Arming a Nation

http://www.mcall.com/news/local/all-a1_5longrifle.6072950oct14,0,1478651.story
2007-10-17

William Henry Atherton was 8 years old when he became enchanted by his family's rich history.

It was the summer of 1936: the height of the Great Depression. As part of a Works Progress Administration project, Atherton's father, Thomas Henry Atherton Jr. -- an architect by trade -- had taken to cataloguing the old Boulton Gun Works on the banks of Bushkill Creek in Northampton County. He sketched the factory's grinding wheel, its door hinges, its raceway.

''I held the tape measure,'' Atherton recalls. As he did so, he listened to his father expound on the Henrys' former glory.

The Henrys were among the most prolific gunmakers in early America, and the arms they manufactured played a key role in every major conflict from the French and Indian War through the Civil War. They supplied muskets to Gen. George Washington's Continental Army during the American Revolution, and rifles to Union sharpshooters who used them at Shiloh and Vicksburg.

''They were a major contributor to American military arms during the early Republic,'' said Dave Miller, associate curator of military history at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History, which has a dozen Henry firearms in its collection.

In addition to their military contributions, the Henrys played pivotal roles in early American politics, education and economics.

''I can't think of anything more delightful than having been born into this family,'' said Atherton, now 79 and the only Henry descendant still living at the family's historic homestead near Jacobsburg.

He lives on the top floor of an 18th century log cabin whose main level has been taken over by the Jacobsburg Historical Society's new Museum of the Pennsylvania Longrifle, which opened last year.

Despite the Henry family's storied legacy, its contributions to the nation have largely been forgotten, even in the Lehigh Valley. But efforts by the historical society are kindling awareness of the Henry name. In addition to operating the museum at its 40-acre Bushkill Township property, the society offers regular tours of the Henry family's 1832 townhouse and hosts two living history encampments a year.

One such event will occur Saturday and next Sunday, when several hundred re-enactors will gather for a pre-1840 American fur trade rendezvous featuring black powder rifle shooting, tomahawk throwing, blacksmithing, open hearth cooking, Native American crafts and more. Society board member Dave Ehrig said the rendezvous is an opportunity for local residents to visit the Boulton historic site and see what life was like during the height of Henry gunmaking.

An early patriot

According to Jacobsburg Historical Society records, the Henry gun-making story begins in 1750, when family patriarch William Henry I opened a gun shop in Lancaster. An armorer in the French and Indian and Revolutionary wars, William Henry served in the Continental Congress and was a member of Benjamin Franklin's American Philosophical Society.

A copy of a William Henry portrait, painted by legendary American artist Benjamin West, now hangs in the foyer of the family's 1832 townhouse, a few hundred yards from the Henry Homestead, the modest cabin first occupied by William Henry III and now by Atherton and the longrifle museum.

William I was Atherton's great-great-great-grandfather. (Atherton's grandfather, christened Thomas Atherton Henry, flipped his middle and last names after college, to honor the maternal uncle who paid his way through Princeton University.)

While lounging recently in the homestead basement, Atherton spoke of the portrait, which used to hang in the living room of his childhood home in Wilkes-Barre. That painting, combined with the Henry rifles mounted over the fireplace, served as reminders of descendants who became his role models. Henrys have served in various political offices, helped build the first bridge across the Delaware River at Easton, introduced Pennsylvania's first forest conservation legislation and co-founded both the Lehigh Coal Co. and the city of Scranton. But the family built its name on the sturdy guns that armed a nation and helped shape its history.

That name still resonates with gun collectors, said Ronald Gable of Slatington, who has served as president of the Jacobsburg Historical Society, the National Kentucky Rifle Association and the American Society of Arms Collectors. While late-model Henry rifles and shotguns sell in the collectors market today for as little as $500, Gable said, Henry ''trade'' rifles -- those made for the fur-trading industry during the early 1800s -- sell for about $4,000 and longrifles crafted by William Henry I fetch as much as $30,000.

Move to the Lehigh Valley

Two months after the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia, William Henry's son William Henry II enrolled at the Moravian gunsmith school at Christian's Spring in Northampton County. By 1780, he'd set up his first gun shop on Main Street in Nazareth, where the Express Times and Nazareth News Agency stand today.

In 1790, William Henry II purchased 500 acres along the Bushkill Creek near Jacobsburg on which he would build a gun factory two years later. Over the next several generations, the Henrys continued to purchase property and, at one time, owned 1,200 acres in the Jacobsburg area.

Moving the family gun-making operations from Nazareth to Jacobsburg allowed the Henrys to expand rapidly and use water from the Bushkill Creek to power grindstones, sledgehammers and furnace bellows.

During this time, the Henrys also expanded gunmaking to Philadelphia, where their shop played a key role in securing federal firearms contracts, including an 1808 government purchase of more than 10,000 muskets and pistols. That made the Henrys one of the largest civilian firearms contractors during the War of 1812.

At the onset of war, William Henry II's sons John Joseph and William III oversaw the construction of Boulton Gun Works on the Jacobsburg tract, a factory considerably larger than the original Jacobsburg building. The facility was named after Matthew Boulton, an industrialist and pioneer in the British metal industry.

