The Iron Building


Open to the public 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday through Thursday (closed Friday and Saturday and all federal holidays)

Are you a military history buff?

Interested in the "Big Guns" -- old artillery pieces such as cannon, guns and howitzers?

If so, the Watervliet Arsenal Museum is a place for you.

The museum tells the story of Watervliet Arsenal as well as the history of the Big Guns. In addition to the many one-of-a-kind guns from the past 400 years, there are many new artillery weapons on display. Everything from 60mm lightweight company mortars to the massive 16-inch guns of World War II battleship fame can be found at this small but significant jewel of a museum.

But before we go on a brief cybertour of the museum, let's look at the reasons the museum exists and the interesting building that houses the museum.

The Watervliet Arsenal Museum tells the story of America's development of cannon as well as the history of America's oldest, continuously active arsenal. The Watervliet Arsenal Museum had its modest beginning in 1968, when a few arsenal managers formed the Arsenal Historical Committee. This small but dedicated group of arsenal history buffs had been putting aside precious artifacts over the years. Due to the hard work of these volunteers, the first display area was opened in 1975. The museum as we know it today was actually established in 1980, when the first curator, Mr. William Bradford, was hired. Mr. Bradford and his staff turned a mass storage area into a professional, properly catalogued museum. After several more years of hard work, the muesuem qualified under the stringent standards of the Chief of Military History as a Certified Army Museum.

Mr. Bradford retired in 1995 and was succeeded by Ms. Rosemarie Hutchinson. Sadly, after only five years as curator and nearly a dozen years on the museum staff, Ms. Hutchinson passed away in the spring of 2000. She was instrumental in developing the museum's archives and primary source holdings into a first class research facility.

Mr. John Swantek served as Museum Curator until July of this year. Mr. Swantek, who had been Watervliet Arsenal Public Affairs Officer and Historical Officer for more than 25 years, was administrator of the museum for 15 years. Mr. Robert Pfeil, longtime arsenal employee, now serves as Director/Curator. An engineer, Mr. Pfeil served in several varied arsenal positions before coming to the museum in a reduction-in-force. He has served as museum specialist for several years and now takes over the reins of the museum at a time when major construction and expansion plans are underway.

The museum is housed in the Iron Building, or as it is mundanely referred to in arsenal records, Bldg. 38. The building is listed on the National Register of Historical Landmarks. It is made entirely of pre-fabricated cast iron plates, cast and wrought iron trusses, and sheet steel roofing. The building was chosen to be the museum site in 1971. It was erected in 1859 under the orders of Major Mordecai, a past arsenal commander. The original purpose of the building was to store ordnance materiel, tooling and equipment. It continued serving that purpose through World War II. It was later converted into a facility for "layaway" storage. The museum, archives, offices and storage occupy the entire 30,000 square feet of the building. As mentioned, the artifacts on display range from special leather goods manufactured at the arsenal to the world-class quality cannon for which Watervliet Arsenal is known. The items tell the fascinating story of the role the arsenal has played in America's defense since 1813. Of course, some of the priceless cannon exhibited are from much earlier times, the 16th century -- and earlier.

There is also a library and research facility. Thousands of historical publications, photographs, and other bits and pieces of military history are on file. People who are interested in learning more about the arsenal should call Mr. Pfeil at (518) 266-5805.

But enough background -- let's go on a cyber tour of the Watervliet Arsenal Museum.

As you enter the doors of the historical Iron Building, you begin with a closer look at the design and construction of the building itself. There is also a diorama of the arsenal. You can see where you entered the arsenal and where you are in relationship to the manufacturing or "mission essential" areas and the public sectors of the arsenal.

Your self-guided tour begins to the right. There are some beautiful examples of early 16th and 17th century cannon; highly decorative guns which were the pride of the first cannoneers. Next is the truly priceless Burgoyne fieldpiece surrendered at the decisive Battle of Saratoga. There are French artillery weapons, Coehorn mortars, naval guns, etc. You get a glimpse of the cannon-making art in the 1700s. Many other types of ordnance line the walls here, including a Spanish one-pounder Lantanka gun, a Valliere gun, which is a French cannon; a British medium 12-pounder cannon (1760), a French Gribeauval eight-pounder cannon (1764), a Verbruggan bronze field gun from the 1770s, a 24-pound howitzer (1776), a Gribeauval 24-pound howitzer and 12-pound cannon, and an early U.S. 12-pounder. Before you turn left through the doors into the Civil War period, check out the display on the original Erie Canal which once ran directly through the arsenal. Sections of the original east and west walls of the Erie Canal are evident on the arsenal today.

