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The Allegheny Arsenal

Entrance to Allegheny Arsenal, between 1900 and 1915

Fortieth, Butler, Thirty-Ninth & Penn Avenue

Pittsburg, Penna.

Allegheny County

The property on which, the arsenal stands was bought by CoIonel William Foster from a Mr. Hall on April 14, 1814.  It was sold by Col. Foster to the Government on April 9, 1814 for $12,000.00, thirty acres in all.

Work on the Arsenal was begun in 1814. A village of cabins was built for workmen, this settlement developing later into the modern district known as Lawrenceville. The first group of buildings and the stone wall with its gates, which entirely surrounds the two parts of the property was completed in 1820. Later additions were made upt to 1868. The arsenal served during the Civil War and was an active post up to 1926, when it was sold at public auction. Heinz acquitted the Northern half and the Southern half was given to the city of Pittsburh as a recreational area. This latter portion contained stables and power magazines. The stone powder house was measured and and drawn by the Western Pennsylvania Arichitectural Survey.

The Northern half, north of Butler street, contained buildings arranged in a square; there was a storehouse, three storis high, with a tower 120 feet high, constituting the main arsenal or magazine of arms and in this part there were erected officers' quarters, the barracks, the armory and variuos shops and offices.

The Arsenal manufactured gun carriages, armory, horse and infantry equipment and ammunition, but no cannon. One of the first steam engines in the United States was installed here in 1828 at a cost of $12,000.00.

In modern times, since the sale to private hands, the Northern portion has been extensively built over with warehouses, railroad spurs, etc. and some of the old buildings have been revised for other uses. There have been extensive alterations, the old sash removed, stairs altered, and in some cases portions of buildings demolished when the new Fortieth Street bridge was built.

The roofs of the original buildings were covered with copper. They were kept brightly burnished by the prisoners, so it is said. None of these roofs remain or if they do, are now covered with slate. Most of the chimney terminations have been re-built.

In 1828, a procession of honor for LaFayette halted at the Arsenal gate; he was given the national salute of 24 guns, one for each state in the Union, after which Major Churchill, the commandant, entertained him at breakfast.

The buildings are severe in line and with little or no embellishment. The commandant's quarters and its symmetrical twin opposite, the officers' quarters, are built of stone. This stone is scored in an interesting way. The original porch has been removed on the commandant's quaters and a later one added on two sides of the building. The stone has been painted red, obscuring the beauty of the original color and texture. The sash have mostly been removed but as several of the original ones remain they have served as a guide for supplyng the missing muntins on the drawings. The shutters have also been taken away. The brick portions were added later.

The barracks building is of particular interest, simple and ingenious in plan and with some very charming detail. The old stairway and the second floor mantels are particularly pleasing. Attention is called to the oval shaped plaster ceilings in teh N.C.O. quarters. (Non-commissioned officers.)

The Storehouse is an interesting building with a large winlass built in the roof space to hoist articles of weight to the second floor. The roof is supported with a wooden truss with friction joints.

The armory is an extremely simple stone structure with a beautifully laid ashlar wall.

The stone wall which surrounds the property is very attractive and the gates well designed. The guard house on Butler Street is evidently of a later date and inferior in design, but it has always struck the popular fancy and is usually featured in any publicity given the Arsenal. A move is on foot to preserve it permanently.


On the afternoon of the seventeenth of September, 1862, the city was shocked by the terrific explosion at the United States Arsenal, which totally demolished the laboratory, killing instantly seventy-four persons, boys, girls, men and women, and fatally injuring many others which swelled the death list to nearly eighty. The wrecked building immediately took fire,and the sight presented to the frantic crowd that gathered was heartrending. A number of the bodies when recovered were unrecognizable. About ten thousand tons of powder, besides hundreds of boxes of finished shells and cartridges, were in the laboratory at the time of the explosion, and the shock was distinctly felt throughout the two cities. An inquest was held and the verdict returned was "that said explosion was caused by the neglect of Colonel John Symington, the officer in command at the Allegheny Arsenal, and his lieutenants, J. R. Eddie and Jaspar E. Myers; and the gross neglect of Alexander McBride, superintendent of said laboratory, and his assistant, James Thorpe." The exact cause of the explosion was never definitely determined; it has even been attributed to the stamping of a horse on the stone walk outside the door-
way, thereby generating the fatal spark. The dead were buried in a lot donated by the Allegheny Cemetery Association, and a subscription raised for the erection of a monument and relief of the injured and families of the victims.

