Arsenal unearthed

June 17, 2005|by DAVE McMILLION


Thanks to a team of archaeologists, the ruins of the old U.S. Armory and Arsenal in Harpers Ferry are seeing the light of day.

As the result of a recent deal between CSX, which owned the armory land, and the National Park Service, the park now owns the site.

A team of park archaeologists has started to unearth portions of the armory grounds, a project that will help park officials decide how to offer interpretive programs at the site.


Through their excavations, the archaeologists hope to find building foundations and artifacts.

The buildings were leveled after the Civil War, and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad filled in much of the ground with dirt as part of a track alignment.

The armory consisted of two rows of buildings that were separated by a 70-foot-wide street, according to archaeologists at the site.

Between 1801 and the start of the Civil War in 1861, the armory produced more than 600,000 muskets, rifles and pistols and employed more than 400 people at times, according to Harpers Ferry National Historical Park spokeswoman Marsha Wassel.

Archaeologists started their work about six weeks ago. The dig is expected to take about three years.

"This is very exciting. A lot of times we don't have the luxury of opening an area this big," said Andrew Lee, who has been working as an archaeologist at the park since 1999.

"We're just thrilled to have this property and to be able to do this. It's been a long time coming," said archaeologist Mia Parsons, who is overseeing the project.

Archaeologists started the project by unearthing sections of the foundation of the warehouse, which was a two-story brick and stone building used to store iron, steel and other supplies for nearby factories.

The foundation was discovered about 1 1/2 feet below the surface and was constructed of cut shale, Lee said. The archaeologists said they were surprised at the good condition of the ruins. They were unsure of what they would find below the surface given some legends about the armory site, which lies between the river and Potomac Street.

Some people have claimed that local churches were built with old brick from the armory and that some homes in nearby Bolivar, W.Va., were made from remains of the armory, Parsons said.

Buried in the ground near one of the corners of the foundation, archaeologists found about 75 gun sights, Lee said. The sights would have been affixed to a 1855 model rifle manufactured at the armory, park officials said.

The archaeologists said they also found small hand files and broken bottles and dishes dating to the mid-1800s.

"As we go deeper, it gets earlier," Parsons said of the estimated age of the artifacts.

At an opposite corner of the foundation, the archaeologists have dug about 15 feet into the basement of the foundation. They found parts of ceramics such as broken dishes and buttons that had fallen off clothing, Lee said.

After the archaeologists finish their work at the warehouse, they plan to move a short distance west and begin excavating around what was known as the smith and forging shop. That building was the largest erected at the armory, park officials said.

Park officials plan to open the area to the public and offer interpretive programs, Wassel said.

Archaeologists expect the artifacts found at the site to be museum quality, park officials said.

On Oct. 16, 1859, abolitionist John Brown led 21 men on a raid of the federal arsenal. Brown's plan to arm slaves with the weapons he and his men seized from the arsenal was thwarted by local farmers, militiamen and Marines led by Robert E. Lee.

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