“The importance of the Hudson River in the present contest, and the necessity of defending it, are subjects which have been so frequently and fully discussed and are so well understood that it is unnecessary to enlarge upon them.” – George Washington
It is hard to imagine a time in the United States when highways did not exist, but that was certainly the case at the time of the Revolutionary War. Some cities could brag of their cobblestone streets but once outside the residential area, roads could best be described as single-lane dirt paths, frozen solid but probably covered with snow in winter, mud bogs in spring, and deeply rutted, jarring, swaying and unstable conveyances the rest of the year.
A small military wagon could move along only as fast as a team of oxen could pull it. Moving armies and cannon along these roadways was a slow, difficult undertaking, offering opposing forces considerable advance notice and many opportunities to thwart progress or attack.
Moving by water was another matter altogether. It was much faster, safer and easier. Troops who would be shoveling dirt, cutting trees and brush, and pushing stuck wagons trying to move on land could rest and prepare for battle as a boat sailed down Lake George. A day’s travel on water might take a land traveler a week, but save an army trying to move cannon and supplies a month.
Prior to 1800, the Hudson River, Lake George and Lake Champlain created the major commercial and industrial route between New York City, Albany and Montreal. Any army controlling the Hudson could control New York and cut Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Hampshire off from the other colonies. By the middle of 1776, the British had 87 warships, carrying 6,500 sailors, patrolling the coast of North America. Thirty of these warships, carrying 824 cannon, were in New York Harbor.
On May 25th, 1775, the Continental Congress recommended to the New York Provincial Congress that effective steps be taken to provide a defense of the Hudson at the Highlands to prevent any vessel from passing. The Highlands was a section of the Hudson 90 miles south of Albany and 40 miles north of the city of New York, where the river narrowed to ¼ mile wide and entered an “S” curve that slowed vessels going up or down the river. At this point, the river was bounded by granite walls rising 1400 feet above the water, perfect for visibility and cannon placement.
The New York Provincial Congress, which included Albany Representatives Abraham and Robert Yates, Abraham Ten Broeck, Robert Van Rensselaer, Walter Livingston, Volkert Petrus Douw, Jacob Cuyler, Henry Glen, Francis Nicoll, Dirck Swart and Peter Sylvester, appointed a committee to construct defenses. The committee engaged Bernard Romans, a cartographer, engraver and self-taught military engineer from Wethersfield, Connecticut to construct a fort on the east bank of the “S” curve on what was then known as Martelaer’s Rock. Romans designed a large, ambitious fortress named Fort Constitution and construction began but quickly ran into problems.
The fort was being constructed a little too far to the west, which would prevent a good view, and subsequently a good shot, down the river. The scope of the project was felt too large and could not be built quickly enough. Most importantly, the west bank was 500 feet higher than the east bank, so the new fort would be compromised by attack from guns placed on the other side of the river.
Disagreement slowed progress and, in frustration, Major General Philip Schuyler wrote from his home in Albany to John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress, in Philadelphia: “To me, Sir, Every Object, as to Importance, sinks almost to Nothing when put in Competition with securing Hudson’s River.”
On December 14th, 1775, after missing an entire construction season, New York’s Provincial Congress decided to make a change. As an emergency measure, a small 18-gun battery was constructed on a gravel hill a little further to the east of the proposed Fort Constitution with a better view down the Hudson and more ambitious efforts were focused on the west bank of the Hudson, six miles south at the entrance to Popolopen Kill.
By April, the new fort was christened Fort Montgomery, after General Richard Montgomery, who had replaced an ill General Schuyler and was killed in a New Year’s Eve attack on Quebec. During the construction, General Schuyler dispatched his aide-de-camp Lieutenant Henry Livingston together with Albanians Gose Van Schaick, John Ten Broeck, and Henry Bogert to sound the Hudson throughout the Hudson Highlands to test the suggestion that a chain boom be constructed to block the Hudson.
