West Point Foundry Preserve
Prior to the Revolutionary War, the American colonies—rife with natural resources—were practically devoid of any large-scale industrial capabilities. This disparity stemmed from the economic reliance perpetuated by British colonialism. Protectorates of the Crown supplied raw materials to Britain, where they were processed into finished goods and shipped back to the colonies at marked-up prices. Oppressive, profit-oriented proclamations destabilized American manufacturing capacity and prevented the establishment of sufficient industrial infrastructure, which hindered domestic production following independence. Weapons manufacturing was particularly inadequate. America’s decentralized iron foundries lacked the proper implementation and efficiency to produce artillery pieces in large quantities. Imported goods supplemented the majority of America’s military needs, which only reinforced foreign dependency and inhibited economic autonomy.
During the War of 1812, the United States possessed only two cannon foundries, one of which—Principio Iron Works near Havre de Grace, Maryland—was destroyed by British forces in 1813. This industrial ineptitude, coupled with Britain’s stringent naval blockades along the East Coast, drastically limited America’s munitions supply. Unlike other industries that were stimulated by the self-reliant wartime economy, domestic armament production failed to capitalize and remained meager throughout the conflict, which posed a significant risk to the preservation of national security.
Following the Treaty of Ghent, American leadership made steadfast efforts to bolster the nation’s military prowess and weapons manufacturing capacity. When President James Madison signed “An Act for the Gradual Increase of the Navy” in April 1816, the War Department commissioned three iron foundries in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C., and Richmond, Virginia, to produce artillery for the federal government. A fourth ordnance factory was established the following year by Gouverneur Kemble and the West Point Foundry Association in Cold Spring, New York.
Situated within the Mid-Hudson Valley, Cold Spring was an advantageous setting for industrial ironmaking. The surrounding Hudson Highlands yielded plentiful iron ore deposits and hardwood forest to fuel foundry operations, while the adjacent Hudson River offered accessible means of transportation and commerce. Margaret’s Brook, which flowed longitudinally through the proposed complex, supplied its essential hydropower through a series of raceways, dams, and waterwheels engineered by James Muirhead and William Young. The West Point Foundry Association incorporated on April 18, 1818, and cannon casting operations commenced shortly thereafter.
Each gun began as a wooden model, sculpted by carpenters in the foundry’s pattern shop. These patterns were then encased in a mixture of clay and sand to form a hinged, two-part mold. Foundrymen inside the molding shop poured molten iron into the mold’s cavity. Once the iron had cooled, it was transported to the boring mill where a water-powered turbine drilled into the shaft, creating the gun’s barrel. Finally, at the finishing shop, skilled machinists ground crude cannons down to their proper dimensions while ordnance inspectors closely examined their handiwork for defects.
In 1827, the Foundry erected a forty-foot-tall blast furnace to augment its supply of pig iron. A 35-foot waterwheel powered its bellows, which kept the forge aflame 24 hours a day during its forty-week campaigns, producing an average of thirty tons of pig iron per week. The addition of the blast furnace completed Kemble's vision of a self-sufficient, vertically integrated enterprise. This combination of iron forging, casting, and machining synergized the production of heavy industrial equipment and complex machinery. In 1830, the innovative ironworks manufactured the Best Friend of Charleston for the South Carolina Canal & Rail Road Company. A feat of mechanical engineering, the Best Friend was the first American-built steam locomotive for commercial use. The Foundry’s versatile operations attracted widespread expertise and talent. During its first two decades of existence, West Point Foundry expanded from sixty laborers to more than four hundred, making it one of America's largest industrial corporations.
In 1836, Robert Parker Parrott—an 1824 West Point graduate and former Captain of Ordnance with the U.S. Army—became the Foundry's superintendent. Prior to his appointment, Parrott taught physics at his alma mater and served in the Third Regiment of Artillery during the Creek War of 1836. His tested weaponry knowledge and resolute leadership helped West Point Foundry navigate through the financial Panic of 1837 and into an era of profound industrial growth. During the 1840s, the corporation emerged as a leading producer of steam engines, water pumps, and mill machinery. The Foundry also fabricated cast-iron building materials and assembled architectural components for lower Manhattan's Edgar Laing Stores (c. 1849)—the first multi-storied building in America that featured a self-supporting, cast-iron frame. When Kemble retired in 1857, Parrott assumed control as the Foundry’s sole proprietor.
In 1860, Robert Parrott developed the revolutionary Parrott Gun—a rifled ordnance design with enhanced range, accuracy, and striking velocity compared to traditional smooth-bore weapons. To create the rifling, Foundry machinists bored cannon barrels using a grooved cylinder. Wrought iron bands reinforced each gun’s breech, which compensated for the increased powder charges required to fire projectiles from rifled barrels. Since Parrott alone held the cannon’s design and manufacturing patents, all licensed Parrott Guns were produced exclusively at West Point Foundry during the Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln, himself, toured the Foundry in June 1862 following an official meeting with General Winfield Scott at the United States Military Academy. During his visit, Lincoln inspected the manufactory’s inner workings and witnessed an impressive demonstration of the Parrott Gun’s power and precision from the Foundry’s gun testing platform.
