West Point Foundry: Early American Technological Center

West Point Foundry: Early American Technological Center

It may seem odd to some for the West Point Foundry to show up in Transportation History because It is probably best known for its military cannon. The rifled Parrot gun of Civil War fame was made there. The West Point Foundry is located near the West Point Military Academy in Cold Spring, New York. It was founded after the war of 1812 convinced President James Madison of the need for a series of foundries to cast cannon. It attracted a number of skilled artisans, and began basically as an ironworks.

It is of interest to Transportation History because at least two famous early locomotives were built there. The Best Friend, which was the first locomotive in a southern State, South Carolina; and the Brother Jonathon which has been honored on commemorative stamps by the U.S. Post Office. The short description the Postal Service gives claims that the Brother Jonathon reached speeds of 60 mph. That seems highly unlikely given the early date, but I have not found any evidence to either support or deny the claim.

It is also said that John Jervis, an engineer at the West Point Foundry first came up with the idea of a front wheel truck, such as was added to the John Bull on the Camden-Amboy line to prevent derailment. It is from Jervis’s idea that the whole wheel counting locomotive lexicon (i.e. 4-4-0, etc.) arises. Although West Point did not stay in the locomotive business, they were an early leader in the field and made valuable contributions, and remained a producer of stationary steam engines for a time, and of cannon for military purposes until around the turn of the Century.

Having pre-industrial roots, the West Point Foundry had a very large and sophisticated water power system, which was used well past the dawn of the steam age. They likely produced steam engines using water power for many of the production operations.