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Rescuing park’s shuttered sawmill to tell lumber’s story

Asteam whistle sounding each day at noon signaled lunch for the dozen workers who operated the historic Red House Sawmill in Allegany State Park for 50 years.

When the state shuttered the sawmill in 1997, the steam whistle was silenced – but not the dreams of retired millworkers, park enthusiasts and state employees who remained determined to restore the historic structure, one of only a few steam-powered sawmills remaining in the country.

Now, the mill is getting a second chance with a renovation effort by park management and Friends of Allegany State Park, a volunteer organization dedicated to maintaining the 95-year-old park. “It would have been torn down and left for history,” said Hugh J. Dunne, 87, retired Allegany park superintendent and state parks regional director from 1978 to 1990. “It upset me because the last few years, people wanted to do away with the sawmill. It’s good now that the Friends of Allegany saw fit to save it. I’m grateful for the rescue.”

For nearly 20 years the mill, located off Allegany State Park Route 1, sat untouched – boarded up and overrun with dense vegetation. Inside, the boiler – a 1918 model originally manufactured for use in World War I – was in need of repair, unable to generate enough pressure to power the saw through the dense hardwood of cherry, maple and hickory trees, Dunne said.

“The reason it was closed was because the boiler was malfunctioning and could not pass inspection, but nothing was done to fix it,” he said. “The mill was so unique that people over the years knew about it, and they would like to watch it run.”

From its inception in 1921, Allegany State Park grew from 6,000 acres to its present 65,000 acres. That’s 10 square miles of parkland located in Cattaraugus County just west of Salamanca and north of Allegheny National Forest in Pennsylvania. Allegany is divided into two sections: The Red House Area and the Quaker Run Area. The park usually draws 1.2 million visitors each year, but visitation in 2015 topped off at almost 1.5 million, said park officials.

The 2010 Allegany State Park Master Plan called for the sawmill equipment and the building to be stabilized “to preserve and protect this unique historic resource,” said Allegany Park Manager Thomas M. Livak. The master plan also recommended guided interpretive tours – especially given the importance of the lumber industry in the growth of the area in and around the park, Livak added.

One retired park employee recalled his time in the mill.

“Every year, we’d operate the sawmill and cut down timber,” said Paul Bachman, 74. “We’d use the wood for Allegany and other state parks in the area. Fort Niagara got some of our lumber.”

As designated boiler man, it was Bachman who sounded the steam whistle. He also fueled the boiler with sawdust and kindling – the remains of the previous day’s work. Nothing went to waste, said Bachman, who retired in 2001 after a 33-year career at Allegany.

The interpretive tours will use a series of kiosks to show visitors how the raw timber was steam-cleaned, cut, trimmed, stacked for drying and sorted by grade. Starting from the sorting pond and working its way through the mill’s conveyance system, the lumber was stored in the yard for shipment, said Paul J. Crawford, president of Friends of Allegany. It was used to build cabins, group camps and bridges within the park.

“After one year, the lumber was taken to a carpentry shop in late September/early October,” said Crawford, who researched the sawmill and interviewed former workers who described their jobs in detail.

The Red House Sawmill replaced the previous park mill located on Stoddard Creek that operated from 1927 to 1946. It, too, was located off Allegany State Park Route 1, a mile south of the Red House campgrounds.

Park laborers practiced “selected cutting” of the acres of tree stands planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps, a public work relief program that operated from 1933 to 1942 for jobless, unmarried men as part of the New Deal.

Red House Sawmill is one of only a few steam-powered sawmills that are relatively intact, said Livak, an eight-year parks system veteran who was appointed manager at Allegany in August 2015.

“Once the necessary research and reviews are conducted, we will embark on the building and equipment renovations and prepare for guided tours,” Livak said. “Most other mills have long been converted to other sources of power. This sawmill is certainly a relic of the past era of lumber production. It even included a log pond heated by the steam engine that allowed logs to be cleaned before processing during the cold winter months.”

The first phase of the mill restoration project, already underway, is cleanup of the exterior mill area, Crawford said. It is expected to include siding and window replacement, as well as structural repairs.

“The park has already removed major debris and leveled the site area for both aesthetics and parking,” Crawford said.

Dunne, former park superintendent who now lives in a log cabin in Salamanca, recalled working at the sawmill when he was 24.

“That was one of my first jobs,” said Dunne, who ended his career after 41 years in the state parks system. “I worked on the carriage that would take the log through the saw. It was labor-intensive, but that little steam engine ran everything. It didn’t hardly take up any room.”

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