Old Gun Road twists and turns on a Chesterfield County hillside high over the James River. It is a picturesque setting. Estate homes and deep, forested creeks line the road as it meanders along a route that connects Robious Road on the south with Cherokee Road in the James River valley on the north. It is especially beautiful in the winter when puffy ice crystals cling to the crooked limbs of the ancient oak trees. Still, the rush-hour traffic shows little deference as it swiftly darts over the serpentine bends of the old lane.
“I shouldn’t be doing this,” I thought. I limped across the fresh snow in a clumsy orthopedic boot while the morning traffic whizzed by. I decided it was worth dodging cars on slippery Old Gun Road if I could just get one good photo of historic ruins crested with frozen powder. Fortunately, another ghost of Richmond’s war-time past assented to a few good shots. The timing could not have been better, two hours later, the snow had melted. A glimpse of history was recorded.
This is the second of a two-part series about the arsenals and foundries of Westham and Bellona. [Editors note] The first part was the most read article in the history of RichmondOutside.com. Click here to read it.
Bellona, like its counterparts at Westham, started as a supplier of ordinance when the United States fought to assert its independence and continued to make canons for the Confederacy when Virginia experimented with secession. Bellona, however, did not end with a dramatic ransacking like the first foundry at Westham. It simply stopped at the end of the Civil War. But during its existence, Bellona was a major source of weaponry, second only to the famed Tredegar Iron Works, and it narrowly escaped destruction as federal forces sought to cut off the Confederacy’s remote but prolific supplier in Chesterfield County.
“Bellona,” the Roman Goddess of War, is often pictured wearing a helmet and holding a spear and blood-red torch. She was renowned for inspiring men to violence and favoring the nation whose priests would honor her by mutilating their own bodies and collecting the blood to drink or submit as an offering. It is doubtful Major John Clarke envisioned cups of sanguine liquid when he started the Bellona Foundry on the south bank of the James River in 1814. His goal was to create arms for the defense of United States. The new nation was again at war with the motherland – England.
The United States, enraged over perceived slights on American sovereignty and very real attacks on American ships by the British navy, declared war on the United Kingdom in June of 1812. Entrepreneurs like Major Clarke scrambled to secure federal contracts to produce munitions for the war effort. Clarke and his partner William Wirt signed an agreement with the U.S. army to create a foundry. Within a year the new industry at Bellona began turning out canons, ball and muskets. The foundry was remote, deep in the western frontier of Chesterfield County. Clarke built a private road in order to transport his wares to the docks at Manchester. The “Gun Road” as he called it, changed names several times over the centuries – its longest remaining sections, Huguenot Road and Forest Hill Avenue, are artifacts of the War of 1812.
Production was prolific. Clarke’s foundry produced 300 tons of cannon for deployment against the British. Clarke, an experienced arms maker, oversaw the manufacturing and testing of cannon himself. One of his favorite means of quality control was to test fire canon down the James River. Workers on land were protected from potential accidents by a high earthen berm along the shore. Typical 1812 guns had a range between 800 and 1,000 yards. A few heavier pieces might fire twice that distance. A rough calculation suggests that most of Clarke’s projectiles landed in the James River near the present-day Virginia Power Boat Association club house.
Bolstered by the success of his foundry during the war years, Clarke was able to convince the United States Government to establish an arsenal on his property in 1817. It was around this time that the foundry and arsenal together would become known as “Bellona.” Its remote location in western Chesterfield made it relatively secure from foreign attack (an advantage demonstrated in the War of 1812) and placed it near the rich Midlothian coal fields on which Clarke relied to fuel his furnaces.
Business boomed. The complex included the foundry buildings on the east end and the arsenal campus to the west and north. The arsenal included the main three-story storehouse, a one-story dormitory for enlisted men, separate officer’s quarters, and workshops. These were arranged in a quadrangle and surrounded by stone walls. Outside this complex was a powder magazine made of stone walls five feet thick and further fortified with additional walls and earth encircling it – to protect those outside the magazine from accidental explosion.
Work progressed until the 1830s when the U.S. War Department suddenly decided to close Belona and move operations to Fort Monroe in Hampton Roads. The orders cited concerns over Bellona’s remote location and its close proximity to large numbers of slaves who worked at the Midlothian coal mines. There was a constant fear of slave rebellion. That fear was not unfounded, Nat Turner’s uprising in 1831 resulted in the deaths of 57 whites in Southampton County. Bellona was all but shuttered after the arsenal moved. Over the next few decades it saw a variety of owners and uses, including a brief stint as a silkworm farm.
