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  • Writer's pictureRichard Condon

"Altogether Antiquated" - The fate of Allegheny Arsenal

On September 9, 1863, with the War of the Rebellion well under way, the Pittsburgh Daily Post proudly claimed the Iron City as the "forge of the union." At the heart of this industrial powerhouse stood two well known institutions of warfare - Fort Pitt Foundry and Allegheny Arsenal. The latter, situated along the Allegheny River in Pittsburgh's Lawrenceville neighborhood, had produced ammunition for the United States military since its construction in 1814. With the start of the Civil War, employment at the Arsenal rose from an estimated 300 too over 1,100 workers, producing over 10,000 rounds of ammunition each day. Aside from the manufacturing of munitions and supplies for the Federal army, Allegheny Arsenal became well known as the site of the largest industrial disaster of the American Civil War, when on September 17, 1862 three separate explosions claimed the lives of 78 workers.

Fountain site at the center of Allegheny Arsenal parade grounds (Carnegie Library)

Following the war, however, demand for military supply declined exponentially, with much surplus being returned to the Arsenal grounds - some of which would be sold as years passed, or shipped to various battlefields and memorials.

Surplus artillery caissons sit idly by an Arsenal storehouse (Carnegie Library)

Pittsburgh Daily Post - February 12, 1902

"While there is no use for the old war material for actual war, yet there is a great demand for it for other purposes. Whenever Congress authorizes the gift to any place of old cannons or cannon balls for decorating soldiers' cemeteries, or building soldiers' monuments, the arsenal called upon to furnish the material is almost invariably the Allegheny, so that more or less of the material is being shipped nearly all the time. Only recently old balls and guns in large quantities have been shipped to the Gettysburg battlefield, to Chelsea, Mich., and to Chattanooga. One of the last shipments to the latter place consisted of 5,000 of the old 13-inch shells. There is as much routine observed in making these shipments, and as much red tape is used as though the material were for actual use in war...

There are hundreds of the guns, big and little, lying around the grounds and inside the buildings. But for every cannon there are hundreds of solid shot or shells. There are ricks upon ricks of the 13-inch shells, before mentioned, which were of the kind used in seacoast mortars. One of the Arsenal officials said he presumed there were at least 100,000 of these shells yet in the Arsenal yards, while thousands of them have been shipped away to supply cemeteries and the like with war monuments.

- Pittsburgh Daily Post - February 7, 1897 "

The Duquesne Greys on parade at Allegheny Arsenal, ca. 1870 - Note stacks of surplus artillery rounds to right (Carnegie Library)

By 1885, most work at the Arsenal came to a halt, or at least for a time. Revived interest in the facility came with the Spanish-American War in 1898, and with the First World War. Between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, however, there was debate as to the fate of the 38-acre depot. As early as February 1897, the Pittsburgh Daily Post reported:

"Although the War Department of the United States has not taken at all kindly to the idea of turning over the spacious grounds of the Allegheny Arsenal to the city of Pittsburg for public park purposes, the city officials have by no means given up all hope of eventually securing the land for such uses... The government is not ready to admit that the Allegheny Arsenal is altogether antiquated and worthless. It is true that no manufacturing is done there, and that the material stored in the roomy yards and formerly busy workshops is of little value except as scrap iron, and poor scrap iron at that, but still the Allegheny Arsenal is counted as one of the best storage places in the country for munitions of war."

The fate of the once successful Allegheny Arsenal was ultimately decided in 1926, when the grounds were auctioned off for a total of $819,000 to Pittsburgh native Howard Heinz. The grounds between Butler Street and Penn Avenue, framed by 39th and 40th Streets, would become the city of Pittsburgh's Arsenal Park, while the land between Butler Street and the Allegheny River eventually was developed over time.

Allegheny Arsenal gatehouse on Butler Street, facing the Allegheny River (Library of Congress)

With the rapid growth of the Lawrenceville community and ever expanding urban sprawl, the parade grounds of Allegheny Arsenal have been lost to time. Although the Arsenal's historic buildings are a thing of the past, there are remains which have been found in a more unconventional manner. In 2017, as construction got underway for a new high rise apartment development along Butler Street, workers discovered a hidden cache of over 800 ordinance rounds at the Arsenal site.

Ordinance discovered at the site of Allegheny Arsenal (Milhaus Development)

Location of ordinance on Allegheny Arsenal grounds - Note officers' quarters in rear (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

This discovery came as a shock to many upon the discovery of the long lost artillery cache, however, it was not the first time this kind of finding had taken place. In 1972, as construction workers were sweeping the area with a backhoe, they came upon over 1,000 rounds of ordinance - only yards away from the 2017 site.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - June 20, 1972

Some of the rounds discovered at these sites made it into local museums such as the Heinz History Center and Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum, although many were subsequently taken to Fort Indiantown Gap for detonation both times, as they were still considered a danger to the general public. To this day, the echoes of the 19th century reverberate throughout Lawrenceville, while the story of a once proud Allegheny Arsenal maintains relevance in a growing community.

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