Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Allegheny Arsenal today

Today, I took a trip into the Lawrenceville section of Pittsburgh to see the former Allegheny Arsenal grounds. Allan Becer of CMU graciously led me around, giving me some more information. We also took a trip to nearby Allegheny Cemetery, where the 78 victims of the explosion are buried, 54 of them unidentified and under their monument. There is little that remains of the wartime structures today. The US Ordnance Department abandoned the arsenal after the war and in 1900, began selling off portions of its land to the City of Pittsburgh. It served as a Quartermaster storage area during World War I.

This is part of what were the lower arsenal grounds. The land is divided by Butler Street. The lower grounds were where the barracks and quartermaster were, keeping them away from the main laboratory in the event of an explosion. To the right is a bridge over the Allegheny River.

Arsenal Middle School now stands on much of the original arsenal grounds. There is a Civil War naval cannon outfront that has nothing to do with the arsenal; it's pretty much for decoration. There were once warehouses on this spot.

More of the lower arsenal grounds across Butler Street. The brick warehouse in the background is a postwar structure. Near the front is where the great castlelike gatehouse once stood (see previous post with photo of it).

This is the powder magazine, the only building from the arsenal present during the war that still stands. Barrels of powder would be transfered from there to the labs for the day's use. It housed from 800 to 1,000 barrels of black powder. Now it houses restrooms and a maintenance shed for the nearby ballfield and playground. In front was once a pond, now filled with cement. During the explosion, before fire fighters got there, workers formed a sort of bucket brigade, dumping buckets of water from the pond onto the flames.

This big plaque is not original to the was on the gatehouse, if I remember correctly. Somehow, some guy found it, kept it for years, and then donated it. The crossed cannons is the symbol of the US Ordnance Department, and April 1814 was when building of the arsenal began. At the bottom of the guns is A.R.W., the initials of Abram R. Wooley, the first commandant of the arsenal. And I believe the number of stars around it was the number of states in the union at the time.
Plaque on the magazine memorializing the arsenal and its explosion.

Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission plaque to the Allegheny Arsenal.

The corner of this ballfield is most likely where the main laboratory where the explosion occured was. The lab was rebuilt after the incident, but not in the exact location as the original one. The walkways in the park seem to have been paved over the original walkways in the arsenal. Bodies of the victims were laid out on boards on the walkway beside the ballfield after the explosion so they might be identified. Apparently, body parts were being found a block or two away.

This monument is at Allegheny Cemetery, about a half mile or so from the explosion. It lists the names of all 78 victims of the explosion, the overwhelming majority being female. 54 of the bodies could not be positively indentified, so they are buried in a mass grave under here. Others are buried individually, while a good number of Irish Catholic victims are buried separately in the St. Mary's portion of the cemetery, just past the fence behind the monument. Songwriter Stephen Foster - who was well-known during the Civil War era - is also buried in the cemetery. His father was one of the founders of Lawrenceville.
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  1. I am researching the Allegheny Arsenal with regard to my great grandfather who served in the Civil War and apparently reinlisted in 1887 at the Allegheny Arsenal. I wonder if there were still some buildings at that time. The information I have lists the Allegheny Arsenal military post after the war. Do you happen to know if it was used for this purpose? Thanks

  2. I'm drawing from Arthur B. Fox's "Pittsburgh During the Civil War: 1860-1865." I highly recommend it for anything about Pittsburgh during the war.
    So in 1868, the Allegheny Arsenal stopped making cartridges for the government. After that, up until 1917 when the old arms magazine was demolished and most of the weapons there sold off, it was used as a Quartmaster Department supply depot. Beginning in 1919, the grounds were sold to the City of Pittsburgh. Most of the buildings were demolished in favor of new warehouses and the like or drastically altered. The only building still around from the Civil War era is the powder magazine, now a public restroom and supply shed.

    Hope I helped. If not, I can point you to more sources :)