Workshop of the World

stories of industry in & around Philadelphia

Pasted Graphic
Philadelphia Yearbook (1917)

Frankford Arsenal, 1816
5301 Tacony Street, Philadelphia PA 19137
(main entrance from Bridge Street)

Barbara M. Auwarter and Joyce Halley, Workshop of the World (Oliver Evans Press, 1990).

Frankford Arsenal supplemented the Schuylkill Arsenal early in the nineteenth century and continued in its function until very recently. The Arsenal played an important role not only in Philadelphia, but in the nation as well, serving as the home of such important innovations as a variety of early cartridge systems for breech-loading weapons, the Maynard priming system, the Frankford friction primer, and the recoilless rifle of World War II.
Activated in May, 1816, the Arsenal covered at that time some 20 acres on Frankford Creek near its junction with the Delaware River, sufficiently far from the more densely populated sections of the city to be safe for the storing of gunpowder. Within the tract, domestic quarters and warehouse buildings were erected around an open space, which was kept largely undeveloped over the entire life of the complex, and was used as a parade ground. While initially the primary role of the Arsenal had been to serve as a storage depot and repair shop of military weapons and ammunition, by the early 1840s it had assumed a more prominent role in munitions development, starting with the testing and proofing of various weapons and gunpowder. Expansion to the east along Frankford Creek toward the Delaware River was dictated by the rapid subdivision of the dry land to the north and west into city building lots to supply housing for an increasingly industrialized community.
Major Philip V. Hagner was put in charge of the Arsenal in 1851, and presided over the development of the first steam-powered plant there, the purpose of which was to manufacture percussion caps in a single operation. A percussion cap factory was erected in the middle of a tract adjoining the original tract to the east, which was purchased in 1849. Hagner installed the inventor of the cap machine, George Wright, as shop foreman; Wright's machine was exhibited in 1854 at the Franklin Institute and judged the best in the world.
Not only was ordnance manufactured on site, but also machines to produce ordnance as well. By 1861, machinery was being run day and night, as the Arsenal prepared for war. After the outbreak of the Civil War, the Arsenal manufactured percussion caps, paper fuses for detonating explosives, and other munitions. Under Major T.T.S. Laidley, and following an 1862 fire which destroyed much of the Cap Factory, structural measures became a concern that could limit damage in case of explosion; these design ideas were incorporated in the range of buildings known as the Laidley Laboratories. Captain Stephen Vincent Benet became commanding officer in 1864, and presided over the construction of the "ultimate nineteenth century construction effort, a 'Rolling Mill' to work copper and brass for caps and cartridges".
1 Designed in industrial Italianate style by John Fraser, it was completed in 1866, the year after the war ended. Because of the drop in production after the war, the Rolling Mill was used only for storage for twenty years. 2
With the lessening of the need for intense production, scientific experimentation increased. In the 1890s, the depot function was greatly reduced, and "the installation concentrated on becoming the nation's center for powder chemistry".
3 Testing was conducted in the newly erected Proof House with an associated 109-foot shooting gallery. Eventually the proving of the smokeless powders being tested required longer ranges than possible at the Arsenal, and this work was moved to the Sandy Hook Proving Ground in New Jersey.
In the first years of the twentieth century, and through World War I, Frankford Arsenal produced mainly small arms ammunition—a new cartridge factory facility was installed in the old Rolling Mill. In 1940, Frankford Arsenal was the only producer of military ammunition in the United States. It took a leadership role in World War II, not only producing but training employees of private industries in the basics of mass production of military ammunition. Possibly the most startling piece of research and development to come out of its research laboratories in this period was the recoilless rifle. At the end of the war, ammunition production in private industry was discontinued, and again Frankford Arsenal was the sole producer of military ammunition in the United States.
As part of the planned reorganization of the Army, the Arsenal's areas of responsibility were transferred to other installations. In 1977, when Frankford Arsenal shut down its production lines forever, the Arsenal covered 110 acres on which 246 buildings stood. Archaeological investigations carried out in 1978 uncovered remains of the original 1817 barracks (torn down in 1891) in the middle of the parade ground. Today the "Arsenal Business Center" is being rehabbed and the buildings occupied by private companies.

1  John Milner Associates, Inc., Historical and Archaeological Survey of Frankford Arsenal, Philadelphia, PA, (manuscript, 1979), p. 33.
2  About 1,000 employees were discharged; only Maynard's center-fire cartridges continued to be made.
3  John Milner Associates, Inc., p. 50.

Update May 2007 (by Torben Jenk):
Renovations began in 1983 for the "Arsenal Business Center" offering 2.4 million square feet of "industrial/office/flex" space in over a hundred different buildings on 86 acres. Spaces are available for lease or purchase. Current tenants include Casani Candy (wholesale confectioners), Profile Limo, Smith & Soloman [Truck] Driver Training School and a catering operation. Unusual tenants include two publicly financed/privately managed "charter" schools, an opera company and Hollywood productions. Franklin Towne Charter School, started in 1999, has 978 high school students in grades 9-12 with plans to serve students in K-8th grade. Maritime Academy Charter School opened in 2003 and teaches grades 5-12. These schools are clustered by the gated entrance to the Arsenal and the students, in their uniforms, evoke an earlier time at the Arsenal. The Opera Company of Philadelphia uses a 14,000 square foot building as their scene shop; in adjacent buildings they store their inventory for twenty five full productions (these sets are leased to other opera companies). Parts of the movies Philadelphia, Twelve Monkeys and Fallen have been filmed here.

See also:

Historic American Engineering Record, many items, search for 'Frankford Arsenal.'