MOUNT DEARBORN

The initial story begins with the American Revolution when the arms and ammunition needed by the colonies to fight the British were obtained either from foreign sources or from small domestic manufacturers. This caused problems because the system did not guarantee uniformity and many times contracts were not met on time. (SLIDE 5) Because of this need, U.S. General Henry Knox, decided to establish a manufacturing armory at Springfield, Massachusetts, to serve the northeastern states. In 1794, while president, George Washington selected Harper’s Ferry, Virginia as the site for the second armory, designed to supply the mid-Atlantic States. In 1798, after returning to the command of the Army, Washington felt that a third armory was still needed, and one should be constructed to supply the Southern States.

After doinghis own research, Washington chose a specific site in north-central South Carolina in the vicinity of Rocky Mount on the Wateree River. (Rocky Mount had served as a Tory/British outpost during the Revolution and was the site of a battle in late July, early August 1780.) The site was near the Great Falls of the Catawba. Washington also knew that a new canal was being planned on the Catawba to circumnavigate the falls and it would be an excellent power source for arms manufacturing.

Government hasn’t changed much in the past 250 years so the plan to build this third arsenal for the Southern states was tabled. Despite Washington’s specific recommendation of the Rocky Mount area as the site of the third national arsenal/armory, no further action was taken on the project prior to this death in December 1799.

 

However, because Washington specifically recommended a site on the Catawba, the groundwork was laid for further consideration when Thomas Jefferson was inaugurated in 1801.

One year later in 1802, President Jefferson’s Secretary of War, Henry Dearborn, revisited the idea of building an armory for the Southern States at Rocky Mount.

Sect. Dearborn decided to ask S.C. Senator Thomas Sumter, former general during the AmericanRevolution, if land could be purchased near Rocky Mount for a magazine and armory. Sen. Sumter agreed to the task to purchase the land on behalf of the United States. Dearborn informed Sumter that twenty, thirty, or perhaps 50 acres would be sufficient for the project and that when he had agreed on the site for the lowest price, he could then inform him of the purchase. 

While waiting for Sumter to complete the task, Dearborn decided that the next order of business to accomplish the project was to hire an engineer to help design and build the establishment. S.C. State engineer, Colonel Johann Christian Senf, who was, at the time, working on the Santee Canal, was chosen for the task. Dearborn didn’t know that Senf was already working as an engineer for the Catawba Navigational Company.

Senf and the company had already proposed to connect the Catawba and Wateree Rivers by cutting the canal to bypass the falls and shoals near Rocky Mount. It is not known if Dearborn had any previous knowledge of Senf’s dual employment and probably chose Senf because he was already living at the Rocky Mount site. Anyway, Dearborn made Senf the superintendent of the project.

Senator Sumter, that year (1802), at the direction of Dearborn, visited Rocky Mount and met Col. Senf. The two men jointly submitted a report to the War Department of the availability of a large suitable tract of land on the west bank of the Catawba just below the falls. However, instead of the 50 acres initially suggested by Dearborn, Sumter suggested the purchase of 300 to 500 acres and surprisingly Dearborn agreed. Dearborn wrote Sumter that he would prefer that Sumter himself would make the land acquisition purchase. He further instructed Sumter to conduct a survey and forward the deed to the War Department. Sumter agreed to make the initial land purchasesand then be reimbursed by the by the government for the price of the land.

Sumter went to work and exceeded his authority, he reportedly purchased 523 acres at $6 and acre and Congress appropriated the sum of $3,238 to reimburse him. Be that as it may, it was determined much later that Sumter only purchased about 250 acres and resold it to the United States at a considerable profit. To make matters worse, about half of the land he said he acquired actually belongedto the Catawba Navigational Company. So the big question was who actually owned the land. Sumter may have taken this step, which is basically afraudulent act against the US government, because he was known to be having financial difficulties in 1802. He reportedly had quite a large gambling debt and this would be a convenient way to pay off that debt. Both the disputed land and the role of the Catawba Navigational Company would eventually contribute to the failure of the armory project.

Now Dearborn, unaware of any questionable titles to the land, trusted Sumter and proceeded on with the project. So in January 1803, Eli Whitney, inventor of the cotton gin, was selected by Dearborn to assist in planning and design. Learning that Whitney planned to visit North Carolina in connection with the sale of his cotton gin, Dearborn asked him to go to Rocky Mount and assist Colonel Senf in actually choosing the proposed arsenal site. Whitney and Senf conducted a joint survey of the area and forwarded it to the War Department, determining the location of the works and buildings. The two men completed the survey in early 1803 and upon receiving it, Dearborn wrote to Senf that the first step in the project was to have the Catawba Navigational Company build the canal at their own expense. Dearborn never made clear why a private company would do this for free. However, the project would likely have raised the company’s stock considerably. 

Senf recommended the project to the company’s president, John F. Grimke, who stated he could build the canal within six weeks with twenty people and $500. While the Catawba Navigational Company agreed to complete the canal.

Grimke informed Dearborn that approximately half of the land purchased by the United States from Senator Sumter had not been Sumter’s to sell, but actually belonged to the Catawba Navigational Company. He also implied that the company would be willing to sell the land in question to the United States but, Dearborn in answering did not offer to buy it.

For the present, the project continued despite the question of the land title. Dearborn wanted to make the Rocky Mount Armory similar to the existing armories, so he acquired the building specifications from the armory at Springfield, Mass. Dearborn entrusted Whitney with the specifications and asked him to share them with Col. Senf pinpointing the exact site for each building.

