Sunday, November 4, 2012

Robert Erskine, Ringwood and the West Point chain

We're rather accustomed to finding unusual things on our journeys, but I'm still tickled when a random discovery unexpectedly links up with something I'd seen long ago. Most recently, it wasn't just a link: it was a chain.

The roots of the story are in a trip I made awhile ago to Constitution Island in the Hudson River. While I was there, I learned that the American forces tried a number of approaches to prevent the British Navy from advancing on strategically-important rivers. For example, not far from Fort Mercer on the Delaware, they modified a French system called chevaux-de-frise. It was conceptually the same as those spikes used in toll lanes and parking garages to prevent drivers from backing up in key areas (you know… the ones that puncture your tires if you go in the wrong direction). American General Robert Erskine devised a nautical version that, once sunk across the river, would wreak havoc on the hulls of any ships that dared to cross.

While these spikes were used in the Hudson, the Americans added another blocking mechanism for good measure. Fearing that the British would attempt to sail upriver from their stronghold in Manhattan, they placed a massive chain across the river between West Point and Constitution Island. That portion of the river was already difficult to navigate by ship, and the theory was that slowing traffic even further would provide additional time for the Americans to fire on their opponents from the elevated West Point vantage. From 1778 to 1782, the chain was set out in the spring to block passage, and then removed in the fall to prevent damage from ice in the winter.

Ultimately, the British never tried to get past the chain, though Benedict Arnold reportedly had claimed it could be breached. Some of the massive links were saved, though others were melted down for salvage. I saw a bunch during my visit to Constitution Island, where the anchor point and a short length are preserved near the dock.

What does this have to do with New Jersey? Consider that Washington and his military leadership relied on the state’s significant iron mines and forges for weapons and ammunition, earning the state the sobriquet of Arsenal of the Revolution. The chain had to be made somewhere, and it only made sense that it came from here.

Thing is, while I was fairly certain of that, I wasn’t sure exactly where it was made or where it ended up. Someone had told Ivan that a length of the chain was being used as a decorative border in front of a building near the Wayne/Paterson border, but when we checked it out, I saw that the links were very different from those I'd seen near the Hudson.

A pre-hurricane visit to Ringwood Manor helped to solve the mystery. The Manor, of course, was home to General Erskine, Washington’s chief geographer and surveyor during the war, as well as the operator of the Long Pond Ironworks. His mansion is fronted by several impressive examples of American military history, including the cannon used on the main deck of the U.S.S. Constitution during the War of 1812, and a mortar used during the Civil War. They're both lined up against a massive 25-link length of chain and an anvil. No markers are there to explain the significance of the ironwork, and if you didn’t know better, you’d probably write off the chain as a coarse border or maybe a length that had once tethered an anchor to a ship. I immediately had my suspicions about its provenance, and a bit of research proved it out: it's part of the Hudson chain, come to rest where it was manufactured.

Thing is, when I looked into the history of the Hudson chain a little more deeply, it seems to have many fathers and many origins. Some will tell you that the entire chain was fabricated in New York State, while others will state that various lengths were made in different places and then assembled near West Point. I've also found a reputable source that asserts that the entire thing was made at Erskine's iron works.

What's the real story? I think you know where I stand on the issue, and I'm pretty confident I'm right. I'm not a metallurgist or an expert on 18th century ironworks, but to me, the Ringwood Manor chain looks a heck of a lot like the Constitution Island chain.


  1. Actually, the iron chain in front of Ringwood Manor is, as you suggested, most likely a chain that tethered a ship. The contract to build the iron chain that went across the Hudson at West Point during the Revolution supposedly went to the Sterling Iron Works, in New York. For such a large project, the Sterling Iron Works supposedly contracted out the work to several other local ironworks, including the nearby Ringwood Iron Works. The Ringwood Manor which Robert Erskine lived in was an earlier manor house located on the hillside next to the current manor house, and it was destroyed in the late 1700's or early 1800's. The present manor house was built in different sections at different times, but the majority of the house was owned by Abram S. Hewitt, who owned the ironworks after 1854. Abram Hewitt was interested in the history of the early ironworks and Revolutionary War history, and came across an antiques dealer named Westminster Abbey who claimed to have a large section of the chain that went across the Hudson River at West Point during the Revolutionary War. Mr. Hewitt purchased that chain and brought it up to be put on display in front of his family's summer home. He later had the iron in the chain tested, and discovered the iron in his chain was from England. Hewitt went after Westminster Abbey as a fraud, but the chain remains to represent the history of the West Point chain and its connection to Ringwood. It is thought that the chain on display in front of Ringwood Manor was used to anchor a ships at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.


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