bricks were used to tie two relieving arches together underground.

 

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The former USS Enterprise, now being dismantled. This photo was taken from over half a mile away, which is about as close as one can get and still fit all of the ship in a photo.

 

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The former Richmond gas works, with one of the few remaining late-period gasholders in the US.

 

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For me, one of the highlights of these visits involved one of the humblest objects, a four-foot length of wrought iron chain that had been lost down a water well at Jamestown circa 1608, and which through one of those flukes of chemistry and history, landed in a stratum of anaerobic soil, where the lack of oxygen preserved the chain essentially unchanged until it was recovered in the early 21st century. There really is nothing like being able to hold a genuine 410+year old artifact in your hands.

If you are interested in topics such as industrial history and the history of science or technology, consider joining the SIA.