History and Preservation of the West Point Foundry in Cold Spring

Lost and foundry: An important historic site in Cold Spring gets a major makeover from Scenic Hudson


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west point foundryPresent-day visitors to the newly renovated preserve admire the full-scale model of the foundry’s gun testing platform. Finished cannons were brought here to be fired at a target painted on Crow’s Nest Mountain on the western side of the Hudson River
Photographs by Robert Rodruiguez Jr./courtesy of Scenic Hudson

On June 24, 1862, with the war going badly, the New York Tribune reported that President Lincoln had arrived at West Point “at an early hour this morning.”

One U.S. congressman later wrote that the president’s trip upriver “startled the country and quite as much startled the Cabinet, as not a single member of it had any intimation of his intended journey.” Speculation was that Lincoln was considering changes to Union Army leadership and wanted Scott’s advice, but to this day no one knows exactly what Lincoln was here for; in his own inimitable words, he said in a speech on the way back to Washington, “Now, I can only remark that it had nothing whatever to do with making or unmaking any General in the country.”

What is known, however, is that the president not only conferred with generals, he also toured West Point and attended a dinner party during which he “charmed all the ladies with his conversational powers and affability.” And he took a side trip to Cold Spring, where he inspected the most important munitions factory in the nation — and one of the first representations of the burgeoning Industrial Revolution. The West Point Foundry, an ironworks built in the wake of the near-disastrous War of 1812, played an enormous role in supplying the Union Army with state-of-the-art weaponry and steam engines for trains. Later, it supplied pipes for New York City’s water system, and machinery for the cotton and sugar industries.

The foundry’s owners were perhaps the first to understand “vertical integration;” they controlled every aspect of the process from mining to manufacturing to distribution. This new system of production was made famous by the Carnegie Steel Company, and with the advent of steel, iron quickly fell out of favor. The West Point Foundry floundered and died in the early 20th century. Fallen to ruins and reclaimed by the woods, it sat mostly unappreciated, except by day-trippers who often hiked among the pretty surroundings. But this past fall, Scenic Hudson, which had bought the property more than 15 years ago, opened the restored and reclaimed site to anyone wishing to step back in time.

west point foundryBlast from the past: The West Point Foundry was a bustling business in the mid-19th century
Courtesy of the Putnam History Museum

Guns a-blazing

The foundry got its start in 1818. After the War of 1812, when the British nearly ended the “American Experiment” largely because we had no military to speak of, President James Madison sought to increase the country’s might by establishing munitions manufacturers to produce more armaments. The area around Cold Spring was perfect for such a factory. It had numerous iron ore mines nearby, there was plenty of timber for fuel, local waterways could power the machinery necessary, and the Hudson River provided an important shipping lane. In addition, West Point, just across the river, offered military protection.

Incorporated as the West Point Foundry Association by a merchant named Gouverneur Kemble, the ironworks opened shop in 1817, but its most influential figure came on board in 1835. That’s when a West Point graduate, then-Capt. Robert Parker Parrott, was appointed inspector of ordnance for the foundry. A year later, he resigned his army commission to become the site’s superintendent, and under his leadership the factory became a leader in munitions making. He and his brother, Peter Parrott, also managed the Kemble-owned furnaces and eventually bought one of them. And (why not?) Robert married Kemble’s niece, Mary, in 1839.

In 1843, the foundry built the USS Spencer, the first iron ship built in the U.S. But Parrott’s experiments in new ways to build artillery, bullets, and bombs led to his greatest invention, which carried his own name. The Parrott rifle, which debuted in 1860, was actually a cannon, and came in several sizes, the largest of which was called the 300-pounder — it weighed 26,000 pounds itself and could launch a 300-pound cannonball.

Not surprisingly, the foundry peaked during the Civil War, and its 1,400 workers transformed Cold Spring into one of America’s first “company towns.” The foundry built houses, churches, and a school, and shops sprung up on Main Street; many of these buildings still stand. During the war the factory produced 2,000 cannons and three million shells, including another Parrott invention, an incendiary shell used in the “Swamp Angel,” an eight-inch Parrott rifle used to blast Charleston. Although powerful, the guns were also dangerous — given to exploding — and often inaccurate. Workers tested them by firing at Storm King Mountain. During Lincoln’s visit, Parrott fired one across the river, but the president was reportedly unimpressed: “I’m confident you can hit that mountain over there, so suppose we get something to eat. I’m hungry,” he said.

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