Powder Works Plant (1909);
Museum Photo Collection
DuPont Plant History
The author of this article is unknown. The article was found among papers donated to the DuPont Museum by the DuPont Company. Reprints are available through permission from the DuPont Museum.
The E.I. DuPont de Nemours Company realized during the first few years that the rapidly developing Northwest/Alaska area with its vast mining and timber producing industries presented a new and potentially valuable market for the explosives products it manufactured. However, distances to this new market area from its traditional East Coast production facilities were too great to keep transportation costs within what could be considered reasonable limits.
This problem could only be overcome by establishing a production facility in the northwest with ready access to both rail and water transportation. After extensive surveys, a site on the shore of the southern end of Puget Sound between Tacoma and Olympia was selected for the construction of a new DuPont plant which would manufacture explosives for the mining, timber and construction industries of the far west. Construction on the site, which was to be named “DuPont,” was started on September 1, 1906, under the direction of resident engineer William H. Chamberlain. The tract of land chosen had some unique historical interest. It had been the site of old Fort Nisqually, a trading post and the Northwest Headquarters of the famous Hudson Bay Company as well as the site of the Puget Sound Agricultural Company. The original fort had been built in 1833 at a spot not far from where the #1 Nitrator House was to be placed. In 1843 a new fort was built at a location (which would later become) within the DuPont property, known as Old Town, and in 1854 the Factor’s residence had been built. This structure found new life under DuPont ownership when it was adopted for use as the social hall for the new community then being built to house workers for the new explosives plant. This structure remained in use at DuPont until 1933, when it and the other surviving buildings of Fort Nisqually were moved to Point Defiance Park in Tacoma and restored to represent their original condition and usage.
Construction progress came to a brief halt in October of 1907 due to the money panic, and consequent lack of general faith in the economy felt by the business community in the U.S. at that time. Work resumed in the summer of 1908 and proceeded rapidly until the plant was completed in September of 1909.
Successful operation of such a facility was dependent upon the availability of reliable transportation both within the area of the plant as well as to and from the outside world for the receipt of supplies and the delivery of finished explosives. In the 1909 era, motor transport was not only unreliable, but was also undesirable due to the poorly developed state of highway engineering. Obviously, the transport of highly sensitive explosives around the site by a fleet of coughing, lurching chain drive trucks plowing through endless potholes constantly refilled by the rains of the Northwest was not a pleasingly satisfactory image in the minds of DuPont Company facility planning engineers
Narrow gauge site railways were, on the other hand, a known and reliable means of transportation which could be constructed rapidly, and at a predictable cost. Further, such a railway could be built to standards which would provide the quality of ride required for the transport of explosives. A narrow gauge could be designed, because of its ability to negotiate sharp curves, to weave in and out of explosives manufacturing as well as storage bunker areas much more easily. It would also have lower initial construction and equipment costs than its larger standard gauge counterpart. With this knowledge, and experience in using narrow gauge lines at other DuPont plants, a 36-gauge railway was selected to provide reliable transportation within the plant area and to the new wharf on Puget Sound. The point from which the products of DuPont could be shipped by sea to those customers required that mode of delivery. Similarly, a standard gauge branch off of the Northern Pacific Railway American Lake line was built into the plant area. This line connected with the new narrow gauge line at explosives storage magazines and transshipment docks to provide for railroad delivery to customers, as well as to provide for the delivery of certain incoming raw materials and supplies utilized in the manufacture of explosives produced by the new plant. Thus, a compressive and multi-mode set of transportation links was established for the DuPont Plant. It should be noted that in later years, the junction transshipment dock was used primarily for the movement of incoming machinery and construction supplies from trucks onto cars of the narrow gauge. In 1909, the company town of DuPont, located about one mile to the East of the actual explosives manufacturing area had two large houses for the site manager and assistant manager and a total of 58 houses for workers. In January 1912, six more cottages were completed. The housing available for workers was increased subsequently by six more cottages in August 1915, fourteen more in April of 1916, and nineteen more in July of the same year. In November 1917 six houses owned by workers, but located on the grounds of the newly forming Camp Lewis Army base were purchased and moved to the DuPont town site. In addition to houses the town had two stores and one butcher shop, plus a large company owned hotel, clubhouse and a children’s playground.