By 1822, the family would consolidate gun production at Boulton, which became one of the nation's first ''industrial plantations,'' Atherton said. German immigrants flocked to the area for work. At its peak, the Henry gun-making operation employed roughly 125 people, including craftsmen working out of their homes nearby making trigger plates, patch boxes and other small metal parts.

Tim Lubenesky, curator of arms at the longrifle museum, said the Henrys also maintained two icehouses and engaged in farming.

''They had everything needed here to be self-sufficient,'' he said.

Fur trade profits

Henry gunmaking enjoyed its most productive and profitable years under the leadership of John Joseph Henry, who in 1826 established a relationship with one of the nation's biggest businesses: John Jacob Astor's American Fur Trade Co.

Over nearly two decades, the Henry family built tens of thousands of rifles for the fur trade business -- weapons that were used by frontiersmen to hunt, trap and barter with American Indians from the Midwest to the Pacific Coast.

''This is what fueled western expansion in the United States,'' Lubenesky said. ''A guy could make more money capturing one beaver than he could in a month as a laborer.''

Although their classic ''trade'' rifles were not as finely crafted as the longrifles made by earlier generations, the Henrys made a hefty profit by selling them for $11 each. ''They were making them for about $4, so that was a hell of a markup,'' Lubenesky said.

A symbol of that success still stands: the Philadelphia-style townhouse John Joseph Henry built his wife, Mary Rebecca, at Boulton in 1832. The brick home was occupied by Henry descendants until 1989.

The end of an era

While the fur trade era served as the high point for Henry gunmaking, the Civil War marked the beginning of its demise.

Under Granville Henry, grandson of John Joseph, the family manufactured rifles and other arms for local militias in Bethlehem and Catasauqua as well as for state militias from both the North and South during the years leading up to the Civil War. It's likely that Henry arms were carried by both Union and Confederate soldiers.

The company also produced thousands of Mississippi-style rifled muskets for the P.S. Justice Co. of Philadelphia, which held large federal arms contracts.

After the Civil War, the firearms market declined steeply because of a glut of leftover firearms manufactured for the war.

The Henrys stayed afloat by purchasing 10,000 surplus musket barrels from the federal government and large quantities of Austrian firearms that had been imported for the war.

Over the next 25 years, they used the surplus items to produce inexpensive rifles and shotguns for the civilian market. Family records show some of the guns made during this period sold for as little as $3.50.

''They were basically pretty cheap, but they kept the company in business until the early 1900s,'' said Gable, the gun collector.

As the Henry gun-making operation struggled, the center of America's gun industry shifted north to the Connecticut River valley, where armsmakers such as Winchester, Remington and Marlin were investing in modern manufacturing facilities that produced vast quantities of repeating rifles and shotguns.

''As the gun-building shift took place out of Pennsylvania to New England, the Henrys branched out into other fields of medicine and forestry and education,'' Ehrig said. ''They had great success in those arenas, but the gun-building part of it fell into disrepair.''

Production of gun parts at the Boulton Gun Works ceased in 1895, although Granville Henry continued to make guns from existing inventory. The last Henry firearm produced at the Boulton factory, a .22-caliber rifle, was sold in 1905.

According to the Jacobsburg Historical Society, more than 110,000 firearms were produced at the Boulton Gun Works during its more-than 90 years of operation.

When Granville Henry died at Boulton in 1912, the factory fell into disrepair. A flood severely damaged it in 1922. A second flood decimated it in 1945, prompting the city of Easton, its owner at the time, to raze the structure in 1946.

All that remains today is a weed-covered stone foundation.

Preserving the past

Even as the sun set on the Henry's rifle-making heyday, the family remained in Boulton, tied to the woods of Jacobsburg and the memories they held.

Granville's daughter, Molly, moved into the 1832 brick house, known as the J.J. House, in 1938 with her husband, Dr. Thomas Henry Stites, and daughter Mary Henry. They upgraded the mansion, adding electricity.

Molly taught in the nearby one-room schoolhouse during World War II, and continued living at Boulton with Mary Henry until her death in 1974 at age 101.

Through the years, Atherton and his extended family continued to spend summers at Boulton. Although he grew up in Wilkes-Barre, Atherton said his heart was always in Jacobsburg. For that reason, he moved from Connecticut to the J.J. House in 1985 to care for his then-ailing cousin.

Mary Henry remained a champion for her family and its history -- Atherton said the two had near-daily discussions about their ancestors. Upon her death at age 82 in 1989, she bequeathed her home and everything in it to the Jacobsburg Historical Society and entrusted Atherton with carrying on the legacy.

The retired jet-engine salesman serves on the society's board of directors, and as an occasional museum guide.

Thanks to the society, the once-bustling tract is alive again with visitors and muzzle-loading enthusiasts who come to learn the gun-making techniques pioneered by the Henry family.

Atherton, true to his heritage, is crafting his first flintlock pistol.

"I love this world," he said, standing on his front porch, admiring the cozy homestead his family has occupied for more than 200 years. "It's ideal for me."


Revolutionary War