Situated on an island in the Catawba River in Chester County, Mount Dearborn was initially conceived and selected by President George Washington to be one of the nation’s three national arsenal-armories. Years later Congress proposed that a regional military academy be opened there as well. As the new republic planned its defense in the 1790s, this site was planned to store ammunition and make weapons for the South. It was selected along with Harpers Ferry, Virginia, and Springfield, Massachusetts, for their regions.
In 1802, at the urging of Thomas Sumter, Secretary of War Henry Dearborn purchased 523 acres near the village of Rocky Mount. The secretary, for whom the site was named, employed Eli Whitney to consult with the state engineer, Christian Senf, on the best location to build on the new federal land. Part of the plan included the construction of a canal that would be a source of waterpower. Legal disputes with the Catawba Navigation Company prevented the completion of the waterway. By early 1804 construction began on the magazine and arsenal, but the armory was never constructed.
By 1807 the army refocused its defensive priorities on Charleston, and construction at Dearborn slowed. Despite the delays, by 1809 the main buildings were largely completed while construction continued on the barracks and other structures. At this time Mount Dearborn became a recruiting center for one of the nation’s new regiments, as the United States prepared for a possible war with Britain. Not long after its formation, most of the unit was transferred to bolster Charleston’s defenses. A small detachment of soldiers remained as caretakers, but it is unclear whether they remained through the War of 1812. For a brief period in early 1816, Congress proposed Mount Dearborn as the site for one of three regional military academies. Eventually lawmakers decided just to provide more funds to West Point in New York. By 1825 the site was reported abandoned, and the land officially returned to the state four years later.
Collins, Ann P. A Goodly Heritage: History of Chester County, South Carolina. Columbia, S.C.: R. L. Bryan, 1986.
Wade, Arthur P. “Mount Dearborn: The National Armory at Rocky Mount, South Carolina, 1802–1829.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 81 (July 1980) 207–31; (October 1980): 316–41.