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Researchers Unearth Secrets of West Point Foundry
For more information on this story contact:
Email:Marcia Goodrich

It's not every day that a Michigan Tech researcher gets quoted in the Poughkeepsie Journal.

Or the New York Times, for that matter. But, when you are mapping an archaeological site that reverberates with history, is pretty as a park, and is an hour's drive north of Manhattan, attention is hard to avoid.

So discovered Pat Martin (Social Sciences), professor of industrial archaeology, when he began documenting the ruins of the West Point Foundry, located on the outskirts of the tourist village of Cold Springs, N.Y.

"It's a compelling site," Martin says. "It has some big stories to tell."

One of four factories established in 1817 by President James Madison to manufacture heavy artillery, the foundry's rifled cannons helped the North to victory over the South in the Civil War. At one time, 1,000 workers were employed at the facility, and it came to symbolize the grit and power of the Industrial Revolution through John Ferguson Weir's 1866 painting "The Gun Foundry." (See )

"It was a smoky, dirty place," Martin says. Its ruins, however, are another story.

Of the dozens of buildings on the 87-acre site, only one is standing. The rest are remains, foundations filled with earth and overgrown by trees. "There's a stream flowing though mature woods in a valley that leads to a marsh and the Hudson River," Martin says. Except for tumble-down walls and remnant artifacts of iron, it's hard to differentiate between the old foundry landscape and the 600-acre Audubon Society preserve next door.

"It was nature that drew people there in the first place, but it was for an industrial enterprise," Martin said. Water powered machinery, and trees were cut and burned for charcoal used in blast furnaces. The main road was the Hudson River.

But when steel began to overtake cast iron in the marketplace, in the late 19th century, the West Point Foundry was left behind. "It's returned to nature," Martin said.

The site was purchased in 1996 by the Scenic Hudson Land Trust, an environmental group. Last summer, they brought Martin, Michigan Tech Assistant Professor Tim Scarlett and a team of graduate and undergraduate students to the old foundry to document what was there.

"The impulse was to charge right in there and get it done," Martin said. "But this place is huge."

It's been a little tricky. While good maps of the site in its heyday are easy to come by, most everything has fallen down and tumbled toward the river; nothing is where it was.

As a first step, the researchers assembled a database based on historical records, of which there are many. The company did a great deal of business with the federal government, and the National Archives has plenty of paperwork to prove it. Then, 10 industrial archaeology students took five weeks and "a lot of fancy surveying gear" to map the actual site.

The final step, still in progress, is to integrate the information and identify and map each of the ruins within the foundry.

"It's big, complicated and slightly confusing," Martin admits.

The next question will be what to do with it all.

The first project will be the renovation of the only structure left standing, the main office building constructed in 1865. Martin envisions a visitors' center with an art gallery and interpretive exhibits, plus an area for research and education.

Then, Martin thinks maybe it's time to take a lesson from the Europeans. "Industrial heritage has become a big thing over there," he says. "It's how our great grandparents lived, and it's disappearing."

Judging from the interest in the foundry, it may have a chance to become the US equivalent of one of Germany's popular industrial heritage sites. Martin was quoted in a Sept. 8 New York Times article, "Seeking What Lies Beneath," and was interviewed for a feature by National Public Radio.

The only problem with the West Point Foundry, he told one East Coast reporter, was that it was so remote. She didn't get it. "I have to travel and travel and travel," he explained. "I have to change planes and change trains."

Remoteness, chuckles the archaeologist from the frozen shores of Lake Superior, is all a matter of perspective.

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