By April, 1776, the British abandoned their attempts to take Boston after Boston was reinforced with cannon seized from Fort Ticonderoga, and focused their forces on New York. George Washington moved to assume command of the defenses of the Hudson himself. Washington appointed General George Clinton as commander and headquartered him at Fort Montgomery. Clinton hurriedly constructed a second fort (Fort Clinton) at the south bank of the Popolopen Kill.
The arrival of British warships and their easy entry into New York Harbor alarmed the New York Provincial Congress. Working jointly with Albany’s Committee of Safety, the Provincial Congress appointed a “Secret Committee” and charged them to take “such measures as to them shall appear most effectual for obstructing the channel of Hudson’s River, or annoying the Enemy’s ships in their navigation up the said river.” The Secret Committee appointed Albany’s Robert Yates to oversee the construction.
The previous spring, a chain forged by the Livingstons at their foundry, was sent to the Van Rensselaers at Albany to forward to General Schuyler for use on the Richelieu River to prevent entrance to Lake Champlain. However high waters on the river prevented its installation.
Yates sent a message to Schuyler on July 20th, 1776, requesting that the chain be sent back to Poughkeepsie as quickly as possible. Schuyler, who had just lost a close election to General George Clinton to become New York’s first governor, responded to Yates that he would try to comply but the last he knew, the chain was being used to try to block the waterway between Lake Champlain and Lake George. (He was apparently referring to the chain, boom and bridge placed across Lake Champlain from Fort Ticonderoga to Mount Independence).
Yates authorized construction of a new chain at the Livingstons’ Ancram Ironworks to stretch across the Hudson at Anthony’s Nose at the Highlands. He also set about to purchase logs to form a series of rafts to both support and buffer the chain. He inspected the new Fort Clinton and sent a message to Washington that he was very happy with its condition.
By August, the Richelieu chain had returned but it was only a quarter of what was needed. Yates awarded a contract to Ebenezer Young to supervise the installation of the new chain and boom. He also sent an urgent message to the shipyard at Poughkeepsie offering workers the high rate of seven shillings, six pence and a pint of rum for a day’s labor. Robert’s uncle, Abraham Yates, president of the State Convention at Fishkill, was advised of progress.
Problems occurred, however, when Robert Yates was forced to advise Robert Livingston that the “Secret Committee” was running short of funds and would not be able to pay the full price Livingston wanted for his iron. Livingston slowed production of chain links. With extra links obtained from Robert Erskine’s ironworks in northern New Jersey, the completed chain was stretched across the river in November, floating on the wooden rafts.
However, as the tide ran out, the pressure from the flowing water on the rafts broke the chain with each side coming to rest on its respective shore. The chain was repaired but broke again. It had been broken twice and as yet had not been hit by a single ship.
After a winter of repair, on April 18th, 1777, Governor Clinton advised Washington that the chain was repaired and in place. The chain was of no help, however, since when the British did finally attack, they did so by land, overwhelming the undermanned forts (most soldiers had been sent south to assist Washington at Philadelphia). The chain was cut and removed and Kingston was burned to the ground. But, as Clinton later advised Washington, it was obvious that the British had risked everything to attack Fort Montgomery by land rather than sail upriver and contend with the chain. He recommended the construction of a new and stronger chain.
Learning from their mistakes, the new chain was installed at West Point where the river was narrower and the chain could be better protected by the higher cliffs. Clinton called for the chain to be constructed of the best-quality iron available in the colonies and of twice the thickness of the Fort Montgomery chain.
Peter Townsend’s Stirling Ironworks was asked to do what no American foundry had ever accomplished, produce a 1,700 foot-long, 750-link, chain of 2-inch bar iron with 8 swivels and 80 clevises. Each link was to be 30 inches long.
Founded originally by William and Abel Noble in 1751, Noble, Townsend and Company was one of the first American companies to export iron to England, competing with high-quality iron from Sweden and Russia. They manufactured substantial quantities of bar iron for use in tools, wheels, sleigh rails, spindles and axles. They cast teakettles, skillets, pots and ship anchors. The Stirling complex in the Ramapo Mountains (Orange County) was the first choice to cast the chain. Stirling began in earnest. Each day’s operation consumed an acre of timber.
