Field School in Industrial Archaeology
Michigan Technological University

West Point Foundry

The West Point Foundry (1818-1912) began operating as a munitions contractor making cannon and shot. The foundry grew to employ hundreds of workers manufacturing a wide array of weaponry and ordinance, steam engines, water wheels, iron clad sailing ships, architectural elements, domestic stoves and ovens, and innumerable other cast iron objects. The foundry’s prominent owners were among the first industrialists to employ "vertically integrated" production, where they controlled every aspect of manufacture from extracting raw ore to marketing their finished products.

The 2003 field season will include excavation and survey throughout the entire site. Broad survey testing will complement intensive research at several locations, including the Boring Mill (where workers drilled the large cannon bores), one of the early furnaces (where ore and fuel were reduced to raw iron and slag), and the administrative and domestic structures. Volunteers will rotate through several different locales during their team’s visit.

Project Description and Goals:

The West Point Foundry Archaeological Project began in 2001 as a long-term, collaborative research program between the Industrial Archaeology faculty at Michigan Technological University and the directors of the Scenic Hudson Land Trust, Inc. The foundry’s Nineteenth-century owners and workers made highly significant contributions to national and international events throughout that century, including the American Civil War, the industrial revolution, the Caribbean sugar and American cotton industries and their slave trade, and the development of a global economy. We direct our research at the foundry toward two parallel, yet complementary, objectives. We are excavating the site to recover technical details on foundry operations as well as to learn about everyday life among foundry workers. Drawing together diverse lines of evidence will permit us to narrate the story of this early industrial workplace and contribute to a wide range of academic discussions in industrial and historical archaeology, the history of technology, and the cultural anthropology of industrial communities. Concurrent with the academic goals, Scenic Hudson is developing a strategy for public interpretation at this site. The foundry site will be interpreted to the world, drawing visitors to Cold Spring to learn about the contributions the West Point Foundry made to local, national, and international events during its operation. Scenic Hudson is particularly interested in explaining the role the local environment played in shaping the evolving technologies at the foundry while the foundry concurrently created dramatic changes in the ecosystem. The archaeological researchers form one part of this developing interpretive plan. Field staff and volunteers speak casually with visitors about site history and the research process, discuss interpretation with members of the local community, and contribute ideas about what and how the site’s elements should be interpreted. The research crews become a pubic exhibition in their own right.

The West Point Foundry site is particularly well suited for the study of technological questions regarding the incremental improvements adapted to iron casting, especially large and heavy ordnance. Our research continues along several parallel themes outlined by Elizabeth Norris (2002: 125-153). The archaeological excavation and survey intersects several of these themes in different ways. In the widest possible sense, we are concerned with the evolution of the industrial work process, the interdependent political and economic history of this military-industrial facility, the formation of communities effected by the demographics and social relationships of industrialism. We also strive to understand the development of an industrial landscape and the relationship between the industrial and ecological systems that co-evolved on the banks of the Foundry Brook.

During the 2002 field season, the research team completed a comprehensive digital site map documenting variations in topography, extant architecture, remnants of buildings, and machinery footings visible on the surface. We also completed a survey of historic maps and photographs, which were digitally duplicated while cataloged. Over the last year, the project staff began compiling the new map of modern surface features and digitally overlaying historic maps onto that base. We will use this composite map to verify the locations of numerous structures related to manufacturing, workers’ housing, and management. In addition, we will study the transportation, power, and water systems that connect those structures above and below the ground’s surface.

Our 2003 archaeological excavations will explore the nature of subsurface deposits. With our composite map in hand, the research teams will examine specific portions of the factory’s process. Each team will include staff, student, and volunteer members. The excavation teams will examine key industrial structures, among them several furnaces, the forge, the casting house, and the cannon boring mill. We will undertake additional testing at the site of the workers’ housing and in the standing 1864 office building. Volunteers will assist visiting experts with a ground-penetrating radar survey and other remote sensing equipment. The geophysics survey will attempt to map key elements of the subsurface infrastructure at the site, with particular attention to the network of dams, cisterns, pipes, and vaulted-brick sewers that moved water under the foundry and provided power to the machinery.

Site Significance:

The West Point Foundry site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places because it played an important role in industrialization at local, regional, national, and international levels. It was one of four national armories established following the War of 1812 and enjoyed numerous government contracts for cannon, shot, and shell. During the Civil War, the foundry manufactured much of the Union Army’s artillery. These products included the famous Parrott gun, a refined rifled cannon developed by the foundry’s Superintendent, Robert Parrott. Guns produced in Cold Spring included both brass and iron cannons that ranged from ten to four hundred pounders. The foundry staff became so famous for their quality work that Jules Verne critically immortalized them in his 1865 book From The Earth to the Moon. In that text, Verne wrote of the artillery production process the staff used at the famous "Goldspring Foundry" in New York as they cast the tremendous cannon and shell that carried his crew to the moon.

