Sunday, January 15, 2012

Review: "Pittsburgh's Forgotten Allegheny Arsenal"

This short tome is chock full of information and anecdotes, reflecting what an important place the Allegheny Arsenal once held in the Lawrenceville community. Author James Wudarczyk is one of several local authorities on the subject, who are working hard to ensure that the Arsenal, and those who lost their lives in the 1862 explosion there, are never forgotten.

The Arsenal was established in 1814 because the Pittsburgh area needed a new base of military supplies. Its location at the head of the Ohio River facilitated the shipping of supplies further west. Some important dignantaries visited the Arsenal, including several presidents, the Marquis de Lafayette, and Charles Dickens. Receptions were held here which were large community events.

When the Civil War came, of course, its place became that much more important for the Union war effort. Civilian workers took advantage of the opportunity to work here as cartridge makers, mainly to support their families, but also out of patriotic feeling for some.

And then there was that fateful day of September 17, 1862, where a series of explosions (the cause is still uncertain, all these years later) claimed the lives of 78 workers, mostly women and girls.

Wudarczyk follows the events of that day as well as those in the days that followed. He, citing Allan Becer's findings, shows that there were discrepencies between the testimony at the coroner's inquest and the military inquiry - even from some of the same witnesses. Colonel John Symington (commandant) and Alexander McBride (superintendant of the main lab where the explosions occurred) hypothesized that leaky barrels from the Dupont company leaked powder onto the roadways and something (like a horseshoe or wagon wheel) set it off. Where at the coroner's inquest, the cause was found to be negligence by the higher-ups, the military inquiry said no cause could be determined: perhaps because of the wealth and influence of the Dupont empire, no further investigation took place.

After the war, the Arsenal served as mostly a supply depot. However, it did play a small role during the 1877 railroad strikes, when a unit of local militia was denied sanctuary there. It also generated some supplies during the Spanish-American War.

Come the turn of the century, though, the usefulness of the Arsenal was being questioned. Many in the community, including relatives of the explosion victims, wanted it to remain. Soon, the land began to be sold off in pieces for such uses as the Marine Hospital. After World War I, supplies there were sold to the general public. And in 1926, what remained of the Arsenal was sold to Howard Heinz, through an agent. Arsenal Middle School and Arsenal Park were soon established here, among other facilities. Soon, even the iconic gatehouse was demolished, despite local protests, though some of the stones from it now fence the park.

It is through such works as Wudarczyk's that will hopefully ensure that the Allegheny Arsenal will never be forgotten, given the importance it once held and the lives lost there.

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  1. Any resources to share to find/buy this book? Looking forward to reading it.

  2. I bought it from here the other day:

  3. Answering my own question...just found a copy on Yippee!