It is unclear when Dr. Junius Archer purchased Bellona. Various texts disagree on the date. It is also unclear when he renewed production at the old foundry created by his uncle, Major Clarke. But by March of 1861, Archer had made 50 massive Columbiad cannons for the U.S. Army. But, before the guns were delivered, Virginia seceded from the Union and within a few months the confiscated guns were defending the Confederacy. War had come back to Richmond.
Like his uncle before him, Archer wasted no time in capitalizing on the war effort. Production at Bellona was restored to full capacity within months. It built a variety of munitions but is probably best known for the Columbiad guns used by the Confederates to defend coastal areas, including the James River. At the Battle of Drewry’s Bluff in 1862, several Bellona Columbiads (some capable of hurling 128-pound shells over two miles downriver) hammered the federal navy as it attempted to steam up the James. The U.S.S. Galena alone suffered 45 hits. Her crew lost 14 sailors. Meanwhile Bellona kept turning out guns miles away, safely tucked in the Chesterfield countryside.
Federal armies sought to eliminate Bellona. Its remote location made it difficult to reach, but some felt that its isolation would make it easy to overtake. In the spring of 1864, Colonel Ulric Dahlgren aimed to destroy Bellona as he attempted to invade Richmond. There was only one obstacle in his way – the James River.
After observing many failed attempts to take Richmond from the east and north, Dahlgren believed he could enter Richmond from the west and south, He gave some of his men orders to cross the James River from Goochland County at Dover Mills. From there they would attack Bellona, follow the river downstream, cross it again at Belle Isle, release the federal prisoners there, rejoin the rest of the group and ransack Richmond. It was an ambitious plan.
In order to get to Dover Mills, Colonel Dahlgren relied on the guidance of runaway slave named Martin Robinson. Robinson agreed to guide the cavalry to a ford where some of them would cross the river and then blaze a destructive path along the south side en-route to Richmond. The agreement made clear that Robinson would be executed if he was found guilty of misleading the men. The cavalry rode in the rain for two nights to Dover Mills. When they arrived they were very surprised to find that there was no ford. The river was deep and swift. They could not cross. Lieutenant Bartley of the United States Signal Corps witnessed the event and wondered why Robinson would mislead Dahlgren when his own life was on the line.
Bartley described the result of the perceived treachery: “The Colonel then told him he would have to carry out his part of the contract, to which the guide assented, and admitted that was the agreement and made no objection to his execution. He went along to the tree without any force and submitted to his fate without a murmur. “
Dahlgren left Robinson’s body hanging in the tree and pushed on to Richmond without crossing the river to the Bellona side. The Colonel was killed by a Confederate ambush after failing to capture the city. After the war, local witnesses stated that winter rains had swollen the James River – inundating the ford that is passable most of the year. Bellona was spared by a flood. Martin Robinson was betrayed by it.
At the end of the war, Virginia and all rebel states were placed under military control. Bellona was simply shut down. Over the years many of its buildings were dismantled and materials were used elsewhere. Much of the stone from Bellona was used in the construction of Harvietown, a Richmond suburb just east of Byrd Park. A few arsenal and foundry buildings still stand today, visible from a wayside on Old Gun Road. There is also a canon and mold at the wayside. They were reportedly recovered from the river in 1962 by Merle Luck, then-owner of the Bellona property. A stone plaque states the artifacts were tossed in the river by Colonel Dahlgren. It is unclear exactly where the gun and mold were recovered. Dahlgren never made it to the south side of the James.
Mister Luck renovated some of the remaining arsenal buildings into residences. They are still surrounded by the original stone walls. Just to the east, the remains of the powder magazine survive without a roof. The Bellona grounds slope beautifully to the James River. Open fields flanked by creeks and modern manses show little trace of the industry that once shook the ground. The Bellona Arsenal property is private. Only the wayside on Old Gun Road is open to the public.
This was a long series of articles. But it is important to record events that placed central Virginia at the crux of struggles for unity and independence. Local industries crafted metal for the fight. Three wars shaped the local landscape and natural environment. Richmond and its environs are hallowed ground – sanctified by the sacrifices of fallen warriors. Whether they were black or white, whether they were from England or the North or South, each person who died here, or killed in faraway places by weapons made here, deserve reverence. Westham and Bellona are just two examples of the war machines that placed Richmond and Virginia in the middle of the struggle for a free America. There are many other local sites that played a role too. More to come…
I would like to thank a number of local history experts for their help on these articles. Dr. Bill Trout – Virginia Canals and Navigations Society; Mike Gorman – Richmond National Battlefield Park; Scott Williams – Chesterfield County Historical Society
Further Reading: “Chesterfield County: Early Architecture and Historic Sites” by Jeffery M. O’Dell; “Chesterfield: An Old Virginia County” by Francis Earle Lutz; “Falls of the James Atlas” by W.E. Trout