Historical Markers
Schuylkill Arsenal Historical Marker
Mouse over for marker text

Schuylkill Arsenal

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
East Greys Ferry Rd. at Washington Ave., Philadelphia

Dedication Date:
June 10, 2004

Behind the Marker

No one knew exactly what the Corps of Discovery volunteers would encounter on their mission. No one could predict how long it would take, or what supplies would be needed to take them to the Pacific and back. Because the Expedition was a government mission, markerMeriwether Lewis obtained many supplies from two Army arsenals: arms and iron works from the Harpers Ferry Arsenal in Virginia, and clothing, blankets and tents from the Schuylkill Arsenal. Other essential supplies for the expedition he purchased in Philadelphia in May 1803 and then had delivered to the Schuylkill Arsenal to be packed for the trip.

What did he purchase? In Philadelphia Lewis bought the telescope, sextants, compasses, quadrants, and other instruments needed to map the trek. The chronometer, recommended by markerRobert Patterson and markerAndrew Ellicott, cost $250. The medical supplies recommended by markerBenjamin Rush cost nearly $100. Lewis knew that the success of the expedition would be directly related to his ability to establish diplomatic relations with Native Americans, so he spent $669.50 for gifts and articles to trade. These included thirty-three pounds of assorted colored beads, twelve dozen pocket mirrors, twenty-four dozen steels for striking fire, ten pounds of fishing hooks, twenty-four dozen thimbles and more than 4,000 sewing needles, silk ribbon, ivory combs, colored cloth, and bright red face paint.

Red brick building sitting behind a high red brick wall with two gates facing Grays Ferry Road. A white building also sits behind the wall. The United States flag flies on a mast. To the right   a train engine advances with smoke billowing from the stack   The horse drawn car tracks and train tracks cross at the corner. Seven adult male pedestrians are in the scene.
Schuylkill Arsenal, Grays Ferry Road, Philadelphia, PA, 1882.
Lewis was ably assisted in purchasing supplies by his buying agent Israel Whelan, a former confidant of George Washington, who had recently been named Purveyor of Public Supplies in Philadelphia. Anything that Lewis needed but could not find at the Arsenal, Whelan found for him in the stores clustered between Front Street and Eighth Street, from Walnut to Arch. In addition to pliers, chisels, handsaws, hatchets, and other tools, Whelan bought fishing gear, kitchen supplies, two dozen table spoons, oiled cloth, mosquito netting, and other camp supplies. Lewis started the journey with an emergency backup supply of 193 pounds of "portable soup," a boiled-down paste of beef, eggs, and vegetables. The volunteers who accompanied Lewis and Clark would need clothes and arms. So, Lewis also bought blankets, knapsacks, shirts, pants, shoes, and stockings, as well as 500 rifle flints, 176 pounds of gunpowder, and 420 pounds of lead to make shot and bullets.

Neither President Jefferson or Lewis wanted the Expedition to fail due to a lack of supplies. On July 4, 1803, the President wrote the following letter: "I, Thomas Jefferson, President of the United States of America, have written this letter of general credit for you with my own hand, and signed it with my name." This blank check enabled Lewis to reimburse anyone for anything that Lewis and Clark needed as they traversed the continent.

Grays Ferry Bridge
Grays Ferry Bridge, Philadelphia, PA, 1789.
Lewis and Whelan had their supplies delivered to the new, eight-acre Schuylkill Arsenal on Gray's Ferry Road, which served as Lewis' first warehouse and staging area. Here, Lewis sorted and packed 3500 pounds of supplies and equipment into thirty-five boxes, which were then loaded into a markerConestoga wagon. On June 10, 1803, the wagon passed through the gates of the Schuylkill Arsenal, and followed Gray's Ferry Road across the floating bridge at the Schuylkill River for points West.

In addition to its important role in the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Philadelphia's Schuylkill Arsenal would serve as a federal arsenal for the next century and a half. By the time of the Civil War, it had evolved into a military textile manufacturer, employing 10,000 seamstresses and tailors who produced uniforms, bedding, blankets, and tents. Renamed the Philadelphia Quartermaster Depot between the two World Wars, its operations were expanded offsite to nearby South Philadelphia. Closed in the late 20th century, the arsenal was relocated in the Northeast section of the city as the newly named Defense Supply Center of Philadelphia.
Back to Top