The peaceful vistas and gurgling waters of the James River belie its violent history. Sunny days of swimming, boating and fishing on a tree-lined river usually don’t make people think about war and smoke-filled skies. Although casual river users might wonder for a moment about the rusty shard of metal or burned lump of coal kicked up from the James’ rocky bottom, they quickly return to the pastime at hand. Silent reminders of a dark past are all over the river but go unnoticed by most who saunter along the water today. They enjoy the sound of breezes that rustle the dense vegetation on the river’s banks. Just beyond the veil of trees however, are the remains of industrial complexes that once clanged with machinery of war.
Richmond, Henrico and Chesterfield had successful enterprises that specialized in the production of weapons. A number of arsenals on the banks of the James River supplied arms used in the American Revolution, the War of 1812 and the Civil War. Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond is the most famous of these, but two others, the Westham Foundry and the foundry and arsenal at Bellona also produced significant amounts of ordnance that contributed to central Virginia’s status as a critical supply hub and priority target for every major armed conflict in the first century of our nation. Remnants of these places can still be seen near the river – you just need to get out of the water and explore a bit.
This is the first of a two-part series about the arsenals and foundries of Westham and Bellona.
A steep hillside opposite Pony Pasture dominates the river landscape in this area. “Dead Man’s Hill,” so called because of Civil War era graves on it slopes, is scarred with relics of Virginia’s tumultuous past. Thick vines and shrubs almost obscure stone ruins and tunnels that relate the story of a colony that struggled to assert its independence and a Commonwealth that once turned its back on unity.
The colonial village of Westham was established in the 1752. The Virginia General Assembly chartered the town on the north bank of the river, just west of Richmond, to receive tobacco and other wares shipped downstream from frontier farms in the Piedmont and beyond. The establishment of a trading post at Westham (where the Huguenot Bridge meets the north shore of the river today) was an early way of coping with the river’s unnavigable crash through the Fall Line. Merchandise collected at Westham was shipped east over a dirt road (later called Cary Street) to Richmond. There it was loaded onto ocean-going vessels below the river’s notorious rapids.
The promise of a prosperous trading and shipping depot attracted many ambitious prospectors. In 1776 John Ballendine moved in. Even in an era when developing the riverfront was loosely regulated and earnestly encouraged, the audacious Ballendine stood out. Soon after making a home at Westham, he proceeded to dam sections of the river without authority from the General Assembly. He aimed to divert water into a canal that would provide both power for a foundry and a transportation artery to Richmond for its products. After starting construction, Ballendine and his partner John Reverly, shrewdly convinced the General Assembly to subsidize the project. The state purchased land owned by Ballendine and Reverly where the Westham Foundry would be built. The new state foundry depended on Ballendine’s canal and iron from his mines in Buckingham. Reverly was put in charge of operations the foundry.
The foundry struggled in its early years. It did not receive sufficient raw material from Ballendine’s mines in Buckingham and construction on the canal floundered. The state supplemented the foundry with regular infusions of capital to keep it going. Thomas Jefferson, then Governor of Virginia, was enraged. He continually pressured Ballendine to complete the canal and visited the site personally to assess its progress. He threatened to supplant Ballendine’s contract with an agreement with a French firm to take over operations at Westham. Fortunately for Ballendine, politics and revolution intervened.
The French, not interested in speculating in the fledgling colony, refused to invest. Virginia, not interested in continuing ties with England and sensing impending conflict, increased its investment in the Westham Foundry. As the American Revolution progressed, so did production at Ballendine’s furnaces. By 1781 it had grown into a formidable enterprise, producing canon and shot for Continental Army troops defending the new Commonwealth. It had eight blast furnaces, a boring mill, the foundry building, storehouses and dormitories for workers.
In his 1975 book, The Falls of the James, David D. Ryan described the scene.
“Slaves worked overtime firing Ballendine’s furnaces. Again and again the molds were filled with molten metals soon to appear as cannon and guns. The hill began to resemble an arsenal. Powder was floated down from Point of Rocks (Colombia), Charlottesville and Staunton until large quantities of war materials so vital to the struggling colonists were concentrated there.”
