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Dahlgren: A Bubbling Cauldron of Technical Curiosity, Segment 1 of 7

By Alan J. Dean


As people come across the Potomac River Bridge from Maryland into Virginia, many notice the chain link fence that runs along the northbound side of US Route 301. I wonder how many know that it is the boundary line for a laboratory established in 1918 that Senator John Warner called “the crown jewels of the American Defense” in 2004.

Over the past 100+ years, the Naval Surface Warfare Center’s Dahlgren Division in King George County, Virginia, has evolved from a proving ground for naval guns and ammunition to a premier naval and scientific institution of technical curiosity responsible for research, development, test and evaluation, analysis, systems engineering, integration, and certification of complex naval warfare systems. But how did the institution evolve to what it is today? What combination of events occurred that provided pivotal moments in its evolution, and who were the people that shepherded the organization through these moments as Dahlgren’s name changed from the Indianhead Lower Station to its current name, reflecting the evolution of its mission? What unique combination of knowledge and technical curiosity in many fields built upon almost a century of test and evaluation experience created a synergy that is necessary to create, develop, and deploy the weapon systems for today and the future?   There are many chapters of the Dahlgren Story, and the following only presents some of the key events in history that led to its formation and growth into what it is today. This is a story that mirrors the evolution of the United States and the impact of the growing complexity of US Navy combat systems and the technological challenges that foster the continuing need for more creative solutions to keep America’s Navy #1 in the world.

Why the Need for a Place Like Dahlgren?

To understand the Dahlgren story, we must travel back to the 1840s, when a mix of political, social, and economic factors fueled American expansionist sentiment. Many Americans subscribed to the concept of “Manifest Destiny,” the belief that Providence preordained the United States to occupy the continent. President Tyler, a true believer in Manifest Destiny, sought to achieve a United States from “Sea to Shining Sea,” which fueled a need for a better Navy. Commodore Robert Stockton, a wealthy and influential descendent of Richard Stockton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, convinced President Tyler that the Navy needed a new modern vessel to support the expansionist effort. That vessel was the USS Princeton. Stockton and his partner John Ericsson, designer of the screw propeller and the future USS Monitor, designed the ship to be a high-tech modern marvel. They placed two 12-inch cannons of competing designs on it for armament named the Oregon and the Peacemaker that could hurl 200-pound cannon balls 5 miles.


The Peacemaker was a Dutch design manufactured in Philadelphia and constructed of wrought iron. Wrought iron is an older forging technology creating a larger gun of more impressive appearance but lower strength. Though the Oregon had undergone intensive testing and was reinforced to prevent cracks detrimental to the integrity of the cannon, Stockton rushed the Peacemaker and mounted it without much testing. In Chapter 8 of the book by Edward L. Beach, The United States Navy, A 200-Year History, “The Gun and the Ship,” he states that the Peacemaker was “fired only five times before certifying it as accurate and fully proofed.” The stage was set for what happened next.


Stockton was a showman and wanted to show off the Navy’s new technical marvel. So, on February 28, 1844, he arranged for almost 400 of Washington’s elite to cruise down the Potomac on the Princeton. The group included President Tyler, former first lady Dolly Madison, Secretary of State Abel P. Upshur, Secretary of the Navy Thomas Walker Gilmer, and other high-ranking federal and state officials.


(U.S. Navy Lithograph)

It was a clear day, and the dignitaries watched in awe as the gunners rammed 40 pounds of powder down the Peacemaker. The crowd cheered as the gun heaved its 228-pound ball 2 miles down the Potomac. After being fired twice, the group retired below decks for a lunch of roasted fowl, ham, and fine wines. As the luncheon ended, the guests wanted to see the cannon fired one more time. At first Stockton was hesitant but he eventually gave in, and some of the guests went topside to see the show. President Tyler stayed below to share some conversation with Julia Gardiner, daughter of a prominent lawyer and politician, in whom he had taken an interest. That’s when tragedy struck. The gun blew up killing 6 men, including the Secretaries of State and the Navy and David Gardiner, father of Miss Julia.


