Watertown Arsenal

by Erin McGough, Collections Manager

Watertown Arsenal, building -71, Historic American Buildings Survey (Library of Congress); Call Number HAER MASS,9-WATO,5J; Survey number HAER MA-20-J; digital id:http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hhh.ma1318. These plans are in the public domain because they are original work of the US Federal Government.

Watertown Arsenal, building -71, Historic American Buildings Survey (Library of Congress); digital id:http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hhh.ma1318. These plans are in the public domain because they are original work of the US Federal Government.

Some weeks ago, I chose to highlight two artifacts relating to the Watertown Arsenal for my next contribution to our “Duxbury in the Civil War” blog. Now, in the aftermath of events in Boston and Watertown, it seems difficult to sit down and write a blog article. As history unfolds before our eyes, how can we turn our attention to the events of many years ago? And yet, as I watched the news and saw the police, FBI, and National Guard converge on the parking lot of the Watertown Arsenal shopping complex, I was reminded of the blog article I had yet to finish. The two artifacts I had selected to write about serve to remind us of the proud history of the arsenal and the community of Watertown.

Cap pouch, leather and brass; "Geo N. Goodrich" written inside outer flap with monogram; "Watertown/ Arsenal/ 1864" stamped on inner flap. Collection of the Duxbury Rural and Historical Society, 1955.005.019. Owned by George N. Goodrich - Army records indicate only one Private George N. Goodrich, who served in the 152nd New York Volunteer Infantry during the Civil War.

Cap pouch, leather and brass; “Geo N. Goodrich” written inside outer flap with monogram; “Watertown/ Arsenal/ 1864″ stamped on inner flap. Collection of the Duxbury Rural and Historical Society, 1955.005.019. Owned by George N. Goodrich – Army records indicate only one Private George N. Goodrich, who served in the 152nd New York Volunteer Infantry during the Civil War.

Included in the collection of the Duxbury Rural and Historical Society are a Civil War cap pouch and cartridge box. Both of them were distributed through the Watertown Arsenal in 1864 and both are stamped accordingly. Arsenal shopping mall, park, restaurants and offices were once part of a major U.S. Army arsenal that operated through most of the 19th and 20th centuries. The site is now registered on the ASCE’s List of Historic Civil Engineering Landmarks and on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.

Cartridge box, leather and brass with tin insert; Embossed "U.S." on outside flap; stamped "Watertown/ Arsenal/ 1864/ US" on inside flap. Collection of the Duxbury Rural and Historical Society, Gift of James Kolstad, 2005.341.001.

Cartridge box, leather and brass with tin insert; Embossed “U.S.” on outside flap; stamped “Watertown/ Arsenal/ 1864/ US” on inside flap. A typical late-war pattern. The early war boxes carried a brass “US” plate rather than the more practical and expedient embossed letters. Collection of the Duxbury Rural and Historical Society, Gift of James Kolstad, 2005.341.001.

In 1794, an Act of Congress established an arsenal at Charlestown, Massachusetts to supply ordnance (weapons and ammunition) to the Army and organized militia in the New England states. But the War of 1812 and the United States’ increased military involvement at sea necessitated the need for a naval repair yard in Boston Harbor. Better suited to this endeavor, the arsenal at Charlestown was turned over to the U.S. Navy and the Army had to look elsewhere for a new arsenal. Watertown was chosen because it offered proximity to Boston, had available building materials, and was easily accessible by water. It was also inland and on an elevated landscape, protecting the arsenal from enemy attack [1]. By 1819, the first buildings were completed. Some buildings stored arms and ammunition, while others housed workmen repairing artillery and making small arms cartridges. There were also machine shops, blacksmiths, and carpenters. These buildings opened only onto the Arsenal’s quadrangle and a high brick wall encircled the entire complex, lending security and protection to the facility.

Detail of cartridge box, 2005.341.001.

Detail of cartridge box, 2005.341.001.

The Arsenal expanded during the Civil War to meet the war’s demand for gun carriages. Beyond accommodating a sizeable output in the manufacture of regular military equipment, the Ordnance Department directed the Arsenal to fashion carriages for large coastal defense guns of iron instead of wood [2]. This directive necessitated the construction of two major buildings in the early 1860′s. The post also expanded to accommodate the larger number of military officers and enlisted men stationed there. Captain Thomas J. Rodman, inventor of the Rodman Gun, was assigned as commander of the Arsenal during the U.S. Civil War. He was heavily criticized for the construction of one of the largest commanding officer’s quarters in the U.S. Army at the Arsenal [3]. The three-story, 12,700 square foot, brick mansion is virtually the same as it was in Rodman’s day and was placed on the National Registry of Historic Places in 1976 [4]. The Arsenal also employed 600 people by 1863, 10% of whom were women; by the end of the war, the Arsenal employed 800 people, 100 of whom were female [5].

