Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings
Ownership and Administration. U.S. Government; Department of Defense.
Significance. The history of this arsenal and its production of arms illustrates the Nation's growth from a militarily weak and struggling young country to a world power. The arsenal has supplied ammunition, cannon, and other ordnance materiel to our armed forces during all the wars in which they have participated since the War for Independence.
The outbreak of the War of 1812 stimulated the arsenal's founding. In July 1813 the Federal Government, for the sum of $2,585, purchased 12 acres of land, now in the northeast corner of the arsenal, and almost immediately began construction. The main structures were built of brick and arranged in a square. By the end of the war, in January 1815, some 70 or 80 men stationed at the arsenal had not only completed the initial construction but had also manufactured ordnance items and ammunition for use in the northern and western campaigns. In 1821 the Federal Government allowed the State of New York to channel the Erie Canal through the arsenal grounds in return for use of the canal's water to run some machines.
By 1846 the arsenal included 75 additional acres of land and many new buildings. One of the most impressive, a stone structure erected in 1826, could store more than 200,000 muskets. By 1835 the arsenal employed 90 civilian workers, in addition to 45 enlisted men. During the war with Mexico (1846-48), activity expanded; 23 forge fires burned constantly, and about 200 boys were employed to help roll paper cartridges for rifles. After the war the arsenal served as an arms storage and repair center. During the Civil War the arsenal employed about 2,000 people, about a fourth of them children, and consumed up to 10,000 pounds of lead a day. Following the war it resumed its peacetime function of storing arms.
In 1887 a Board of Ordnance Officers recommended the arsenal as the site of a cannon factory, and in 1888-89 a Gun Factory Board prepared a report on the manufacture of cannon. In the latter year construction began on a factory for their production at Watervliet, which was completed in 1891. The north wing, 400 feet long, was finished in 1890, as was also the 166-foot-long central section. The south wing was completed the following year. The production of seacoast cannon had begun in July 1889. By 1896 production began to decline, but 2 years later the Spanish-American War stimulated activities, and the annual out put of cannon in 1899 was 134.
Between 1898 and 1902 the factory produced America's first 16-inch gun; it was 49 feet long, weighed 385,400 pounds, and fired a 2,370-pound projectile about 21 miles. Prior to World War I the factory produced a number of 14-inch seacoast cannon to defend the Panama Canal and Manila Bay. In World War I production burgeoned, and in 1918 the arsenal manufactured 465 cannon. During World War II output reached an all-time peak. Since that time the arsenal has continued to develop and produce weapons and other ordnance, including the Nation's first atomic cannon.
Watervliet Arsenal is eligible for the Registry of National Historic Landmarks relating primarily to the development of commerce and industry.
Present Appearance. The arsenal is still an active U.S. Army installation. The cannon factory, whose total length is 1,300 feet, is the most impressive building. Except for a World War I addition, its exterior remains nearly unchanged from the original appearance. None of the original buildings have survived. The earliest extant buildings include the commanding officer's quarters, a large stone structure completed in 1842; a similar building erected in 1848 for additional officers' quarters; and a stone barracks, completed in 1843. Of special interest at the arsenal is the first all-metal building in the United States, built in 1859 of prefabricated plates that had been cast in New York City. It is now used as a warehouse. Certain areas of the arsenal are open to the public.
NHL Designation: 11/13/66
Last Updated: 29-Aug-2005