Putnam History Museum debuts West Point Foundry photo book
By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong
It’s impossible to travel back in time to experience the West Point Foundry in its heyday. But those yearning to learn more about the bustling Cold Spring ironworks can trip through the pages of a new book whose photographs and little-known facts bring a bygone giant to life.
Written by Putnam History Museum Curator Trudie Grace and Mark Forlow, a history scholar and collector, the 128-page paperback, simply called West Point Foundry, is a title in Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series. It debuted this month and an authors’ lecture last Saturday (Jan. 18) packed the Putnam History Museum, a former foundry school building.
Widely known for manufacturing cannon credited with helping the Union win the Civil War, the foundry occupied approximately 90 acres stretching from what is now Route 9D to the Hudson River and owned other land nearby. Launched in 1817, it closed in 1911, about 13 years after it became a unit of the J.B. & J.M. Cornell Co. It fell into ruin and languished for the better part of a century before the environmental organization Scenic Hudson acquired the property and transformed it into a historical park.
After writing a similar photo history, Around Cold Spring, a couple of years ago, Grace told the lecture audience that she “felt prepared” for the foundry book project “except for one thing: I was the wrong gender,” having never as a child been fascinated by heavy machinery and military history, typically considered boys’ interests.
Enter Forlow, a resident of the North Highlands section of Philipstown, who, as he put it, has “never stopped reading history” and loves exploring its local angles – including anything related to the foundry’s long-time superintendent, Robert P. Parrott, a West Point graduate and Army officer who joined the foundry in 1836.
Parrott has been accused of engaging in industrial espionage or otherwise stealing the designs for the famous Parrott cannon, a rifled weapon bearing his name. Forlow recalled that a prominent resident mentioned a visit in 1860 by a Russian military officer who brought a drawing of a British rifled cannon known as the Armstrong gun. Consequently, “there’s some controversy of how much knowledge Parrott gained from this,” Forlow told the lecture audience.
Parrott’s first rifled cannon appeared in 1860, followed by more models in 1861, 1862, and 1864, during the Civil War. While some contemporaries may have suspected Parrott borrowed from the British gun, another American claimed Parrott had purloined his design and sued. Parrott won the lawsuit. Similar debunking followed insinuations that Parrott unfairly appropriated a schematic for a cannon shell from yet another inventor. “His design, his improvements, are his own,” Forlow said of Parrott. “I think not enough credit is given him as an engineer.”
The cannon wasn’t the only foundry item used in the Civil War. Ironically, both sides in the battle between the USS Monitor, a Union vessel, and its Confederate rival, the Virginia, had WPF connections. The Monitor sported smooth-bore (non-rifled) cannon from the foundry. And before serving the Confederacy the Virginia had been a U.S. Navy ship, the Merrimack, powered by a steam engine made at the foundry. Sunk early in the war, the Merrimack was salvaged and rebuilt by the Confederates.
Along with cannon and steam-ship engines, the foundry made agricultural equipment, household benches, water pipes, boilers, iron storefronts, lighthouse components, and more.
Likewise, as the Grace-Forlow book makes clear, foundry executives and workers contributed in countless ways to their community, with influences that linger and an allure that extends well beyond Cold Spring.
Grace said as she conducted research, “I was overwhelmed with the interest” of the public, here and elsewhere, in the foundry. Nor is it a 21st-century phenomenon. Her research turned up frequent accolades from 19th-century citizens impressed by WPF products and the vision of Gouverneur Kemble, who established the foundry, oversaw it for decades, and recruited Parrott and other innovators. “I kept running into this type of language – praise, definitive praise,” she said.
Even in France it appears, others took notice. Jules Verne’s popular 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon in part involves Goldspring, N.Y., (G substituting for the C in the real village’s first name) and a factory that closely resembles the West Point Foundry.
West Point Foundry is sold at the Putnam History Museum, 63 Chestnut St., Cold Spring, and is available online at $21.99 per copy from Arcadia Publishing.