Foundry workers also manufactured a variety of non-military cast iron products that were marketed throughout the United States and abroad. For example, it manufactured machinery for cotton mills in America’s southern states and sugar mills in Austria, Nova Scotia, and the Caribbean. Some of America's earliest steam engines were built there, as well as several of the first locomotives manufactured on this continent. The company cast and constructed the Best Friend (1830), the West Point (1831), the DeWitt Clinton (1831), the South Carolina (1832), the Phoenix (1832), and the Experiment (1832). The foundry also cast both cannon and structural parts for iron-clad ships which transformed nautical technology. Workers cast the marine engines and boilers for the frigates Missouri and Mississippi and the steamships Erie, Champlain, Rochester, and Swallow. When at peak production, the foundry produced a dizzying array of objects, including high- and low-pressure stationary steam engines and boilers, a variety of mill equipment and machinery, sugar cane presses, kettles, box stoves and ovens, wheels, plummer blocks, gudgeons, shafts, cranks, flanges, and even the water pipes, hydraulic cylinders, and elbows for the Croton water supply system in New York City.

The foundry employees were international as their products. The owners initially recruited skilled workers and supervisors from Ireland and England, despite British laws designed to prevent it. The foundry’s influence led to the incorporation of the villages of Cold Spring and Nelsonville, and both became early examples of company towns. The first owner imported Spanish techniques after studying in that country. The West Point Foundry became a first-class casting facility, maintaining an office and finishing facility in New York City. By mid-century, several hundred workers were employed at the foundry. Despite the importance of their daily work, archaeology provides the clearest insights into the workers’ daily lives.

Project Significance:

The evolution of industrialism brought profound change to cultures around the world. Industrialism was once considered a human revolution, like the evolution of agriculture and urbanism. Scholars increasingly view the spread of industrial technologies and social relations throughout the world as a gradual and uneven development. Some writers have come to emphasize the unique localized mixtures of culture and technology within environmental and historical contexts. In this context, the West Point Foundry site serves as a unique opportunity for study. The foundry’s techniques and processes were not the "one best way" to run an industrial foundry. The factory’s system was instead the agglomeration of the creativity of a large group of technically skilled people and the process improvements can not be simply ascribed to the factory owner. Individuals on the shop floor adapted their actions to each new load of iron ore in the furnace and each new challenge in machining. These incremental adaptations occurred within environmental contexts that constrained actions while at the same time radically influencing the environment itself. Archaeology gives us unique insights into the important technological innovations that occurred within such a significant iron casting facility during the nineteenth century.

The West Point Foundry was important for reasons that surpassed the technology employed at the site. The WPF also embodied the intersection of the social and technological changes in industrialization. The foundry bridged between craft-based production enterprises and modern industrialism. The factory was run by owners and managers who generally knew a great deal about ironwork, much like the heart of craft-based production. Gouverneur Kemble and Robert Parrott, for example, both knew a great deal about iron casting and ordinance. Yet these two and their peers ran the foundry as a modern industrial factory where they focused upon business issues and left the detailed operation of production segments to a skilled set of middle managers. Apprenticed youth worked alongside immigrant laborers, both skilled and unskilled. In addition, the owners were among the first industrialists to adopt a vertical integration of production, where they managed the entire production system from the acquisition of raw materials to the sale of finished products. This mine-to-market mentality became an important part of early industrial production.

The foundry provides a unique opportunity to study of social dynamics of Victorian-era company towns. The foundry and the town evolved together over nearly a century. Over this time several different managers and owners instituted different models of industrial capitalism at the site. This development influenced the growth of the communities surrounding the foundry and the after-effects are still felt in Cold Spring.
Inexpensive and reliable steel production techniques grew more common in America in the second half of the nineteenth century. The operators of the West Point Foundry never produced a marketable quantity of steel and the quantity of business for cast iron products slowly declined until the company was shut down in 1894. A series of other iron companies occupied portions of the site through 1911, and some expansions occurred. The various companies added a bridge complex and a "Jappaning Shop" for the manufacture of enameled metals. None of the new companies became as successful or as long lived as the West Point Foundry. By combining the traditional skills of an archaeologist with diverse other data from archaeometalurgy and the study of the foundry’s products, documentary research, military records, historic photographs and maps, and remote sensing, we will examine the unique elements in the West Point Foundry story and compare it with other ironworks in North America and Europe.

  • Timothy Scarlett, Department of Social Sciences
    Michigan Technological University, 1400 Townsend Drive, Houghton, MI 49931-1295 USA
  • Telephone: (906) 487-2359
  • Fax:(906)487-2468

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