Digging up the past

Archaeologists unearth old U.S. Armory site

Archaeologists unearth old U.S. Armory site

September 21, 2006|by DAVE McMILLION

HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. - For more than 100 years, its remains laid under dirt and there have been no known pictures of the inside or descriptions of it, archaeologists say.

Yet the U.S. Armory and Arsenal in Harpers Ferry was one of the focal parts of the town during the early- and mid-1800s and more than 400 people were employed there making muskets, rifles and pistols.

Now the remains of the massive facility - most of which was leveled during the Civil War of shortly thereafter - are slowly and meticulously becoming visible again.

Since last year, a team of park archaeologists have been unearthing sections of the armory and on Wednesday, they invited local media members to the site to view the progress.


After digging down into the ground where the complex's smith and forging shop stood, archaeologists discovered the floor of the factory, its stone foundation and the spot where the building's 90-foot smoke stack stood.

The floor was made up partly of red brick laid in a herringbone style, which archaeologists believe was where employees labored at work stations to operate the plant's machinery.

Other sections of the floor visible Wednesday were made up of flagstone, which archaeologists believe were places where heavy machinery sat.

Referring to features like mortar that was still visible between the bricks, Mia Parsons, supervisory archaeologist at the site, said she was impressed by the good condition of the remains.

"It's like stepping back in history as close as you can," said park spokeswoman Marsha Wassel, who also was at the site.

Archaeologists also found a wealth of artifacts at the site, which is between Potomac Street and the Potomac River.

At one time, a venting system was installed in the floor of the factory for its forge, park officials said. But it did not work and was filled in, park officials said.

When archaeologists were digging through the fill material, they found Civil War-era items including toothbrushes with handles made of bone, buttons and metal parts off backpacks and hats, said Michelle Hammer, archaeological lab manager.

Tempting as it might be for history buffs to examine, it's not likely the public will see it.

The remains are too fragile to be left open to the elements and so archaeologists plan to cover the site back up after photographing the ruins and doing other work, according to Parsons and Hammer.

Photographs of the ruins will be used to make historical interpretive signs which will be erected at the site and trails are expected to be cut through the area so the public can walk through the area and learn about the armory, Wassel said.

Other ideas that have been considered include "ghosting the building," which would involve erecting a wooden frame in the shape of the building to give the public an idea of its shape and size, Wassel said.

"We want to do it right. We just don't want to throw something up that isn't respectful," Wassel said.

Work on the interpretive program will probably start next year, although it is unclear when it might be finished, Wassel said.

On April 18, 1861, less than 24 hours after Virginia seceded from the Union, federal soldiers set fire to the armory to keep it out of Confederate hands during the Civil War. People in town, upset that their source of livelihood was going up in smoke, extinguished the fire and saved part of the complex, Harpers Ferry National Historical Park officials have said.

During the war, remains of the armory were used for different purposes, including a warehouse in the complex which was used as a quartermaster depot for union troops.

Remaining buildings were leveled after the war and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, which at one time owned the armory site, filled in much of the ground with dirt as part of a track alignment.

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