The Civil War is the topic of the next exhibit hall. As we turn left and continue through the museum, we are surrounded by an impressive display of weaponry and ammunition used during the tragic War Between the States. The first glass case we come upon holds a number of different types of ammunition used during the war, such as strapping shot, shells, powder bags, musket balls, along with the items used to manufacture them. The larger artifacts are displayed against historically accurate backgrounds as they may have been used by the blue and grey. The first item that we come to is the Navy 3.67-inch parrott rifle, which was used on the U.S.S. Honeysuckle in 1865. There is also a 10-inch seacoast mortar, which weighs 5,000 pounds and once propelled 87.5-pound cannonballs 4,250 yards. The cast iron Napoleon 12-pounder howitzer is displayed in the middle of the room along with the Williams automatic cannon, which dates back to 1862. This cannon was called the secret weapon of the Confederacy and saw actionduring the Battle of the Seven Pines. It had a range of 2,000 yards, and was hand-crafted. Although it was an automatic weapon, it was still not considered to be reliable because of problematic pressure from extensive firing and heat. The largest mortar used during the Civil War was the cast iron seige mortar. The huge artillery piece weighs 17,200 pounds and fired 289-pound cannonballs up to 4,000 yards. The last gun we see in the Civil War section is the U.S. Smith gun. This was an experimental breech loader manufactured at West Point Foundry.

As we round the corner, approaching the Post-Civil War section, we are introduced to interesting items, other than artillery, used and manufactured at the arsenal. Some of the items include the McClellan saddle (1859), stirrups, and hames, which were set in draft harness collars. Among the manufactured items are knapsacks, cartridge boxes, and hunting knives. The period after the Civil War was a lean time for Watervliet Arsenal until officially being named America's cannon factory in 1890. Many different guns and cannon are displayed here that were manufactured at the arsenal. They include a French Debange breech from the 1870s, a field carriage (1898), an eight-centimeter crucible steel breech-loading rifled field cannon, and a 3.6-inch breech-loading field mortar (1890). There is also an exhibit of the first 16-inch gun, which was completed in 1902. It measures 49.5 feet long and weighs 624 tons. The Benet family was quite important to the success of the arsenal, so a section in this portion of the museum is dedicated to them. Brigadier General Stephen Vincent Benet was the Chief of Ordnance in 1878, and Colonel James Walker Benet was commander of the arsenal from 1919 - 1921. The cannon breech display shows such artillery as the 105mm howitzer, 155mm Schneider breech, and the Nordenfeldt screen breech. The main section of the museum brings us to more modern types of weaponry. We are introduced to the many and varied types of mortars, aircraft cannon, and recoilless rifles of modern artillery warfare. Among these are the 90mm M67, 105mm M27A1, 75mm M20, 106mm M40A1, and the 155mm M64. There is a small section showing breech parts and muzzle brakes. Muzzle brakes are used to lessen cannon recoil by providing a surface or series of surfaces for the propulsion gases to impact when leaving the gun tube. Next to this is the rifling section. Rifling is a series of spiral grooves cut in the cannon barrel which impact a spin to the projectile along the longitudinal axis, creating gyro action. In the middle of the room, all the modern guns and cannon are displayed. This section includes such artillery as the T95E1 90mm smooth bore cannon, 155mm M185 gun-howitzer, 120mm M256 gun, eight-inch howitzer M2A1, and the 152mm gun launcher XM150E6.

As we approach the curator's office, there is a small display showing different types of nuclear projectiles, such as the M754 for the M753 projectile, the M423 for the M422 projectile, and the M455 for the M454 projectile. World War II is the theme of the next series of guns. First, we have a 37mm antitank gun M1 from 1942. This gun weighs 2700 pounds and once fired ammunition 10,860 yards. Next, there is a 75mm pack howitzer M1A1. This gun's weight is 1,440 pounds and has a range of 9,620 yards. Lastly, we get to study a map showing all the battles of World War II and the dates and locations throughout the world where allied troops engaged the enemy. This completes our cyber tour.

Here we also see a restored belt-driven machine from the classic 19th century period of arsenal production. This is an example of what will be a completely restored full machine shop that will take you back to the 1890s and the beginning of the cannon-making at Watervliet Arsenal.

Now that we've whet your historical appetite, make it a point to come to Watervliet Arsenal and view for yourself all of the history that lies inside the doors of the classic Iron Building.

The museum staff provides fascinating tours for individuals or groups, small or large. The museum's archives provide an invaluable research resource for historians, authors, geneologists and other students of ordnance production. The Arsenal Museum is free and open to the general public from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday through Thursday. Donations to the Watervliet Arsenal Historical Society are greatly appreciated. The box is just inside the front door.

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Revised: 28 JUL 2008