Historical Context: The Remington Arms Co., Ilion, New York
F. Daniel Larkin, SUNY Oneonta
By the time the entire Erie Canal was opened in 1825, the Industrial Revolution had made its appearance in America, particularly in the northeastern states. New York State was well suited to industrial development. By 1820, it led the United States in population. Raw materials needed by factories were found in New York or in nearby states. New York City was a superb port on the Atlantic Ocean. The state was rich in rivers and streams, many of which contributed to New York's water-power potential. In the days before electricity and affordable steam engines, the force of water was a critical factor in the early growth of manufacturing. About 100 miles of the route of the new Erie Canal passed through the Mohawk Valley. Throughout this valley, numerous swift streams dropped approximately 1,000 feet over a distance of 10 to 15 miles in their race to meet the Mohawk River. These streams provided an almost unlimited number of sites for water-powered mills, and soon factories dotted the valley landscape.
One such factory was a forge located in Ilion, on the south side of the Mohawk River, about 80 miles west of Albany. In 1816, Eliphalet Remington II, working under the guidance of his father, began manufacturing rifle barrels in Ilion. Initially the barrels were sold locally, but soon Remington's business volume increased and led him to expand. In 1828, three years after the opening of the Erie Canal, Remington bought land along the canal's bank and moved his operations there. In his new location on the canal, Remington had inexpensive access to distant markets and to sources of raw materials.
Less than 20 years after the move, the Remington factory, which by now contained several water-powered machines for arms manufacture, received an important order. In 1846, war broke out between the United States and Mexico. During that conflict, the U.S. Navy awarded Remington a contract to produce 1,000 carbines, or short barreled rifles. It was the first of many military orders that would bring about greater expansion of what was now E. Remington and Son. The successful factory also helped Ilion and the surrounding area prosper. Another order, from the U.S. Army, for 10,000 Model 1841 percussion rifles, soon followed. A second order was filled by the middle 1850s, and most of those Remington rifles saw service in the Civil War. It was during this period of increased production that the company built its own boat for transport on the Erie Canal, which was undergoing its first enlargement.
The outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 rapidly increased demand for arms for the Union army. The war's enormous needs strained the manufacturing capacity of the U.S. government's arsenal in Springfield, Massachusetts, to the point that the government turned to private arms factories to fill its requirements. Although Remington continued to produce hunting rifles, the Civil War brought a huge increase in government orders for military weapons and led to physical expansion of the Remington plant on the banks of the Erie Canal and to the manufacture of high-quality revolvers as well as rifles. Remington's two younger sons joined their father and older brother in the business, now called E. Remington and Sons. Remington's war contracts resulted in the production of 250,000 rifles, carbines, and revolvers. This rivaled Colt's Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Company factory for the most arms produced for the Union war effort. However, when the fighting ended in 1865, so did the government contracts.
With the return of peace, the arms factory in Ilion reverted to the manufacture of hunting rifles. By then, metallic cartridge breechloaders were rapidly replacing older muzzle-loaded guns. E. Remington and Sons developed a particularly rugged breechloader suitable for military as well as civilian use. Soon, military orders resumed and continued through the remainder of the 19th century, leading to the manufacture of more than one million new rifles for the armed forces of the United States and numerous foreign governments. Production of revolvers also continued, and the company introduced shotguns. Proximity to the Erie Canal gave the company continuous access to low-cost transportation.
By the beginning of the 20th century, military orders had declined, but the production of hunting rifles and double-barreled shotguns helped sustain what was now called the Remington Arms Company. Then, in 1914, with the outbreak of World War I, military orders poured in from Russia, France, England, and eventually the United States government. During World War I, more than two million rifles were produced at the Ilion plant and at another Remington-owned facility. In the 1940s, during World War II, the Ilion factory again mobilized for military production. By then, the Erie Canal had been enlarged once more and had become part of the Barge Canal System.
Although the Remington family has not been involved in the management of the firm since 1888, the Remington Arms Company continues to manufacture firearms at Ilion. The Erie Canal still passes through the Ilion area but is no longer adjacent to the factory. Remington Arms is the oldest and one of the largest gunmakers in the United States. It is also quite possibly the oldest of those businesses located on the banks of the Erie Canal that still make the same kind of product they originally manufactured.