It is fairly well known that ever since the days of the French and Indian War, George Washington had been an aggressive land speculator up and down the Shenandoah Valley and around the Potomac River. Washington believed passionately in the economic potential of the Potomac River, and was president of a joint stock venture called the “Potowmack Company.” Behind all this entrepreneurial spirit was a belief that commerce and industry, taking place alongside rivers like the Potomac, would unify the new nation. Indeed, Washington envisioned a symbol of this unity a few miles down river in what would become the City of Washington.
Before the establishment of Harpers Ferry Arsenal, US troops received their arms either from overseas or private government contractors. Washington, aware of some of the shady and deceptive practices by contractors, wanted to reform the system. So in April 1794, he successfully sponsored a bill “for the erecting and repairing of Arsenals and Magazines.” Out of the appropriation was roughly enough funds for four national armories. With Henry Knox’s strong endorsement, the military storage depot at Springfield, Massachusetts on the Connecticut River, was first on the list.
There were other pre-existing magazines left over from the Revolutionary War, located at Philadelphia, Carlisle, West Point and New London, Virginia. Some proposed that, along with Springfield, three out of four of these facilities could be simply rebuilt. The other idea was to purchase land for a brand new facility that might someday be expanded into a manufacturing facility. Not surprisingly, Washington supported Harpers Ferry as the location. Not everyone believed that using the bulk of appropriations for a single establishment at Harpers Ferry was such a great idea. For example, Colonel Stephen Rochefontaine, a French-born military engineer whose name appears frequently in the Papers of the War Department, believed that there was insufficient land for the erection of buildings along the river. He also expressed concern over the area’s vulnerability to floods. (He would turn out to be right. Disastrous floods over the years would spell the downfall Harpers Ferry as an industrial town). Interestingly, James McHenry would consult the services of a noted British engineer named James Brindley, the nephew of the famous English canal builder of the same name. (By the way, when McHenry refers to a “race,” he is talking about construction of a canal).
After a few years of delay, Washington would live only long enough to see the early construction of the facilities at Harpers Ferry under the Adams administration, beginning around the fall of 1798. Here are a couple of reports on the progress of construction, one from the first Superintendant of Harpers Ferry, Joseph Perkin, and another from John Mackey, the first Paymaster, who laments the “habitual laziness” of the local canal diggers.