From the Earth to the Moon: The West Point Foundry—Cold Spring, New York’s Monument to the American Industrial Revolution

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Jessica DuLong

Published December 1, 2010

About 50 miles north of New York City, the Hudson River curls around Constitution Island in a tight S-curve that churns river currents into powerful swirling eddies. This, the narrowest and deepest part of the Hudson, is still known to today’s mariners as World’s End. The rugged, 160-acre island in the middle of the Hudson Highlands, formerly known as Martelaer’s Rock (a corruption of marelaar’s reik, or “martyr’s reach”), was named by early Dutch sailors to describe the extremely difficult tack on the river.

In 1775, the New York Provincial Congress identified this site as key to military control of the Hudson River and surrounding valley because it offered the best defensive artillery positions against encroaching British warships.

Three years later, Colonel of Engineers Thaddeus Kosciuszko was selected to design West Point fortifications. And in 1779, Washington transferred his headquarters to West Point, known as the “American Gibraltar” for its impenetrability. West Point went on to become the oldest continuously occupied military post in America.

Following the American Revolution, in a 1793 message to Congress, Washington urged the establishment of an institution devoted to the arts and sciences of warfare to eliminate America’s wartime reliance on foreign engineers and artillerists. In 1802 the United States Military Academy opened at West Point with ten cadets in the first class. Among them was future general Joseph G. Swift, who later became one of the initial proprietors of an iron-making facility called the West Point Foundry (WPF).

As one of the nation’s largest and most successful nineteenth-century ironworks, the WPF, located across the river from West Point at the northernmost point of World’s End’s notorious ‘S’, made landmark contributions to United States history, producing the Civil War-era Parrott Gun as well as the country’s earliest steam engines and locomotives.

The WPF was significant not only because of what it made and how it made it, but also because the company’s novel structure proved to be a bellwether of the United States’ progression toward a modern industrial economy. The WPF boasted one of the earliest large, vertically-integrated factory complexes in the U.S. And although it was founded nearly 150 years before Eisenhower coined the phrase, the WPF can now be recognized as one of the earliest examples of the “military-industrial complex.”

As Stanley Kutler, editor of the series The American Moment wrote: “In 1800, the United States was a new, vastly undeveloped nation on the fringe of the western world. A century later, it stood at the threshold of commercial and financial supremacy, and was an emerging military power.” The WPF made contributions to American advancement on both counts.