The Nation's Oldest Arsenal

In June, Jim Catlin, SCHS member and former Watervliet Arsenal employee, conducted a tour of the Arsenal grounds and museum for a group of our members. In 1967, the Arsenal was included in the Registry of National Historic Landmarks. The Commanding Officersí Residence, the Big Gun Shop, the old Barracks, and the Iron Building were singled out as unique and important features of the Arsenalís heritage. The grounds also include both walls of the original Erie Canal, which ran through the site and provided power for the operation of shops. The Department of the Army authorized establishment of the Watervliet Museum of Ordnance in 1968 in recognition of its many decades of support to the nationís armed services. It is housed in the Iron Building, built in 1859, and includes a priceless collection of weapons and the history of the development of cannon making. Among the notable visitors to the Arsenal over the years have been Lafayette, President McKinley, General John Pershing, and Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt.

The Arsenal began on 12 acres purchased in 1813 in the Village of Gibbonsville, which became the city of Watervliet in 1897. That area was selected because of its excellent location in proximity to the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers. The Arsenal is, in fact, an Army Post and Major James Dalliba was the first commanding officer. Military discipline was a prime concern of the Major, and the Hudson River was frequently used as a source of discipline. Being "ducked" in the Hudson meant being thrown off the public wharf several successive times. One soldier, who was so sentenced for disobeying orders and drunkenness, had his sentence deferred until he was again found drunk, lest his health be injured by being put in the water when sober.

During the economic depression of the 1880s the House of Representatives proposed the sale of six arsenals including Watervliet, the largest. Only Watervliet survived, aided by Brigadier General Stephen Vincent Benet, Chief of Ordnance, who argued against the bill recommending the sale. In 1887, the Arsenal was selected as the Armyís Gun/Cannon Factory. The Seacoast Cannon Shop was started in 1889 and by World War I, extensions and additions resulted in the building being about 1,300 feet in length.

In June of 1944, during World War II, the Arsenal employed about 7,200 people; 36% of them were women. August 14, 1945 marked the end of the war with Japan and all production work came to a temporary halt.

The Arsenal has had its share of ups and downs, depending on whether or not a state of emergency existed. In 1958, the new commanding officer, Colonel Walter Tisdale arrived and placed heavy emphasis on research, development, and engineering; this was continued by Colonel Keith OíKeefe. The result was the dedication of the Benet Research and Engineering Laboratories in May 1962, named after Brigadier General Stephen Vincent Benet. By 1977, Benet Laboratories had won the Army Research and Development Achievement Award eight times.

In the early 1970ís, rumors circulated that the Benet Laboratory may be transferred to another defense installation; the concern was that that might be a precursor to the closing of the Arsenal. Congressman Samuel S. Stratton of the 28th Congressional District, a ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, became a leading promoter of the Arsenalís cause. Stratton argued that integrated manufacturing, research, and development would be more efficient and economical than the separation of these interdependent activities. Presenting his arguments to the Secretary of the Army, he advised that he was "emphatically opposed" to the transfer of the Benet research and staff, stating that it would be carried out "over my dead body". In December 1976, the decision was made that the Benet Weapons Laboratory would stay physically at the Arsenal but organization control would pass to Picatinny Arsenal in Dover, New Jersey. Stratton continued to be a long time friend of the Arsenal and his actions during this time, along with other local, State, and Federal officials including Senators Jacob Javits and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, were instrumental in the Armyís decision. A strong advocate for the Arsenal, Sam Stratton was often referred to as the Arsenalís very own "Uncle Sam".

For those who grew up in the area, the Arsenal has always been a strong presence, but how many of us have actually been inside its walls and seen the site which was so instrumental to our countyís defense from the War of 1812 to today? Many past and present residents of the region were employed or stationed at the Arsenal over the years. The Watervliet Arsenal has established a reputation for excellence in supporting the nationís defense needs that is unsurpassed. It has also been a good neighbor, with a commitment to the capital area community.

The book 1813-1997 The Watervliet Arsenal Ė A Chronology of the Nationís Oldest Arsenal, available at the Arsenalís museum, provides much more information about the history of this facility. To obtain guided tours of the site, call the Public Affairs Office at (518) 266-5090.


Fall 2001

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