Ingots of pig iron manufactured in furnaces from Ramapo magnetite were pounded into red-hot bars and subsequently chain links by Stirling’s huge water-powered tilt hammer. As each chain section of nine links, plus a huge clevis and pin, was complete (weighing a little over 1,000 lbs.), it was loaded on a sleigh for a 25-mile trip to Samuel Brewster’s small foundry where they were joined, attached to sections of log boom and floated down the river to West Point. For two months, 24 hours a day, the Stirling Ironworks threw sparks into the air of Ramapo hills. Oxen made 100 sleigh trips to bring the chain to Brewster’s. On April 30th, 1778, the chain was ready and it was winched across the Hudson, a remarkable achievement of New York’s growing industrial ability.
Although never tested due to turning fortunes of the war, the West Point chain became a symbol of young America’s determination and industrial growth.
Brothers John and Isaiah Townsend, sons of Peter Townsend’s brother Henry, were both born at Stirling Ironworks, John on April 5th, 1777, just before Stirling began work on the chain and Isaiah on June 14th, 1783.
Isaiah moved to Albany in 1799 and John in 1802. They formed “I & J Townsend & Co., merchants in the sale of iron of all descriptions,” probably mostly Stirling’s iron. Their business was so profitable that they started Townsend Furnace and Machine Shop on Broadway in Albany (believed to be the first foundry north of Stirling’s at Ramapo), the Troy Nail and Iron Factory, a cotton mill near Stirling in Orange County, a line of passenger boats sailing between Albany and New York, a second foundry at Hawk and Elk Streets and a flour mill at Greenbush (now Rensselaer).
The first cast-iron plowshares in the country were cast at their foundry. They also specialized in sleigh shoes. One of their foundry managers, Henry Burden, would go on to found his very famous ironworks in Troy.
The Townsends joined with William James (grandfather of authors William and Henry James) and James McBride to purchase the Salina Mining Co. and “a sickly morass” of land west of Albany where huge iron kettles that Townsend manufactured were used to boil down briny water from the surrounding salt flats producing table salt and salt for preserving meat. This land later became the city of Syracuse. The Townsends had extensive land holdings in Albany and Syracuse as well as the States of Michigan, Ohio and Illinois.
John Townsend served as mayor of Albany from 1829 to 1831 and again from 1832 (one of Albany’s cholera years) to 1833. He was one of the incorporators of the Albany Insurance Company, incorporator and president of Albany Savings Bank, president of the Commercial Bank, Albany Exchange Company and the Water Commission. He was married to Abby Spencer, daughter of New York’s Chief Justice Ambrose Spencer and granddaughter of Governor George Clinton (niece of Governor DeWitt Clinton). They had 13 children.
John’s brother Isaiah Townsend shunned the public eye. His stepson Captain Robert Townsend commanded the USS Miami during the Civil War. He died at Chin Kiang, China in 1866, commanding the USS Wauchuasett. His other stepson, General Franklin Townsend (1821-1898), was the adjutant general of the State of New York – a very demanding job during the Civil War, assemblyman and mayor of Albany (1850).
General Franklin Townsend’s brother, General Frederick Townsend (1825-1897), was also a general during the Civil War and also served as adjutant general of the State of New York from 1857-1861 and again in 1880. He served on many boards but was particularly respected for his contributions to the Albany Orphanage while president of that organization.
General Franklin Townsend presented three links from the famous chain to the State Library and the links are mounted in the State Education Department building in Albany. Other links from this famous chain are displayed at the United States Military Academy at West Point.
Illustrations, from above: 13 Links from the Great Chain on display at Trophy Point, West Point; the British fleet arriving in New York Harbor July 1776; Fort Constitution and West Point Fields of Fire from Bernard Romans 1775; Map of West Point Fortifications during the American Revolution; detail drawing of the boom and iron chain made at Stirling Ironworks.