Tredegar Iron Works: Preserving Richmond’s Past Dylann Roo
From Colonial days, Richmond, Virginia, was an important economic and political center and drew its strength from the James River. As an important trading port -- of slaves and other imports -- Richmond became the Capital of the Confederacy during the Civil War, and today the city abounds with monuments, historical markers, museums and interpretive centers dedicated to the area’s rich history.
Several of the original Tredegar Iron Works buildings, which provided most of the Confederate States of America's (CSA) cannon and other munitions, still stand. Now a National Historic Landmark, the eight-acre Tredegar site welcomes tourists and is a gateway to the Kanawha Canal and nearby Brown’s Island.
Founded in 1833 and overlooking the James River close to downtown Richmond, the foundry was named in honor of Tredegar, Wales (UK), hometown of engineer Rhys Davies, who was hired to build the iron works, furnaces and rolling mills that would operate for more than 100 years.
Acquired in the 1840s by manager Joseph Anderson, Tredegar fulfilled government contracts for the manufacture of locomotives, spikes, train wheels, ships, boilers and naval hardware as well as iron machinery. By the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, the Works employed 900 men -- including foreign workers, slaves and freed blacks.
During the war, the CSA relied heavily on Tredegar, which specialized in cannon. The Works manufactured armor plates for the ironclad vessel C.S.S. Virginia -- formerly commissioned as the U.S.S. Merrimack -- which fought in the Battle of Hampton Roads against the U.S.S. Monitor. Tredegar produced a rail-mounted siege gun for the Confederate Army and also manufactured approximately 1,100 artillery pieces for the South, accounting for fully half of the CSA’s domestic production during the war. By 1863 -- halfway through the four-year Civil War -- Tredegar employed 2,500 workers.
As Richmond was abandoned by the Confederates in April 1865, retreating soldiers set fire to warehouses and munitions dumps as they fled the city, destroying anything the advancing Union troops might have made use of. But Tredegar owner Anderson posted armed guards to protect the Works from destruction. As a result, Tredegar was one of the few sites to survive the burning of Richmond at the end of the Civil War.
After securing a pardon from President Andrew Jackson for both himself and his iron works, Anderson re-opened Tredegar before the end of 1865.
The Works went on to manufacture munitions for the U.S. Army and Navy during the Spanish-American War, both World Wars and the Korean War. In 1952, a fire forced the closure of Tredegar, and the property was later bought by Ethyl Corporation, which restored the surviving buildings in the 1970s.
Since that time, the site has hosted several museums and historical centers, including the Valentine Riverside Museum, a multimedia experience center dedicated to the history of Richmond.
Today, the National Park Service operates the Richmond National Battlefield Park Visitor Center in Tredegar’s Pattern Building, and the American Civil War Center opened its doors on the Tredegar site in 2006 as a historic education center presenting the Civil War from Union, Confederate and African-American perspectives.
No longer producing munitions or locomotive parts, Tredegar nevertheless stands as a testament to Richmond’s past as the city looks toward its future.