The plan included buildings such as the Armory, barracks for workers, a house for the superintendent and paymaster and the storekeeper. The walls of several of the buildings were to be stone or brick. The barracks were designed to have a piazza in front, 8 feet in width. A building to store muskets was also required and a site for the powder magazine.

By the end of 1803, Senf reported that he had made progress in collecting building materials and was given more money from the War Department. He claimed that the proposed canal would be finished by 1804. However, Senf did not inform Dearborn that there was a dispute with a local mill owner near the falls concerning water rights. Much time was lost when Senf had major difficulties in coming to terms with the mill owner.

By the end of 1804, the canal was still not finished. So in 1805, Dearborn decided to send Senf an assistant and hired Lt. Col. Francis Mentges, a former building inspector for the Army, for the job. Dearborn also hired eleven highly skilled Northern master workmen to assist Senf and Mentages in completing the project. While the workmen provided the assistance under Col. Mentages direct supervision, Mentages took ill and died on Sept. 6. With Mentages death compounding all the other problems, Dearborn decided to change the administration and eventually removed Senf from the project.

In early 1806, Dearborn decided to relieve Senf and to assign the entire armory project to the U.S Corps of Engineers. Captain Alexander Macomb was selected to lead the Rocky Mount Project and in May 1806, Macomb replaced Senf and asked him to turn over all records, drawings and other government property. Senf immediately took ill after his replacement and in Aug. 1806, he died at his home in Rocky Mount.

When Macomb arrived the military establishment only the superintendent’s building, workman’s barracks and some utility buildings had been completed. The arsenal building was only partially completed,and the powder magazine had not been started. Macomb further discovered that no action had been taken on the proposed Armory becauseSenf and the Catawba Navigational Company never completed the canal which was necessary to provide waterpower to the armory. It was at this time in early 1807that Macomb suggested that the project be renamed Mount Dearborn since the actual village of Rocky Mount was located a few milessouth of the military establishment.

It was 1807 and the canal had not beencompleted, Judge Grimke, the president of the Catawba Navigational Co., began to complain to Capt. Macomb his original claim that the U.S. did not hold clear title to 200 acres Sumtersold to the government. He stated that he would sue Capt. Macomb and the federal government, which he eventually did. This ongoing legal dispute is why the canal was never completed.

Thus,became the eventual failure of Mount Dearborn. Under Capt. Macomb’s command many of the proposed buildings including the Arsenaland powder magazinewere completed.

In 1809, Macomb drew a detailed map of the establishment showing the location of the buildings, the planned route of the canal, the actual location of Rocky Mount and the boundary the Catawba Company sought to enforce surrounding the military establishment.

Around this time, Mount Dearborn also became a recruiting center for the U.S. Army as the nation prepared for a possible war with Great Britain. Most of the soldiers there were transferred to Charleston in defense of the city. A small detachment of soldiers remained as caretakers, but it is unclear whether they remained through the War of 1812.

For a brief period in early 1816, Congress proposed Mount Dearborn as the site of one of three regional military academies. Eventually, lawmakers decided just to provide more funds to West Point in New York.

By 1824, an actual canal was constructed and the canal from the Great Falls of the Catawba to Rocky Mount was little used. By the 1840s, the introduction of railroads was the preferred mode of transportation for people and goods.

By 1825, the site of Mount Dearborn was reportedly abandoned by the U.S. Government and its remains were pillaged by the local inhabitants of the area.

In 1826, S.C. Architect Robert Mills visited the site when he was preparing his “Atlas of South Carolina.” Mills described Mount Dearborn in romantic terms that he wished it had succeeded as an establishment. Mills notes that:

 

     “The United States establishment, near Rocky Mount, commands attention also, though abandoned and in ruins. This circumstance only tends to make it more interesting to the traveler. The buildings erected here were handsome and extensive. The magazine (a conical brick building) has entirely tumbled down. The arsenal is a substantial building, erected close to the canal, constructed by the state, and is the only building of the whole that promises to be really useful. The barracks surround a square, fronted by the officers’ quarters, a large brick edifice, the whole erected on a promontory point projecting into the river. Nature furnishes few spots more variously romantic than this, a noble river rendered more interesting by the rocks which impede its course, the islands scattered in the stream, the surrounding hills covered with woods, and towering above it, all induce a wish that the project of a military establishment here succeeded and that this fairy spot had been the abodeof refined society.”

In conclusion, theland comprising of the ruins of the Mount Dearborn Military Establishment were officially returned to the state of South Carolina in 1829.According to state records, legislators addressed selling the property toDaniel McCullough as early as 1843 but the transfer was not completed until 1850. McCullough subsequently built a Cotton Factory on the site which was destroyed by General Sherman’s men during the War Between the States in February of 1865.

References:

 

Carlisle, John H., “What Might Have Been, An Almost Forgotten Page of South Carolina History.” A letter written to the Charleston News and Courier. 

 

Collins, Anne P., “A Goodly Heritage: History of Chester County, S.C.” Columbia, S.C.; R.L. Bryan, 1986.

 

Hamer, Fritz, “Mount Dearborn Armory”. South Carolina Encyclopedia, University of South Carolina Institute for Southern Studies, 2016.

 

National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, “The Mount Dearborn Military Reservation”. 2018.

 

Stinson, Daniel Green, “A Sketch of Mount Dearborn”. Chester Reporter, November 6, 1873.

 

Wade, Arthur P., “Mount Dearborn: The National Armory at Rocky Mount, S.C. 1802-1829”. South Carolina Historical Magazine, Vol. 81 (July 1980), pp. 207-231; (Oct. 1980): pp. 316-341