By the end of 1917, the little town had grown to a total of 110 structures. The town had been built for employees only and all property remained in DuPont Company ownership. The Village of DuPont became the town of DuPont on March 13, 1912, but it was not formally incorporated as a town until April 15, 1951, following the offer of the company to sell the residences to their occupants on March 29, 1951. It is of interest to note that by 1970, all but 3 of the formerly company owned houses had been sold to their occupants.
The first explosives produced at the plant, a 2350-pound batch of 40% straight nitroglycerine dynamite was turned out on September 1, 1909. Plant capacity in 1909 was rated a total of 18,000,000 pounds per year.
The development of the facility continued in November of 1912 when the construction of a black powder mill was started. This addition was completed on October 8, 1913. The first production run of the newly completed black powder mill totaled 387 kegs of the explosive for delivery to waiting customers. The black powder mill produced standard commercial black powder for blasting purposes as well as fuse, sporting and fireworks type powders. Production of black powder at DuPont continued right up to the ending days of WWII, with the last day of such work taking place on May 16, 1945.
During October of 1915 capacity of the plant was again expanded. The #3 combined Nitrator and Separator, the #3 Neutralizing House, and additional jelly cartridge house, a nitric acid recovery concentrator were built. And a recovery unit was added to the already large number of facilities being used for the production of explosives at the site.
In March of 1916, a small nitrostarch production facility was added to expand the range of products produced by the plant. In the meantime, the capacity of the original dynamite plant at DuPont was expanded in 1915 to increase production capacity to the grand total of 40,000,000 pounds per year. During the First World War, the site produced not only explosives for domestic consumption but also turned out large quantities of nitrate of ammonia for military purposes. Following the war, the plant was destined to convert wartime explosives back into products suitable for civilian use
The first production run of Pyrotol was made on September 4, 1924. This explosive was made from surplus stocks of sodium nitrate and smokeless powder left over from WWI. Total Pyrotol production at the DuPont plant in the years following the First World War totaled 23,170,650 pounds. Another product made from stocks of war surplus explosives during the same years was named Sodatol. This explosive was made from left over stocks of TNT and nitrate of soda. During the years in which these government owned stocks of surplus explosives were being converted into products suitable for civilian use, the U.S. government inspector assigned to the plant to verify that the work was being properly accomplished was Mr. Harold P. Warren.
The years during which the reprocessing of war surplus explosives was accomplished represent one of, if not the busiest period of activity for the narrow gauge train. Much if not all of this material was delivered to the plant by ship and the narrow gauge cats and locomotives were employed in the previously unusual task of being loaded on the upgrade run from the pier to the top of the bluff and the explosives storage magazine areas located there. The explosives delivered by ship were loaded by short trains of the little boxcars used on the line which were then dispatched up the long Sequalitchew Creek canyon grade behind struggling little locomotives whose exhaust stacks must have glowed a dull red from the rapid flow of exhaust gas exiting from the relatively primitive internal combustion engines which formed their sole source of power.
The first “grinding” of the surplus smokeless powder in the conversion program occurred on January 20, 1928. By mid-1931, this project had been completed and the company dismantled the smokeless powder line, 4 “drying houses,” 4 “heater houses,” and 4 storehouses for ground-up, dry powder awaiting final processing.
After the first years of initial plant construction and expansion had been completed, improvements and modernization work occurred as required. On February 7, 1925, the task of dismantling the #1 Nitroglycerine line was speeded by the simple expedient of burning the nitrator and separator. Although the possibility of an explosion during this process had been anticipated, no explosion or other trouble was encountered.
