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Lehigh Valley

Flicker of hope for crumbling Coplay cement kilns

Lehigh County may do engineering study to determine how many, if any, can be saved.

ALLENTOWN, Pa. - The landmark cement kilns near the Lehigh River in Coplay, Lehigh County, have been deteriorating for many years.

Lehigh County officials want to do an engineering study to help determine the feasibility of rehabilitating the kilns, which are the focal point of the county's Saylor Park.

More than 100 years ago, the 90-foot-tall kilns helped make the county the center of the Portland cement industry.

"They are in dire need of repair," said Rick Molchany, the county's general services director. He wants to get started on the project "as quickly as we can."

He said the county intends to take a serious look at what must be done to restore at least one, and possibly all nine, of the kilns.

In 2000, said Molchany, $330,000 was spent just to "minimally restore" four of the nine kilns.

"Looking at the 2000 numbers, my sense is we will not have the money to do all nine," he admitted.

Just doing the engineering study will cost $34,750, according to Molchany.

He declined to guess how much actual rehabilitation might cost, indicating determining that is one reason for doing the study.

On Wednesday night, Molchany explained the plan to Lehigh County commissioners, whose approval he needs to proceed.

Commissioner Michael Schware said the four kilns that had work done on them 14 years ago still are in good shape, but the other five "are in various stages of falling down."

While Molchany said fences are around those kilns, Schware questioned whether the fences are far enough back to protect people in the park from falling debris. Molchany promised to check the fencing to ensure public safety.

A bill introduced to commissioners would amend the county's five-year capital plan to include architectural/engineering consultant services for the Saylor Park kilns.

That bill states "the county would like to preserve this valuable historic resource as long as possible."

The commissioners will take final action on that bill at their Aug. 13 meeting.

Molchany is optimistic it will be approved because four of the nine commissioners are co-sponsors.

After the meeting, he explained the commissioners have to amend the plan because "the capital plan they approved last October did not include me spending $35,000 on engineering."

He intends to return to the commissioners with a recommendation that a specific engineer be hired to do to the work, which he hopes can be completed in autumn.

Molchany noted the National Park Service recognizes the kilns as an historic site. They are in the park service's Delaware and Lehigh National Heritage Corridor.

From 1893 to 1904, the Coplay Cement Company kilns were used to produce Portland cement, according to the park service.

Molchany said in 1875, the first Portland cement was manufactured in the United States on that site.

By 1900, the Lehigh Valley provided the nation with 75 percent of its cement, according to the park service.

In the 1920s the building that surrounded the kilns was demolished and the top 30 feet of the kilns were removed.

The county acquired the kilns in 1976.

Molchany said a museum on the site has been closed for at least 15 years and also is in disrepair.

He said the rehabilitation project has been on and off the county's capital plan during the last 10 years. "In those 10 years, the kilns continued to degrade. Their historic value has been compromised."

County officials explained one reason for their deterioration is the kilns were constructed with interior brick, not exterior brick, because they originally were inside a building.

The county's administration describes the kilns as "a key historical industrial heritage site that is experiencing serious decay."

Commissioner Percy Dougherty said he is very supportive of the project but complained there have been many false starts on it over the years.

Dougherty said there also has been fund raising and community support, "but we haven't been able to get this project going forward.

"I hope we can actually get something accomplished this time. This is one of the most important historic sites in the county. The whole Portland cement industry started right there."

Molchany explained the county has the money to do the engineering study, which will determine "a long-term plan for the Saylor Park cement kilns."

He said local cement companies have contributed $30,000 for the preservation of the kilns. He added several years back, the county set aside $86,356 for the rehabilitation project. He also said the county has secured a $200,000 grant for the rehab "in collaboration with a non-profit preservation society."

He said the engineering study will be paid out of the $86,356 and/or the $30,000 from the cement industry, but not from the $200,000 grant.

"The cement industry has taken away from this valley for years," said Dougherty. "They should be putting more than a mere $30,000 into this."

Dougherty also said saving the cement kilns should not cost the county "a single dollar โ€“ other than staff time."

He said: "Once this engineering study is done and we see what has to be done to stabilize the facility, this will enable local groups in that area to raise funds to accomplish what needs to be done.

"We need a good study to lay the groundwork so we can go out and mobilize the community to raise money to pay for this."

After the meeting, Molchany said some people living in that area โ€“ "Coplay, Catty, Whitehall, Northampton" โ€“ want the county to spend unlimited money to restore the kilns to the way they originally were.

Dougherty said Lock Ridge Furnace, where iron was produced from 1868 until 1921, "also is falling apart. Something has to be done to stabilize these facilities."

The remains of that iron-making operation are in Lock Ridge Park, also owned by the county, in Alburtis.

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