A subsequent investigation by the Committee on Science and Arts of the Franklin Institute criticized many details of the manufacturing process, as well as the use of a welded band for reinforcement rather than the shrinking technique used on the Oregon. In addition, the amount of testing was inadequate. The Peacemaker disaster prompted a reexamination of the process used to manufacture and test cannons. This led to the development of new techniques and processes that produced cannons that were stronger and more structurally sound. Development of these techniques and processes was the charter of the newly formed U.S. Navy’s Ordnance Department, established at the Washington Navy Yard in 1847 led by Lt. John A. Dahlgren.

The Beginnings: The Cauldron is Put in Place

Navy testing ranges were first established at the Navy Yard, then moved to Annapolis for a short time, and then moved to Indian Head, Maryland, in 1890. As Naval gunnery expanded and distances traveled by shells increased to 10s of miles, there was a growing need to search for a longer testing range than the 14-mile Indian Head range. This longer range of new weapons coupled with a series of “incidents,” like the one in 1913 where the Presidential yacht Mayflower, with President Woodrow Wilson aboard, was almost struck when a rotating band separated from the projectile and reportedly fell about 300 feet from the yacht.  The President wasn’t happy and suggested that the Proving Grounds at Indian Head presented “a dangerous menace to navigation” and that some thought should be given to relocating it.

By 1918 engineers testing ordnance at the Naval Proving Ground in Indian Head were running out of room.  The growing incidents of exploding ordnance shells were endangering homes and scaring livestock.  One angry farmer wrote the Navy and said her cow had stopped giving milk. This led to an aerial survey of the region that spotted an area in Virginia, from the Machodoc Creek to Point Lookout on the Potomac River later to be called Dahlgren.  This area met all the Navy requirements for a gun testing range. It was over water but inside the territorial waters of the United States. It had relative straight lines of accessibility and was ice and rapids free.


Aerial Photo of Dahlgren circa 1918 (U.S. Navy Photo)


In April of 1918, President Wilson issued a proclamation seizing farms on Machodoc Creek for the new proving grounds, and on October 16, 1918, with the firing of a 7-inch, 45 caliber tractor-mounted gun, Dahlgren began operations as the Indian Head, Lower Station. In 1919 the Postmaster officially named the Post Office, Dahlgren.


First Firing at Indian Head Lower Station (later known as Dahlgren) October 16, 1918 (U.S. Navy Photo)


At the time of Dahlgren’s establishment, the area was extremely remote and relatively unpopulated. There was no bridge to Maryland nor train to Fredericksburg. The river served as a crucial outlet to the outside world. Roads were so poor it was easier to visit Washington, DC, than other places in King George. Dr. Charles Bramble, a future Director of Research at Dahlgren, remembered that his contact with Dahlgren in 1924 required river access.


Gun improvements continued to be driven by a need to increase accuracy and range. Even in the early years, the disciplines of mathematics, physics, and chemistry were being applied to improve projectile geometry, gun barrel design, propellants, and other aspects of gunnery. Drawing scientists, mathematicians, and engineers to such a remote area was a challenge. To attract and retain these highly skilled workers, the Navy invested in housing, floated down from Indian Head on the river, schooling, and recreational infrastructure, much of which remains today.


Employee Cottages at Dahlgren circa 1919 – (U.S. Navy Photo)




Route 3, King George circa 1920s (postcard)


From 1918 to 1940, Dahlgren grew to have one of every kind of Naval Gun, but the seeds that would blossom into the research and development element of the Dahlgren Division were firmly planted in this time period. With the arrival of Dr. L.T.E. Thompson as Chief Scientist in April of 1923, a new initiative – vigorous experimental testing – was added to the Dahlgren dossier. His efforts with the newly established Naval Research Laboratory led to one of Dahlgren’s first collaborative experiments. The match was lit.


About The Author


Alan Dean is a member of the Dahlgren Heritage Museum dedicated to preserving Dahlgren Base history. He worked at Dahlgren from 1974 to 2017. He wishes to thank Ed Jones, Dr. Rob Gates, Bob Dibble, Peter Kolakowski, and Bill Elliott for their reviews and comments on this article.


Previously published – Northern Neck of Virginia Historical Magazine, 70th Anniversary, December 2020, King George County, Virginia, 1720-2020 published by The Northern Neck of Virginia Historical Society MONTROSS, Westmoreland County, Virginia –


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