The Arsenal storehouse, photographed by Charles Stotz, 1934.

    The Arsenal storehouse, photographed by Charles Stotz, 1934.

    When planning on taking military action against a neighboring country, you have to start somewhere. The Pittsburgh land the U.S. Army acquired on April 9, 1814, from a local merchant looked like a good spot for a supply depot for the invasion of Canada during the War of 1812. That merchant was William B. Foster, later to be the father of composer Stephen Foster. During that war with Britain, William Foster’s reputation and credit as a merchant far exceeded that of the federal government. Since he was a government agent, several merchants refused to accept Mr. Foster’s signature for the purchase of supplies for the troops, but they were willing to accept his personal notes.

    On April 5, 1814, Foster purchased 121 acres along the Allegheny River from Alexander Hill for $35,000 ($289/acre). Four days after his purchase, Foster turned around and sold 30 acres of that purchase to the government for $12,000 ($400/acre). Quite a markup, but it looks like the government didn’t mind since on April 18, 1814, William B. Foster was officially appointed Deputy Commissioner of Purchases. Questions about whether Foster had a deal with the government before his April 5 purchase remain unanswered. Maybe feeling a bit guilty about that disproportionate profit, Foster later donated an additional 1.25 acres of land for the purpose of a burial ground for soldiers.

    Although the 1812 War hostilities ended with the Treaty of Ghent on December 24, 1814, the U.S. Army continued construction that had begun in August 1814. The final battle of the war happened on January 8, 1815, in New Orleans. Yet there’s no record found that the Allegheny Arsenal was functioning or contributed to that U.S. victory.

    The property that the Allegheny Arsenal occupied was between 39th and 40th Streets in Lawrenceville. The property started at the banks of the Allegheny River and stretched up the hillside to the edge of today’s Arsenal Park. A later purchase in 1831 would extend the property to Penn Avenue.

    In the August 1, 1814, issue of the Pittsburgh Mercury the call went out for stonemasons to begin construction. Logically, the first building should have been a warehouse in order to store supplies for other buildings. Initially, this idea was speculation. As Jim Wudarczyk’s and my research continued for our new book, the Allegheny Arsenal Handbook, not much information was uncovered about the early construction of the facility—that is, until we were about to wrap up the text for the book. I found a map that would solve the mystery of the Arsenal’s first structure.

    An 1815 map was found in the Darlington Library at the University of Pittsburgh through the Historic Pittsburgh website. The map is titled, “Plan of Pittsburgh and Adjacent Country” and was surveyed by William Darby.

    By 1835, that stream had been diverted from the Lower Arsenal, though it still shows up on Washington Street (now called Willow Street).

    By 1835, that stream had been diverted from the Lower Arsenal, though it still shows up on Washington Street (now called Willow Street).

    On the map is a single structure within a lot titled Ordnance Depot. Another mystery it solved was why the storehouse was at such an odd angle to the other Arsenal structures that were later constructed on a grid pattern. This pattern ran parallel to 39th Street (originally called Pike Street) and 40th Street (originally called Covington Street). The 1815 map, yellowed and cracked with age, shows a structure built alongside a stream that flowed into a channel that, along with the larger Two Mile Run, separated Wainwright’s Island from the Allegheny River shoreline. Later maps showed that the stream was diverted away from the Arsenal property to allow for more construction. As the first structure built, it was probably important at the time to make use of the stream for loading and unloading goods in small boats. Once in place as dictated by the later-to-be-diverted stream, the storehouse remained positioned at odds with the rest of the Arsenal structures.

    Wainwright’s Island was named for Joseph Wainwright (1779-1866), who in 1804 started a woolen mill, and afterwards a grist mill and oil mill on the island. These businesses were eventually eclipsed starting in 1818 by the Wainwright Brewery, located just 100 feet away on the opposite shore from the island on 36th Street in Lawrenceville.

    As Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods grew and new roads started appearing, open waterways became a nuisance. There was no room to have an open stream when Lawrenceville’s riverfront was dominated by iron mills and railroad yards. Two Mile Run and other unnamed neighborhood streams needed to be placed under the pavement. On October 9, 1871, the City of Pittsburgh approved an ordinance authorizing construction of a sewer at 33rd Street in Lawrenceville. This sewer piped the run directly to the Allegheny at 33rd Street and eliminated the run’s flow that separated Wainwright’s Island from the shoreline. Without the run’s water it made things easier to fill in the back channel of Wainwright’s Island by simply blocking off the Allegheny River’s flow into the channel. According to newspaper accounts, the connection of Wainwright’s Island to the Lawrenceville shore was accomplished by 1873. The adjoining land became the property of the City of Pittsburgh, which didn’t vacate its ownership of the property until a 1955 ordinance.

    The solidly built Arsenal storehouse served its purpose until the Bureau of Mines turned it into an explosives testing laboratory in 1908. After the sale of the property in 1926, various private businesses made use of it until it was demolished around 1970. It’s unfortunate that no one realized they were tearing down an important piece of Allegheny Arsenal history.


    Tom Powers is the president of the Lawrenceville Historical Society. He is co-author with Jim Wudarczyk of the 340-page Allegheny Arsenal Handbook, which has just been published.