By David Schmidt
Special to Main Line Life
There’s a legend, and you still hear it today, that a huge cache of antique weapons is buried along Mill Creek.
Forget about the fact that people have been seeking it for nearly two hundred years, this is Philadelphia’s answer to the Lost Dutchman Mine. Like that legend, there’s enough truth to make it plausible, because for decades weapons were made along Mill Creek. The story goes that soon after the War of 1812 ended in 1815, a number of flintlock rifles and pistols were buried in a pit on the mill site. While the story has a certain appeal, logic isn’t one of them. Guns were too valuable to just be buried.
The mill which legend claimed hosts the buried weapons was Nippes and Company, a Philadelphia gun maker. This factory came to be one of the Mill Creek mills because in 1814, David Nippes built it to produce government-pattern long rifles for the War of 1812. The company had been started by Abraham Nippes in about 1808 that being the date of the first recorded contract for gun making. David was the son in Nippes and Son and was sent to run the Mill Creek site. The area had what Nippes needed for producing flintlocks. There was plenty of power, with good clean water. There were other mills in the area, which meant a base of workers and for workers to live.
“At that time Mill Creek was considered part of Philadelphia there was not yet a Lower Merion,” says Hal Fillinger, a collector for many years. He has recently sold off his collection but his knowledge and experience are still intact. Recently the Lower Merion Historical Society had a chance to look at a Nippes-built rifle, thanks to Fillinger.
The weapon he showed to the society was a rifled musket produced by Nippes in 1845. It was a flintlock weapon, and to the casual observer looked no different than the rifles carried in the Revolutionary War. But there was a difference. This rifle was built to the standard of what was called the Pattern of 1840.
Gun makers at that time were often successful, but even so it was a risky business in which many went bankrupt. The secret was getting a government contract. Naturally wars helped, because that was a time when more guns were bought.
There was no such thing as an assembly line, each gun was an independent creation, and few parts were every interchangeable between weapons. As the weapons industry matured, the U.S. Government created arsenals at Harper’s Ferry, Va. and Springfield, Mass. These names because completely association with weapons’ design and development, as well as manufacturing. But subcontracting of gun manufacturing continued.
“This was the last flintlock ordered by the U.S. Army,” says Fillinger. “The technology was developing quickly, but they still contracted with Nippes to produce 5000 of these weapons. It was still the basic infantry weapon, but with the advancements that came with the Civil War that would cease to be,” he says. It also wasn’t very accurate. “At 100 yards you could hit a target the size of a window, but beyond that you don’t want to hold your breath until you hit what you’re aiming at,” he says.
Although this weapon was modified, the basic design was old fashioned, in that you still had to load the ball and powder from the barrel. Soldiers would push a paper cartridge filled with powder and the ball down the barrel, then tamp it in place with a rod. “The standard was to fire three shots a minute, that was what a well-trained infantry unit would do,” he says. “But in battle it is easy to get excited and with the adrenaline running it was difficult to keep this up for long periods. Soldiers would get excited and forget to take their rod out of the weapon, and it would go flying across the battlefield instead of the bullet,” he says.
From a tactical point of view this method of loading had one other great weakness the soldier had to be standing to effectively load the weapon. That was okay in the days of the Napoleonic Era, when armies stood shoulder to shoulder in lines, fired, then stepped to the side and back while the next line fired their weapons. But in the frontier battles of the New World that was just a good way to get killed. Free-spirited Americans weren’t excited about standing en mass in the middle of a battlefield while some fop on a horse decided when they would fire and the enemy decided when they would be a target. Perhaps it was unchivalrous, but giving soldiers the freedom to pick targets with a rifle and actually aim won wars.
So a breech-loading weapon was replacing the musket, where there was an opening at the rear of the weapon to place the charge and round. This then was screwed or bolted shut and the weapon was ready to fire. The other advance in technology was the replacement of pans of fine firing powder, which set off the larger charge. This had been done for generations using a flint, which sparked and set the powder alight. The best thing about this system was that there weren’t many battles fought in the rain.
Several techniques were being developed, one of which was percussion caps which were placed in the weapon and when struck provided the necessary spark to set off the weapon. After Nippes had received the contact, they were given a modification. They were to be fitted with the ability to fire using percussion caps, making them much more dependable. A few of the muskets had already been delivered, and according to Fillinger, these have become very valuable.
In addition, the Army contracted for 1000 Nippes rifles to convert to the Maynard Primer Converter. This was a system invented by a New England dentist. He created a strip of percussion caps that were rolled up and placed in a box affixed to the weapons. These strips could be pulled out and placed quickly and easily.
Imagine a cap pistol and a roll of caps. That is exactly what this was, expect it launched real bullets instead of cowboy fantasies. While 1000 were ordered, according to Fillinger not that many were converted. As with anything that is collected, there are certain things that make them more valuable. Being a Nippes rifle with a Maynard device was one of those factors. Another was whom the weapons were made for.
“Beginning with the Revolutionary War, it was against the law to personally own a gun bought by the government. To keep them from wandering off, at a time when most men had to have a rifle, the government stamped them with the initials “CS” for Council of Safety and eventually stamped “U.S.,” says Fillinger. The Nippes company also produced weapons for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. “They were used by the militia, and Pennsylvanians marched off to the Civil War carrying these,” he says. Stamped onto them were the initials “CP,” for Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Having been successful for the past four decades, after the Civil War the prosperity began coming to an end. Without government contracts, it was difficult to keep going. One place they did have success was selling the flintlocks in Africa. The British banned the sale of any cartridge weapon to Africans, so they were only able to buy flintlocks. But that wasn’t enough to keep going and the mill along Mill Creek was sold. It was the last of the area’s Gun makers. The famous Evans family had made guns at Valley Forge since before the Revolutionary War, but they had stopped making them in the 1820s, according to Fillinger. “In addition to Mill Creek and Valley Forge, guns were also manufactured in Gulph Mills and Evansburg,” he says.
But finally the mill was sold and converted to spinning carpet yarns. It eventually came under the control of the Barker family of Gladwyne. It remained a mill run by this family well into the 20th century. Subsequent generations of Barkers were successful, including one, Charles F. Barker, who played baseball for the Athletics. What was the family home is now the rectory of the Church of St. John Vianney, and was where General of the Air Force “Hap” Arnold, the Main Line’s most famous resident, grew up.
The Nippes Mill site is the only mill of Mill Creek still used for commercial purposes, best known as the home of Rock Creek Studios, where music group Boyz II Men record their songs.
Other than this building designed to manufacture weaponry, the heyday of Mill Creek is almost invisible. A few mills have been turned into private homes. There are some ruins of workers dormitories and homes in Rolling Hill Park, where dozens of workers would be crammed into squalid quarters.
But to drive along Mill Creek today there is little left of those days. Today there are magnificent wooded estates where once millers lived on crowded, naked hillsides and worked amongst the filth and clamor that was America’s industrial beginnings.