The danger of explosion has always been a matter of great concern at explosives manufacturing facilities, and despite great care and active safety programs, explosions did occur. The DuPont plant was not immune to this type of tragedy, and explosions are known to have occurred at one location of another within the site complex in 1909, 1910, 1916, 1922, December 7 and 16, 1924, December 13, 1926, June 1930, September 6, 1935, July 9, 1936, September 7, 1938 (nitrator explosion killed two), and in December of 1947. Another explosion missed becoming an entry in this record by only one hour on August 8,1928. The launch LaBlanca loaded with 6,480 pounds of black and sporting powder and 15,000 pounds of dynamite had gotten underway from the DuPont wharf at 6:00 pm after loading activities had been complete. About one hour later, while the north bound vessel was traveling through the Tacoma Narrows at a point west of 6th Avenue, Captain Christianson and his son Nels Jr. were dismayed to find that a fire had broken out on board. Taking immediate action, the Captain turned the vessel toward shore and as soon as it ran aground, both crewmembers jumped overboard and swam to safety on the nearby shore. The subsequent explosion set the nearby woods on fire. Two days later, this same fire still not fully controlled, burned down two farm houses not far from where the explosion occurred. Had the vessel caught fire at the DuPont wharf, it is conceivable that far more serious results might have occurred.
Fire in the forests and meadows surrounding, and within the plant site was a matter of continuing and serious concern to the managers of the DuPont plant. On May 12,1931 workmen clearing a 700-foot wide firebreak strip outside the plant north boundary fence lost control of a fire set to burn brush cleared from the firebreak strip. The fire was eventually controlled after it had burned its way into the swamp named Edmond Marsh through which Sequalitchew Creek flows, burning an area of 40 acres before being stopped just short of the northwest corner of the village of DuPont.
In February of 1938, the company improved the facilities on site available to employees when a modern, but small brick hospital was completed. This facility was located east of the main office, and was staffed by a full-time nurse.
During World War II the plant produced explosives for the war effort, and the plant workforce was expanded substantially to meet the needs of national defense. In 1943, of the 280 employees at the plant, only 115 lived within the confines of the town of DuPont. Most of the remaining personnel lived in Tacoma and commuted to work. Peak employment during the war brought the workforce to a total of approximately 350 employees.
In September 1945, the DuPont plant received the “Big E” Army-Navy production award for excellence for the 5th time in a five year period of wartime effort.
The annual payroll at the DuPont plant in 1959 totaled more than $1,000,000 and the number of employees on the date of the 1959 50th anniversary celebration of the plant’s founding was 172. During 1959, not all of the workers on the site were people. A herd of 70 deer supplemented by 55 head of cattle was maintained within the boundary of the plant perimeter fence to help keep down vegetation. In particular, wild grasses during the late summer/early fall period, and thus reduce the chance that an accidental fire would spread rapidly out of control.
During the first half century of DuPont Company operation of the DuPont Site, the plant produced over 1 billion pounds of dynamite. The final totals of overall production achieved by the time that the plant finally shut down in 1975 are unknown, but must have exceeded the 50 year total by a substantial amount.
9/01/1906 to 8/31/1909 ● Mr. W.H. Chamberlain (res. Engineer)
9/01/1909 to 1/12/1915 ● Mr. W.F. Harrington
1/12/1915 to 5/31/1919 ● Mr. Irving J. Cox
6/01/1919 to 10/01/1923 ● Mr. D.S. Robinson
9/15/1923 to 9/30/1945 ● Mr. F. T. Beers
9/30/1945 to 4/15/1948 ● Mr. R.F. Boltz
4/15/1948 to 1/09/1952 ● Mr. F. E. Jacquot
1/14/1952 to 8/31/1959 ● Mr. G. W. Collins
9/01/1959 to 6/30/1961 ● Mr. A. Mellott (Acting Mgr. at Seneca Plant 7/1/1960 to 6/30/1961)
7/01/1960 to 7/01/1961 ● Mr. W. B. Gideon (Acting Mgr. when Mr. Mellott was absent)
8/01/1961 to 5/31/1971 ● Mr. John Main
6/01/1971 to -/--/1971 ● Mr. Henry Means
1971 to shutdown ● Mr. Tony Ursic