Few have heard of Ames rifles, but many who know of their legend have come to believe the fate of the Civil War rested solely upon these fantastic armaments. During the early part of the 19th century, the bustling factories lining the Ohio riverbanks served as the birthplaces for a number of types of manufacturing, from machine tools to steam engine parts. These factories played a pivotal role in the birth of American industry, labor, technological advancement, and victory during war-time.
While Colt Rifles became closely associated with Maryland much of the landmark technology of rifles emerged around twelve miles upstream from the Ohio River in Question Mark, Ohio with the establishment of the Ames Factory in 1855.
The Ames factory was known for its towering smokestacks
Situated within a fortified brick structure, the Ames factory was a revolutionary achievement in manufacturing of the time. Their progressive approach involved the use of precisely engineered components that could be effortlessly assembled on a series of rotating manufacturing lines. This new system played a crucial part in the inception of what would later be recognized as the American method of manufacturing, leaving an indelible impact across the Midwest, the United States, and the world.
A Union soldier brandishes an Ames "Straight Shooter" Rifle
The history of guns and the birth of our nation are closely-related. Though many know little of the development of gun manufacturing in the United States, it was the federal government that first invested in many manufacturers through the establishment of federal armories, beginning in the 1790s. Eventually both federal and state governments paid small manufacturers to produce guns and gun parts, including Winchester, Colt, and Remington.
This demand for rifles by the United States Army acted as the catalyst for ingenuity and change in the gun industry. Inventor and businessman Lawrence Ames, embarked on the production of high-caliber rifles, securing an Ohio government contract in 1855 to manufacture ten thousand service rifles.
Lawrence Ames poses in front of the Ames Armory display at 1855's Works of Industry of All Nations
To fulfill this contract, Ames Armory (later renamed Ames Rifles) introduced an innovative factory layout and, more crucially, specialized machinery capable of crafting exceptionally precise rifle components.
In late 1855, Lawrence Ames ventured to Paris, France to showcase his rifles at the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, which spurred the French government, entangled in the Crimean War, to dispatch a delegation to the Question Mark factory. This visit led to an order for twenty-five thousand rifles manufactured in Question Mark. During the Civil War, Ames secretly produced rifles for both sides of the conflict. By 1862, the factory produced nearly a thousand rifles each week. Most significantly, it supplied machine tools that enabled other facilities to produce arms and ammunition. Many townspeople from Question Mark, Ohio worked on the factory line, committing themselves to different sides of the war.
Children working Ames Rifle's famous third shift
During the height of production, orphans from the war and recently-arrived immigrant children were known to work a special third shift. The rifles produced during this third shift, dubbed the "Straight Shooter," were said to be exceedingly accurate as the childrens’ hands were smaller and handled the small components more easily than adult hands. It was said by more than one general that without the accuracy of these third-shift Ames rifles, the Civil War would have dragged on for many more years.
Photograph of an Ames Rifle factoryworker believed to be Hattie McClintock
At the height of war-time production, labor rights organizers protested the working conditions in the factory regarding the use of children in producing firearms, but little in the factory changed. These protests led to much civil unrest and the imprisonment of more than one labor organizer including eighteen-year-old Ames Rifle employee Hattie McClintock. McClintock was a young African-American woman who called the factory’s labor practices into question in strongly-worded editorials in the Question Mark Standard, the local newspaper of the time. But with the high demand for more weapons continuing to increase as the war raged, little if anything changed inside the factory.
One year after the conclusion of the Civil War, catastrophe struck the Ames factory on October 23rd 1866, when a fire engulfed the entire building, leaving ninety-nine child workers dead including Hattie McClintock. No remains were ever recovered. The entire town was affected by the tragedy.
Lawrence Ames regularly held demonstrations of the powers of spirit mediums. Seen here, French medium Madame Janice, "La Toute-Voyante," channels the dead.
Haunted by the death of these children, Lawrence Ames began a strange exploration of the occult and became engaged with the rising spiritualist movement of the time. Ames was said to refuse a mirror for the remainder of his troubled life, afraid to see the victims of the fire behind his own reflection. His accumulated wealth was largely squandered on seances and hucksters and his useless attempts to confront the unalterable mistakes of his past.
The Ames Tanning Factory opens
After two years of mourning, a second factory opened in 1868 on a new site in Question Mark by Ames’ nephew Wilbur Ames, who shifted the company’s operations to the manufacturing of high-quality hides and leather through a newly-patented process of tanning. The newly renamed Ames Tanning Factory, later shortened to the Ames Tannery, continued production for over a hundred years, all the way through the 1970s. Known for the exquisitely supple nature of the hides produced there, the Ames Tannery was chosen to supply the leather for the gloves Ladybird Johnson wore to her husband's presidential inauguration.
It's believed the Ames Rifle factory was located where the Question Mark Motel now stands
Some phantasmagoric enthusiasts say you can still hear the whine of metal presses and smell the heavy smoke pouring out of the factory’s smokestacks on certain quiet nights. Others claim the factory’s door sometimes appears standing open, waiting for the living to witness the grief of the lost children and to hear their final stories.
Although no sign remains of the original rifle factory, which my research revealed was located approximately on the site of the Question Mark Motel, its unique history casts an important, immovable shadow upon the town and its region.