Filling cartridges at the United States Arsenal at Watertown, Massachusetts Illus. in: Harper's weekly, v. 5, 1861 July 20, p. 449 (cover). Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/98507937/ (Accessed 4/21/2012) Dated only 2 months after the Confederate bombing of Fort Sumter, this cover shows men and women preparing cartridges for the U.S. Army.

“Filling cartridges at the United States Arsenal at Watertown, Massachusetts”
Illus. in: Harper’s Weekly, v. 5, 1861 July 20, p. 449 (cover).
Dated only 2 months after the Confederate bombing of Fort Sumter, this cover shows men and women preparing cartridges for the U.S. Army.

The 1890′s marked a significant turning point in the industrial history of the Arsenal. At this point, the Arsenal’s role in the military shifted from ordnance depot to manufacturing plant. Large industrial buildings were added to the complex. So were railroad tracks, which supplied steel, coal, and oil and took away large artillery from the production lines. This increase in scale and complexity of manufacturing continued during WWI and WWII, during which the Arsenal tripled its size and by the end of WWII, the Arsenal employed 10,000 people [6]. It is during this period that the Arsenal contributed to the development of some of the most powerful artillery ever made, including the “atomic cannon.” The M65 Atomic Cannon, often called Atomic Annie, was a towed artillery piece built by the United States and capable of firing a nuclear device. It was developed in the early 1950s at the beginning of the Cold War, and was used in Europe and Korea [7].

Interestingly, the post-WWII era saw a dramatic shift in the mission of the Arsenal, as it changed its activities away from manufacturing altogether and became a materials testing facility for the U.S. Army. From 1959 to 1960, the Horace Hardy Lester Nuclear Reactor was erected to fulfill the needs of the research programs. The Lester Reactor was based on the design of the Bulk Shielding Facility at Oak Ridge National Cemetery. It was shut down in 1970, and as of 1985, the welded steel plate containment shell and cooling tower were all that remained [8]. It would not be until 1995 that the last of the Army’s presence would be withdrawn, but the majority of the Arsenal was sold off or repurposed around 1968. The long-term use of the site as a manufacturing plant and as a nuclear reactor led the EPA to add the Watertown Arsenal to its Superfund list in 1996. Fortunately, due to the efforts of the community, regulators, and the army, the site was finally taken off the Superfund list in 2006 [9].

To look at the manicured and planned shopping mall, parks, and offices that compose the complex today, one might easily miss the fact that the Watertown Arsenal possesses significance as a major development and production facility for military hardware, and that it had an active role in nearly every military conflict for two centuries. It is fortunate, then, that we preserve objects like the cap pouch and cartridge box, to remind us to look further and to see the story that lies beneath.

[1] Historic American Engineering Record, Watertown Arsenal, 1985, accessed at  (4/21/2013).
[2] Historic American Engineering Record, Watertown Arsenal, 1985, accessed at  (4/21/2013).
[3] This house is now open to the public and available for rentals. See http://www.commandersmansion.com/ (Accessed 4/21/2013).
[4] http://fortwiki.com/Watertown_Arsenal (Accessed 4/21/2013).
[5] A History of the Watertown Arsenal, Watertown, Mass.: 1816-1967. Edited and reprinted by Alan R. Earls, 2010. ISBN-10 0982548524. Note that this is a wonderful resource for photographs and images associated with the Watertown Arsenal. A 2007 preview of the book is available online.
[6] http://www.epa.gov/superfund/programs/recycle/live/region1_ma.html (Accessed 4/22/2013).
[7] A History of the Watertown Arsenal, Watertown, Mass.: 1816-1967. Edited and reprinted by Alan R. Earls, 2010. ISBN-10 0982548524. Note that this is a wonderful resource for photographs and images associated with the Watertown Arsenal. A 2007 preview of the book is available online, with images. See also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M65_Atomic_Cannon (Accessed 4/22/2013).
[8] Historic American Engineering Record, Watertown Arsenal, 1985, accessed at  (4/21/2013).
[9] http://charlesriverconservancy.blogspot.com/2012/06/watertown-arsenal.html (Accessed 4/22/2013). See also http://www.epa.gov/superfund/programs/recycle/live/region1_ma.html (Accessed 4/22/2013).