Arsenal reproducing cast-iron plaques of the Gettysburg Address

Arsenal reproducing cast-iron plaques of the Gettysburg Address

The speech lasted only a few minutes. But Curt Lipovic and his team at the Rock Island Arsenal have taken great care and several months etching every letter and pouring molten iron into the molds needed to replicate the most famous 272 words publicly spoken in American history.

These aren't just anyone's words. They form Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.

"This was quite a task. We had to make all of the letters separately," said Lipovic, hot metal branch chief. "Someone from Washington, D.C., had to come out and inspect it."

The Joint Manufacturing and Technology Center on Arsenal Island is producing 62 cast-iron plaques of the Gettysburg Address for display at national cemeteries around the United States. Some are replacements for original plaques lost through the years.

The work is a partnership between the Arsenal and National Cemetery Administration.

The tablets, which measure 5 feet by 3 feet, are exact replicas of the original made in 1908 at the Arsenal and the work of making the pattern began last November.

Making historic markers is very different from making parts for howitzers or trucks, Lipovic said.

The process begins with melting scrap iron in a furnace capable of reaching 2,550 degrees Fahrenheit at the foundry, program manager Roger Beine said. A crane operator and two melters wearing protective silver clothing on Tuesday poured about 5 tons of molten iron into a bucket. A siren shrills a warning as the bucket is moved to the molds and sparks fly as the melters fill each mold. Tiny flames ripple along the top of the mold as the process of cooling begins.

"It takes two hours to cool," Beine said. The entire process requires about three weeks to complete.

The work of recording Lincoln's words in iron - or producing a diverse array of products - calls for caution. "We've got a very good safety record. It's a very dangerous job. One thing about (hot) metal, you have to respect it," Lipovic said.

After cooling down, the plaques are moved to the welding and fabrication building, where workers use laser technology, unheard of in the 1860s, to etch JMTC logos on the back. The commemorative signs go through the final process of being painted and detailed and readied for a century or more of use at America's national cemeteries

Painter Melinda Sawvell pours paint into a tray before picking up a miniature roller and delicately stroking white onto the letters.

"It's just an honor to do something like this for all the fallen soldiers," she said. "You just want to make (them) quality. Nice quality. It's going to be around for a long time."

President Lincoln might be surprised to know his words, given during the Nov. 19, 1863, dedication of Soldiers' National Cemetery at Gettysburg, Pa., are remembered still. His speech was only secondary to the main, 13,607-word speech, given by the Hon. Edward Everett, which ran on for about two hours.

There's already a cast-iron plaque of the Gettysburg Address mounted on granite at the National Cemetery on Arsenal Island. It is believed to be an original from 1908.

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The public is invited to attend the third annual Industry Day at the Rock Island Arsenal Joint Manufacturing and Technology Center on Aug. 6.

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