Saturday, March 17, 2012

Keep Your Powder Dry

These two structures, the one above from Marblehead, Massachusetts and the one below from Somerville in the same state, are 18th-century powder houses, once used for storing gunpowder and firearms. The onion-domed Marblehead building was built for that purpose in the 1750s, but the Somerville tower from 1703 or 1704, which looks like it could be employed as a projectile itself, was originally a mill. Both still stand.

The design and location of powder houses reflected the need to keep explosive materials safely away from other structures and the general population, but the buildings also came to have a political role. On September 1, 1774, at the order of British General Thomas Gage, who was jittery about leaving munitions under the control of restive Patriots, the Somerville powder house was raided by British troops and largely emptied out, and as reports of the incident spread, mixed with a fair amount of misinformation, armed Patriots descended on Cambridge and Boston in response. Though the "Powder Alarm" quickly abated, it prefigured the outbreak of war at Lexington and Concord the following spring.

There are a handful of other existing powder houses in Massachusetts, including examples at Newburyport (near Salem) and a frequently vandalized one at Amesbury, but most date from the first half of the 19th century. Thus far I haven't come across any record that the Rotograph Co. created images of any of these others, though some of their competitors did so.

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