HAWB 1816-1834 - West Point Foundry and Steam Power for the Navy

How America Was Built
HAWB 1816-1834 - West Point Foundry and Steam Power for the Navy
The following is an excerpt from my book Admiral Benjamin Franklin Isherwood and the Scientific Study of Steam Power (which will hopefully be published later this year), detailing how the U.S. government helped create a private enterprise in 1816, how that enterprise became a leading center of metal working and steam engine building, and how 18 years later the national government turned to that company to help the Navy adopt the new technology of steam propulsion. This is not the mythical laissez faire, "free market" capitalism that supposedly built the United States. It is a deliberate policy of nation building, originated by first Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, and carried out by his successors. 

By the early 1830s, there were some people beginning to worry about the more rapid development of naval steam power in Britain, but not much was done. Some Navy Secretaries briefly summarized known developments in the Royal Navy their annual reports, but Congress was not inclined to act on the matter.[1] Things began to change in July 1834, when U.S. Senator from New Jersey Mahlon Dickerson was appointed Secretary of the Navy. Dickerson had been chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce and Manufactures for the 16th through 18th Congresses and the Senate Committee on Manufactures from the 19th through 22nd Congresses, and no doubt was familiar with the state of steam engine design and manufacture in the country. The Board of Navy Commissioners was already in contact with engine builders, and was trying to obtain plans from the West Point Foundry.[2] In June 1835, President Andrew Jackson ordered Navy Secretary Dickerson to direct the Board of Naval Commissioners to actually begin building a steam battery. This would become the 181-foot, 1,200-ton Fulton II, based on Humphreys’ plans of 1831, with an additional 41 feet of length.

But the Navy had not a single officer or sailor with a solid knowledge of the design and operation of steam engines.... by the end of the year the Board was forced to admit it simply did not have the knowledge and expertise to carry it into effect. In a remarkable letter to Secretary Dickerson, dated December 30, 1835, the Commissioners frankly confessed “their ignorance upon the subject of steam engines” and doubted they would be able to even provide “necessary information to enable persons to make proper offers” to design and build the engines. “They [the Commissioners] are satisfied that they are incompetent themselves, and have no person under their direction who could furnish them with the necessary information to form a contract for steam engines that may secure the United States from imposition, disappointment, and loss…”[3]

Fully aware that they lacked the expertise to make any decisions regarding procurement of steam engines, the Board of Commissioners, requested assistance from Gouverneur Kemble, president of the West Point Foundry, at the time perhaps the largest iron foundry and engine builder in the country. The West Point Foundry was established in 1816 at one of four strategic locations selected by Secretary of War James Monroe and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander J. Dallas for the construction of iron foundries to produce cannon and shot for the Army and Navy. It was located in Cold Spring, New York, on the Hudson River opposite West Point. (The other foundry sites were Georgetown, D.C., Richmond, Va., and Pittsburgh, Penn.) To begin construction, $25,000 in direct funding was given to Gouverneur Kemble, a New York businessman “who had served Commodore Stephen Decatur's fleet as an assistant navy agent in Cadiz, Spain during the Barbary War in 1814,” and who therefore was “no stranger to the Navy Department's method of procuring supplies or doing business.”[4] 
The foundry’s first engine for a steamboat was built in 1823 for the James Kent. It was a very successful design, securing the company a leading reputation for building engines and other machinery. Over the next two decades the foundry built engines for a number of other boats, including Victory (1827), DeWitt Clinton (1828), Erie (1832), Champlain (1832), Highlander (1835), Swallow (1836), Rochester (1836), Utica (1837), and Troy (1841).[5] Beginning in 1830, West Point Foundry built three of the first four steam railroad locomotives made in the United States. The first, Tom Thumb, was designed, built, and operated by Peter Cooper, and was only an experimental machine, intended not for revenue service, but to convince the directors of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad that steam was a viable source of power for railroads (it must be recalled that at the time, there were widespread doubts about the feasibility of applying power to iron wheels on iron rails, especially up a grade.) The next three locomotives built in the U.S. were all intended for revenue service, and all were built by the West Point Foundry: Best Friend of Charleston (1830), and West Point (1831), both for the South Carolina Canal and Rail Road Company, followed in 1831 by the DeWitt Clinton, for the Mohawk & Hudson Railway. These was followed a few years later by the locomotives Phoenix and Experiment, the last reportedly capable of reaching 80 miles per hour.[6]

