Track 3: For Power or For Passage: Re-envisioning Historic Industrial and Transportation Infrastructure
3 - Re-visiting and re-using a ‘dark, satanic mill’: the Colt Patent Firearms Factory, Hartford, Connecticut
Tuesday, September 25
10:30 AM - 12:00 PM
This paper describes a previously undiscovered mechanical air supply and exhaust system, likely driven by steam-driven fans, found built into two industrial buildings that date from 1855. The structures housed as many as fifty hearths, cupolas, and steam-powered drop-hammers, yet contemporary visitors marveled at the indoor air quality. This discovery should foster re-thinking the nature and history of ventilation in American industrial buildings, which has been focused on plan form and natural ventilation, and encourage re-examination of building systems in remnant industrial structures.
At his Patent Firearms Factory, established on the west bank of the Connecticut River, Samuel Colt, an inveterate experimenter, pioneered accurate mass-production of gun parts, minimizing hand-finishing costs and permitting simple replacement of worn or damaged parts ¬̶ advances immediately attractive to the US Army and Congress. While we must regret the growth of firepower, the industrial methods perfected here were central to the late C19 growth of American industry, and of mass consumption of items like bicycles, typewriters, printing presses and lawn mowers, all produced in this same factory.
Colt, an imaginative innovator in business practices, was also an enlightened entrepreneur, providing, in Coltsville, adjacent to the factory, worker housing, a church, a school, and a park. They still serve the community. He was Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee.
After World War II, the Colt Company moved production off-site and demolished or sealed many structures, but maintained a few for storage. The site, and the surrounding urban area, languished.
Thanks to persistent efforts by the local community, developers, the town, the state and the National Park Service, Coltsville is now a National Historical Park that can showcase a fascinating C19 industrial site. Many challenges of reuse have already been met. Brownfield materials have been removed and two later multi-story armory buildings rehabilitated. Public use of the riverbank has been addressed.
The original forge and foundry, two long, single-story brownstone buildings, remain unused. The NPS recently assumed responsibility for them and, anticipating their possible re-use as a visitor center, commissioned an historic structure report. During the 2017 site survey, the author noticed brick patches on the inner brownstone faces of every alternate pier, typically two above head height and one around knee height. Probes revealed vertical flues behind them; early photographs showed no chimneys above them. The flues connect to 250-foot-long voids concealed in the entablatures. Air could not have exited such horizontal ducts without a powered draft. Steam power drove the drop-hammers in the forge. Archival evidence support the hypothesis that Colt used steam-powered fans to exhaust air from a central chimneystack.
Antiquated building support systems are often replaced in rehabilitation projects; at Coltsville the original ventilation features deserve to be preserved and highlighted.
- appreciate the wider potential use of steam power in the building systems of mid-ninetenth century American industrial architecture
- describe the importance of careful observation and use of probes in recording apparently unremarkable utilitarian structures
- cite ways in which the goal of mass production impacted the planning and evolution of mid-ninetenth century American industrial buildings
- evaluate how early American industrial pioneers could address the issue of poor air quality within their production facilities