During the Civil War, West Point Foundry manufactured over 2,500 cannons and three million projectiles; however, that productivity was briefly disrupted in March 1864, when the Laboring Men’s Union organized a strike to protest the Foundry’s meager pay and exploitative working conditions. Nearly 1,200 employees participated in the walkout, but Parrott refused to adjust their wages and requested military assistance to arrest the strike organizers. The unsuccessful picketers reluctantly returned to work three days later under armed guard.
In 1867, Parrott resigned as West Point Foundry’s superintendent and relegated the company’s charter to Paulding, Kemble & Company—a commercial firm owned by four of Gouverneur Kemble’s nephews. Unfortunately, the need for iron ordnance rapidly declined as steel production became more refined during the Reconstruction Era. The corporation sold limited quantities of cast-iron artillery to foreign governments and never fulfilled the same levels of production achieved during the Civil War. Unable to establish a consistent source of revenue, Paulding, Kemble & Company relinquished ownership of the Foundry in 1887. The industrial complex was purchased eleven years later by J.B. & W.W. Cornell & Company, who fabricated cast-iron bridge components and outdoor furniture; however, the firm succumbed to bankruptcy following the Panic of 1907 and abandoned the Foundry in 1911.
Between 1952 and 1979, the Marathon Battery Corporation utilized Foundry Cove as a disposal site for their toxic waste products. The inlet’s ecosystem was so badly contaminated that it was designated “the most cadmium-polluted site in the world.” In 1989, Foundry Cove was designated a Federal Superfund Site by the Environmental Protection Agency and underwent extensive ecological restoration and archaeological investigation. During the seven-year cleanup campaign, more than 145,000 artifacts were recovered, including the Foundry’s cannon testing platform. In 1996, Scenic Hudson purchased the historic property and invested six million dollars to create today’s West Point Foundry Preserve—an outdoor exhibition of the site’s industrial legacy and natural conservation.
The half-mile Yellow Foundry Trail loop leads visitors past several noteworthy sites around the preserve. Though many above-ground elements have been lost over the years, brick-and-mortar foundations and collapsed ruins mark where the foundry’s former structures once stood. A reconstructed Gun Testing Platform stands atop the original’s location, where newly-cast cannons fired projectiles across the river at Crow’s Nest Mountain to assess accuracy and power.
To the north stands the iconic 1865 Office Building. Constructed to exemplify the company’s innovation and national prestige, this two-story Italianate structure has withstood the test of time as the preserve’s lone surviving building from the Foundry’s active years. The crumbling exteriors of the carpentry and pattern shops stand within the woods across from the Office Building.
The walkway continues between the collective molding, casting, and machine shop foundations. Within the Boring Mill’s residual stonemasonry stands an artistic replica of its 36-foot back shot waterwheel, which powered the machinery used to drill and rifle cannon barrels. A Red Trail extension can be found to the right of the mill, which leads curious visitors around the blacksmith shop ruins to Battery Pond—an overflow basin created by the Foundry’s dam system. Above Battery Pond lie the remains of the Foundry’s blast furnace, which went out of operation in 1844.
Back at the Boring Mill, hikers can climb the adjacent stairwell and appreciate an elevated view of the Foundry’s campus. To the southwest, another Red Trail extension passes through the remnants of Rascal Hill—a company housing community constructed in the early 1800s. From here, the Yellow Trail terminates a couple hundred yards away at the parking area.
There are two additional Foundry sites located outside the immediate conservation area. Along the banks of the Hudson River stands the Chapel Restoration—a Roman Catholic church constructed for the Foundry’s Irish laborers. Designed in 1833 by eighteen-year-old Thomas Kelah Wharton, the Chapel was refurbished in the 1970s and currently hosts concerts and other private events. The Putnam History Museum, housed within the former Foundry School, is located on Chestnut Street and contains several exhibits dedicated to the Foundry’s storied legacy.
West Point Foundry was one of the great early American ironworks—revolutionary in its production methodology, efficiency, and ingenuity. While a century of neglect has expunged much of the Foundry’s physical features, its reputation as a renowned center of innovation and industry persists. A truly remarkable example of archaeological preservation, the West Point Foundry Preserve succeeds in its mission to protect and contextualize America’s industrial heritage. Trail Rating: 10/10
Read the following resources for more West Point Foundry history:
The American Society of Mechanical Engineers. West Point Foundry and the Great Works of Mechanical Engineering before the Civil War. Scenic Hudson, 2019.
Bhatiya, Neil. "The War of 1812 and the Creation of the WPFA." Hudson River Valley Institute.
Grace, Trudie A., and Mark Forlow. West Point Foundry. Arcadia Publishing, 2014.
Norris, Elizabeth M., "Cold Spring, Hot Foundry: An Archaeological Exploration of the West Point Foundry’s Paternal Influence Upon the Village of Cold Spring and its Residents." (2009). Open Access Dissertations. 144.
Walton, Steven A. “Founding a Foundry: The Diary of the Setting-Out of the West Point Foundry, 1817.” IA. The Journal of the Society for Industrial Archeology 35, no. 1/2 (2009): 25–38.