It must be noted—especially now, when the economic role of government is under constant attack as dangerous “statism”—that the shift by a government-funded establishment into a leading role in new technologies was entirely in accord with the intent of first President George Washington, and his Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton, and their plans to have the new government actively foster and promote economic development. In his 1791 Report on Manufactures, Hamilton wrote:

To cherish and stimulate the activity of the human mind, by multiplying the objects of enterprise, is not among the least considerable of the expedients by which the wealth of a nation may be promoted…. Experience teaches, that men are often so much governed by what they are accustomed to see and practise, that the simplest and most obvious improvements, in the most ordinary occupations, are adopted with hesitation, reluctance, and by slow gradations…. To produce the desirable changes as early as may be expedient may therefore require the incitement and patronage of government… it is of importance that the confidence of cautious, sagacious capitalists, both citizens and foreigners, should be excited. And to inspire this description of persons with confidence, it is essential that they should be made to see in any project which is new—and for that reason alone, if for no other, precarious—the prospect of such a degree of countenance and support from government, as may be capable of overcoming the obstacles inseparable from first experiments.[7]

When the Navy Board of Commissioners requested his assistance, Kemble in turn sought the advice of Robert L. Stevens, son of the builder of the first steam battery in 1814. He had helped his father design and build the steamboats Phoenix (1807) and Julianna (1811), and mastered them on the Delaware River, servicing Philadelphia. The Phoenix had been built in Hoboken, New Jersey, and her transit from thence to Philadelphia in June 1809 made her the first steamboat to sail the open ocean. Robert Stevens had also traveled to Britain to examine railroads and locomotives there, and had brought the locomotive John Bull to the U.S. in 1831 to operate on the Camden and Amboy Railroad, of which Stevens was president.

When Kemble’s brother, William—who was West Point Foundry’ agent in New York City and presumably was dealing with Stevens—sent drawings for engines to Navy Commissioner John Rodgers in January 1834, he included a note stating “Robert Stevens feels the engines above 30 inches cylinder should not be vertical due to wear in the underside and in vessels because of the length taken up by the engine.”[8]

The plans and accompanying explanations must have further perplexed the board. In June 1835, the Board requested it be allowed to again contact Stevens, plus others who had designed and commanded steam vessels. Secretary Dickerson readily agreed. Three board commissioners traveled to New York, and began gathering information. At some point, they concluded that the Navy simply needed to secure the services of someone with the training and skills required to supervise the acquisition and building of steam engines, and installing them in a hull. In July 1836, the Commissioners accepted the offer of Charles H. Haswell, a skilled worker at the West Point Foundry, to design a steam engine and supervise its construction. Haswell had been schooled in the classics, but in 1828, at the age of 19, he began working at the New York City engine works of James P. Allaire, one of the first major builders of steam engines and boilers in the United States. The brass hardware and fittings for the engine of Robert Fulton’s North River / Clermont were built by Allaire.

At first, Haswell was a temporary employee of the Navy Board of Commissioners, but it quickly became apparent that his lack of rank was a serious disadvantage in dealing with naval officers, so Haswell was given the official title of “Chief Engineer” of the Fulton II. This had little actual effect; obstruction and delays continued; and the steam battery was not ready for launch until May 1837.

With the hiring of Haswell, the virtuous economic circle designed by Alexander Hamilton was completed. The government had “cherished and stimulated the activity of the human mind,” and “multiplied the objects of enterprise,” and now was harvesting the wealth of mechanical knowledge which had thereby been promoted. The national government had provided direct funding for the creation of West Point Foundry, and within two decades it had become a center of the nation’s most advanced metalworking and machine-making capabilities. Now the government was reaching out to enlist the skills and capabilities of the Foundry to help the nation’s Navy transit into the modern era of mechanized power. 