The intrepid industry at Westham could only be stopped by an equally brazen rebuttal. The foundry caught the attention of British forces commanded by the notorious General Benedict Arnold. On January 4, 1781, Arnold’s troops landed at Westover on the James River 33 miles east of Richmond. The scattered Virginia Militia, not prepared for a direct assault by the British, was unable to repel them. Within 24 hours Arnold entered Richmond virtually unopposed. Meanwhile workers and militia men, under the supervision of Thomas Jefferson himself, feverishly worked to transport supplies across the James River from Westham to the Chesterfield side (just yards away from present-day Pony Pasture). Many arms were simply tossed in the river at the last minute – later recovered by the British. On January 5, a number of Arnold’s troops under the command of Colonel John Graves Simcoe marched on Westham. They encountered no resistance as the greatly outnumbered Virginia Militia and Governor Jefferson had already fled.
Simcoe’s men destroyed all leftover wares at the Westham Foundry and wrought extensive damage to the facilities and the rest of the town – sparing only the village brewery. The troops thought it safer to remove the powder from the magazine and storehouses before setting fire to them. For hours they hauled crates of powder downhill where they poured it into the canal. In spite of this painstaking effort, numerous explosions occurred as the foundry buildings, warehouses and Ballendine’s home were set ablaze. In the end all military stores at Westham, including 24 canon, powder and numerous small arms were destroyed. The entire invasion and destruction of the armory took less than 48 hours.
Westham and Ballendine never fully recovered. The Virginia government attempted to repair the foundry but soon gave up. New sources of powder and supplies quickly sprang up in Richmond and Chesterfield. Ballendine’s investment was in ruins. He had never finished his canal to Richmond and because Westham’s role as a supply center was greatly diminished, the work was abandoned. He grew despondent. By the end of 1781, just months after the attack, Ballendine passed on.
After the revolution the town of Westham limped along, never recovering its war-time population or importance. In 1789 the James River Company completed a short section of canal in the footprint of Ballendine’s. It allowed bateaux to bypass the rapids around Williams Island. By the 1820s that canal was replaced by the Kanawha Canal on the same spot. The canal enabled boats to pass straight to Richmond. There was no longer a need to stop at Westham. It was populated mostly by canal workers and few others that hung on.
Westham had a brief resurgence in the 1860s – again fueled by conflict. During the Civil War the Confederacy operated a foundry that produced iron for the Tredegar Ironworks downstream in Richmond. A town that boomed and was almost destroyed during the nation’s struggle for independence bustled again in a struggle for secession. After the Civil War however, Westham’s hopes of remaining an independent city were crushed under the weight of Reconstruction. It just could not keep up.
By the end of the 19th century Westham was a suburb of Richmond. Ballendine’s foundry site was erased by canal and railroad construction in the 1800s and 1900s. No trace remains. The only vestige of the town was a ferry that connected Henrico to Chesterfield. That too was gone when the first bridge that connected the counties west of Richmond was built in 1911.
Today, the only remains of Westham are the ruins of the 1820s Kanawaha canal locks and adjacent Confederate foundry. The locks are among the best preserved features of the old canal. Several foundry tunnels are intact but obscured by dense vegetation and piles of earth around the openings. These features however, are threatened by lack of maintenance. Tree roots can undermine the foundations and penetrate the joints between stones. Vegetation needs to be cut back regularly to protect the important ruins for future study and interpretation.
The ruins are on land owned by the Science Museum of Virginia Foundation. The property also includes a house once owned by Ambassador Walter Rice and designed by noted modernist architect Richard Neutra. It was gifted to the museum by Ambassador Rice’s widow. It is open by appointment only. The foundation can be contacted at 804-864-1540. The property was not accessible at the time this article was written, thus the lack of pictures of the site itself.
For further reading:
“The Backcountry Towns of Colonial Virginia” by Christopher E. Hendricks ; “The Falls of the James” by David D. Ryan; “Chesterfield: An Old Virginia County” by Francis Earle Lutz ; “Falls the James Atlas” by W.E. Trout