Irondale cleanup kicks off: Former smelting site restored to natural beauty

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What started as a small village built up around iron smelting has since been restored into a waterfront park, but volunteers are still needed this month to help further refurbish the natural environment, while preserving its remaining historic artifacts.

Irondale literally made its name by producing “pig iron,” so called because the freshly smelted iron was poured into earthen channels that resembled pig troughs. Its turn-of-the-century iron mill was followed by the opening of a steel mill in 1910.

“There were two locomotives to haul cargo on and off boats,” Jefferson County Parks and Recreation Manager Matt Tyler said. “Ore ships were coming in from as far away as China. This place had a bank, a hospital and a hotel.”

With an estimated population of nearly 4,000 at one point, Irondale was almost incorporated as a town, before East Coast steel magnates killed its financing, due to fears of competition. And with the iron mill burning about 70 cords of wood for every single smelt, the land was left polluted long after the industry was gone.

After acquiring it from the Cotton family in 2002, Jefferson County Parks & Recreation completed its cleanup of the site’s pollution in 2012, in partnership with the state Department of Ecology. Tyler recalled county commissioner Kathleen Kler offering a speech in support of its opening as a park in 2014.

gain invited to assist the county in removing English ivy, Himalayan blackberry and Japanese knotweed from Irondale Beach County Park on Port Townsend Bay, near the Chimacum Creek Estuary.

“It’s our third year in the program, and you can see the difference,” said Douglas Huber, a member of the county’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, whom Tyler credited with serving as the lead volunteer of the project.

“The gradual changes the volunteer corps have made are starting to pay off, and the community is appreciative of what we’re doing and how the park looks.”

Huber pointed out that infestations of invasive non-native plants harm the health of forested areas by competing for water and nutrients, in some cases even killing trees. Tyler noted that many such plants, growing in dense thickets, also harbor rats and other vermin, creating a public safety hazard as well. Huber added that native vegetation will be replanted after the non-native plants have been cleared out, although several of them will take years to be fully eliminated.

Huber has done the on-the-ground coordination for the Puget Sound Conservation Corps, managed by the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) through its Urban Forestry Renewal Program.

“Without Doug, this would not be happening, because he’s done a lot of the difficult and detailed work that’s required to make the DNR grant program work, and he’s so good to work with,” said Tyler, who also credited AmeriCorps as partners. “This park has been about partnership since the beginning, there is absolutely no other way this kind of success can occur.”

Huber proudly touted the program’s lack of cost to taxpayers, which Tyler deemed a necessity in the wake of the Great Recession yielding budget cuts that have continued to limit the county’s revenues.

To that end, both men praised the efforts of resident volunteer Jim Stark, who lives near the site of what was once the Irondale jail, and who performs everyday repairs to the park site in between the rounds of volunteer teams.

“Every since 2009, I’ve mowed the lawns, hauled the garbage and done security out here,” Stark said. “I can only go so close to the ruins, though.”

The remains of the mills are part of a National Historic District. Not only does Stark have to maintain a buffer between the surviving walls and the areas of grass that he mows, but Huber and his crews are limited in their ability to remove the English ivy that’s infiltrated the brickwork, lest they compromise its structural integrity.

“Eventually, we’d like to put up informational kiosks, to explain the history of this place,” said Huber, who acknowledged that Stark can’t personally give every visitor a tour through his photo albums of Irondale’s settlement and restoration. “We could always use more folks, though. Many of our cohort are elderly.”

Tyler encouraged those interested in volunteering at Irondale Beach Park to contact him at 360-385-9129 or mtyler@countyrec.com.

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