[1] Sprout, Harold and Margaret, The Rise of American Naval Power, Princeton, NJ, 1966, Princeton University Press, pp. 112-113.

[2] Tomblin, Barbara, From Sail to Steam: The Development of Steam Technology in the United States Navy, 1838-1903 (unpublished History PhD dissertation, Rutgers University, 1988, pp. 14-15.

[3] Bennett, Frank M., The Steam Navy of the United States; A History of the Growth of the Steam Vessel of War in the U.S. Navy, and of the Naval Engineer Corps, Press of W. T. Nicholson, Pittsburgh, Penn., 1896, p. 18.

[4] Tomblin, pp. 15-17.

[5] Buckman, David Lear, Old Steamboat Days on the Hudson River; tales and reminiscences of the stirring times that followed the introduction of steam navigation, New York, 1907, The Grafton Press, pp. 137-138.

[6] “Archaeological Research at West Point Foundry Preserve,” http://www.scenichudson.org/land_pres/wpfp_research.htm, accessed November 7, 2017.

[7] Hamilton, Alexander, Report on Manufactures, Communicated to the House of Representatives, December 5, 1791.

[8] Tomblin, p. 21.

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Meteor Man's picture

Thanks for the new term to add to my economic lexicon Tony as well as "vicious economic circle" or cycle which popped up on a Bing search. For all their faults our founding fathers were pretty damned astute and enlightened. Here's hoping we have time to battle our way back to the economic sanity of the 19th century.

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"They'll say we're disturbing the peace, but there is no peace. What really bothers them is that we are disturbing the war." Howard Zinn

CB's picture

@Meteor Man
for those that dance within it.

Here's hoping we have time to battle our way back to the economic sanity of the 19th century.

Between 1800 and 1899 there were 18 recessions, 3 depressions and 3 'panics'. We also had the American Civil War from 1861 to 1865 where up to 750,000 Americans met their death, many from the mouth of those very canons manufactured at the West Point Foundry. The Civil War gave a tremendous boost to technological innovation and was one of the first 'industrial' wars. America has been at this ever since.

"The current consensus is that the volatility of GNP and unemployment were greater before the Great Depression than they have been since the end of World War II." - The Journal of Economic History

“Since I entered politics, I have chiefly had men’s views confided to me privately. Some of the biggest men in the United States, in the Field of commerce and manufacture, are afraid of something. They know that there is a power somewhere so organized, so subtle, so watchful, so interlocked, so complete, so pervasive, that they better not speak above their breath when they speak in condemnation of it.” - Woodrow Wilson (most believe this was in reference to the bankers who had America by the balls)

The history of 19th-century America was pretty brutal for the average worker and citizen.

You may find the following a fascinating read:

Capitalism by Gaslight: The Shadow Economies of 19th-Century America

Significantly, the first decades of the 19th century saw the economic elite continue to solidify their power; in the following decades they would leverage this power, consolidating both raw materials and human labor to create the country’s manufacturing sector and turning formerly autonomous skilled artisans and farmers into a dependent workforce. In addition, people seeking new opportunities from rural America and abroad crowded into urban areas as never before. Population influxes created cities dense with strangers who were desperately seeking work and ever more vulnerable to the whims of the economy’s seemingly relentless boom and bust cycles.
The earliest entrepreneurial activities of the successful merchant may be indistinguishable from those of the fraudulent schemer. Shadow economies, then and now, appeal to both the aspiring winner and the judgmental moralist in all of us. One person’s idea of a brilliant entrepreneurial move is another person’s idea of a deceitful con. And a close examination of thieves, prostitutes, snake oil salesmen, card sharps, counterfeiters, and conmen can reveal that all commercial enterprise is a matter of seizing the opportunities of the moment, and avoiding the traps set by others.

Taking its title from a 19th-century literary genre that exposed the darker side of American life, Capitalism by Gaslight introduces us to many of these shadowy entrepreneurs.... Possessing an entrepreneurial spirit, many underworld operators closely resembled respected businessmen. Perhaps most surprisingly, these illegal forms of commerce were integral to the success of the larger American economy and continue in varied forms today.

