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The Armory and "The Dandy First" 103rd Engineer Regiment

This essay is the seventh in the series Drexel students write about Drexel history

The Armory and "The Dandy First" 103rd Engineer Regiment

by Christopher Murphy

Before the United States was established as a nation, Benjamin Franklin had laid the framework in Philadelphia for one of the greatest domestic military branches in the world. The 103rd Engineer Regiment, “the Dandy First,” created in 1747, is considered the first regiment of the nation’s National Guard. The Drexel Armory, located at 33rd and Arch Streets, can directly trace its lineage to the 103rd Engineer Regiment and thus a direct correlation between Drexel University and the founding and protection of this country.

According to Harmon Yerkes Gordon's book on the Dandy First (quoted by Dennis Crowley in his web page devoted to the 103rd Engineer Battalion), the regiment has its origins in Benjamin Franklin’s efforts to rally the citizens of Philadelphia to stand against the threats that plagued the colonies. Appealing to Philadelphians to “associate for the common defense in 1747, [Franklin] looked to the skilled carpenters and craftsmen in the city’s booming shipyards who were familiar with naval guns to form a battery of artillery,” Gordon writes. Genius that he was, Franklin knew the protection of his city should be his primary concern. He employed those with the most artillery skill and named them: “the Artillery Companies of the Associated Regiment of Foot of Philadelphia.” These soldiers saw military action during the French and Indian War and later fought in the American Revolution as the 4th Continental Artillery. The 103rd or “The Dandy First,” housed in the Drexel Armory, can justly claim a direct link to the American Revolution.

Drexel ROTC in the ArmoryDrexel ROTC students in the Armory, undated photo

The present Armory was built in 1916 for the cost of approximately $156,000 and designed by Phillip H. Johnson in the shape of a trapezoid. Home to Drexel’s ROTC, inside you will find a gymnasium, museum, and common features such as a kitchen and locker room. In 2008, Drexel signed a 50 year agreement with the National Guard to use the Armory. The plans for this historic building are many but the need to preserve its and “The Dandy First’s” history past is among the highest priority. The 103rd Engineer Battalion, “The Dandy First,” is considered the oldest member of the Pennsylvania National Guard. Its involvement in the colonial-era wars earned it the illustrious title of a Pennsylvania Continental Army unit. Its residence in the Drexel Armory gives the university a proud connection to the founding of the nation.

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