There was no time during the war that the Arsenal employees were not closely watched for evidences of disloyalty, and, in June of 1863, nine were discharged for this alleged reason. The action caused a great deal of feeling and comment, both in and out of the public prints. Some of the newspapers were sued for libel and the matter was the subject for discussion and resolutions in the city councils, the outcome of which was the appointment of a committee to investigate all the facts of the case and lay them before the Secretary of War for his action. However, nothing serious ever resulted, as several of the accused left the city.

Historic Tablet From Allegheny Arsenal

While Pittsburghers have been boasting that their city is distinguished in the present war as the ''Arsenal of the Allies," a peculiar shift of fate decreed that this year should witness the razing of the walls of a building which for more than a century housed the shops and laboratories of the Allegheny arsenal, one of the most important armories of the United States. On the site of this historic structure have been erected warehouses for the Quartermaster's Department of the army. Modern buildings were required and the grim stone relic was tumbled down by charges of dynamite to make way for the extensive improvements undertaken by the War Department.

In the light of twentieth century progress the United States arsenals in Pittsburgh cover a wide territory and are classed among a diversity of Government enterprises. The Allegheny Arsenal is no more; but the boast of Pittsburghers that their industrial community leads in the manufacture of munitions of war—that it is the great arsenal of America and her allies in the battle for liberty and humanity—is a literal fact.

While the old arsenal building has disappeared before the fury of the wrecking contractor's dynamite, its site will be suitably marked and the story of its importance in American histroy will be perpetuated by a tablet taken from its walls where it had reposed from 1814, the year of the erection of the arsenal, until February, 1918. Captain William F. Beck, one of the officers in charge of the improvements on the arsenal property, tendered the tablet to Mr. William H. Stevenson to be held in the custodianship of the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania. The tablet was placed temporarily in the offices of the Chamber of Commerce of Pittsburgh where it has attracted much attention. It is planned eventually to place the relic on a granite base as near as practicable to the site of the Allegheny Arsenal building. This work will be under the direction of the Pennsylvania Historical Commission and it is probable that the monument will be in Butler street adjacent to the gate of the old arsenal.

The tablet is of cast iron and doubtless is the product of one of the early foundries of Pittsburgh—doughty munition plants in the days of the War of 1812. It is oblong in shape approximately six feet long and three feet deep and weighs about 600 pounds. The design is striking in its simplicity but is well executed. In the center are two crossed cannon below a stack of nine cannonballs. In bold relief is the date—APRIL, 1814. Below are the letters "A. R. W." being the initials of Captain Abram R. Woolley, first commandant at the Allegheny Arsenal. Seventeen five-pointed stars, representing the number of states in the Union at the time of designing the tablet, encircle the border.

According to the Army Register, Captain Woolley was appointed from New Jersey in the Ordnance Department of the army on December 4th, 1812. He was promoted to the rank of Major of Ordnance February 9th, 1815 and transferred to the Sixth Infantry March 11th, 1823. He was advanced to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel December 16th, 1826, and dismissed May 1, 1829. On February 9th, 1825, he was made brevet Lieutenant Colonel for 10 years' faithful service in one grade.

Sources: Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine, Volumes 1-3, By Charles William Dahlinger, 1918; Historic American Buildings Survey, Charles M. Stotz, District Officer, 815 Bessemer Bldg., Pittsburgh, Pa., dated 1936; The History of Pittsburgh, by Sarah Hutchins Killikelly, 1906; Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA, Detroit Publishing Company Photo Collection; Transcribed by C. Anthony

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