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edg's picture

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CB's picture

the Military Industrial Complex.

Few Americans realize the impact of the US military/government in financing and modernizing the US. Most believe it was accomplished by individual entrepreneurs without government assistance. The truth, in fact, is quite different.


The development role of the U.S. military

Within a few years of West Point's opening in 1802, Superintendent Jonathan Williams succeeded in establishing the U.S. Military Philosophical Society, for the purpose of advancing science and disseminating it throughout the nation. Williams had been in France during the Revolution, serving as American consul at Nantes, and working with Franklin's ally Caron de Beaumarchais, to funnel munitions and funds from the French government to the Continental Army. Williams had also worked with his great-uncle Franklin on experiments in ``Thermometrical Navigation,'' published as a paper by the American Philosophical Society, of which Williams was vice-president.
Following the conclusion of the war with Britain in 1814, Superintendent Joseph Gardiner Swift dispatched Thayer to Paris in 1815, to gather all the knowledge he could from the Ecole Polytechnique, the most famous military-scientific academy in the world. Arriving after Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo, Thayer found that the British had already ransacked the Ecole and shut it down; but he still managed to obtain some one thousand books, maps, and models for West Point. When he returned to America in May of 1816, Thayer was appointed superintendent of West Point, and proceeded to turn the Academy into a first-rate military and civil engineering school.

An important adjunct to West Point was established across the Hudson River in 1818. Joseph Swift resigned from the Army and joined Gouverneur Kemble in establishing the West Point Foundry at Cold Spring. Kemble's home, overlooking the foundry, was frequented by Washington Irving and James K. Paulding (a future Secretary of the Navy), and became the headquarters for the informal continuation of the Military Philosophical Society. The foundry cast some of the most powerful cannons in the world, produced iron fittings for the locks on the Erie Canal, manufactured rails, and built America's first locomotives.
The military and philosophical mobilization directed by Washington and Franklin produced an engine of development which powered the nation for generations to come. John Quincy Adams, personally tutored in his adolescent years by Benjamin Franklin in France, attained the Presidency in 1825 by reawakening America's sense of purpose, with the vital assistance of a year-long tour throughout the country by General Lafayette. In his inaugural address, Adams firmly declared that, if the constitutional powers of the Federal government to promote the welfare of the nation ``may be effectually brought into action by laws promoting the improvement of agriculture, commerce, and manufactures, the cultivation and encouragement of the mechanic and elegant arts, the advancement of literature, and progress of the sciences ...|, [then] to refrain from exercising them for the benefit of the people themselves, would be to hide in the earth the talent committed to our charge--would be treachery to the most sacred of our trusts.''

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Mark from Queens's picture

Used to love to ride my motorcycle all around those gorgeous panoramic areas of the majestic Hudson River near the Bear Mountain Bridge. Was interesting to learn of Cold Spring having had a place in it too.

...detailing how the U.S. government helped create a private enterprise in 1816, how that enterprise became a leading center of metal working and steam engine building, and how 18 years later the national government turned to that company to help the Navy adopt the new technology of steam propulsion. This is not the mythical laissez faire, "free market" capitalism that supposedly built the United States.

One of the more infuriating things is to hear from the Libertarian frauds their blind espousal of lies they base their whole fraudulent philosophy - that it's best to turn things over to the "free market." Could be the greatest propaganda lie of all, and the one (along with a deluded fetish for unregulated business) that unquestionably ends with monopoly of all sectors and resources by private capitalists. From there you have the slide to Fascism in place, while the cabal of business investors get filthy rich off the blood, sweat and tears of the 99%.

Apple and IBM technology come to mind, as gov't research programs that private business then developed into huge monopolies. But there are so many more.

Don't have much faith in gov't these days anymore, since the turn of the century debacle response to 9/11 and the prevailing order of Neoliberal economics have warranted closer inspection of what's really going on. One has to put aside the charade of the Red/Blue, Lib/Con binary to realize the Duopoly is puppeteered by the Financial Despots. But there is something to be said for a functional, people-beholden democracy in which the interests of the public are paramount. Thanks for the reminder.

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