Friday, August 10, 2018

Old Hickory Gunpowder Plant

By Jack Humphrey

Just over a century ago, in January 1918, the United States Government signed a contract with the DuPont Engineering Company to build and operate a smokeless gunpowder plant, located northeast of Nashville at Hadley’s Bend along the Cumberland River, for the Allied War effort. The government agreed to cover construction costs, a figure somewhere in the region of $83 million to $90 million, while DuPont received one $1 in compensation. While this might seem low, DuPont “realized profits on its expenditures for the plant and its operation.” When the Armistice was signed Nov. 11, 1918, the plant was just shy of completion and producing over half a million pounds of smokeless powder per day. The plant, which was the largest munitions plant in the world at the time of operation, was a remarkable feat of engineering, which has shaped the region of middle Tennessee.

After the contract was signed, plant construction began almost immediately. In February 1918, workers cleared land, “macadamized” roads, and laid miles of train track. On March 4, 1918, workers broke ground for the plant and by July 2, 1918, powder was being manufactured. DuPont hailed this achievement stating that “a new world’s record for speed was established. This was 116 days after breaking ground.” By the time of the Armistice, the plant was 96 days ahead of schedule, a feat DuPont noted was “truly a wonderful record.” To appreciate the sheer scale of operations, the plant’s seven steam turbo generators had the capacity to produce more electricity than Nashville required “for all its lights, power and street railways.” Moreover, the refrigeration section of the plant, which at the time was the largest of its kind anywhere in the world, had the capacity to make 3.2 million pounds of ice every 24 hours; an amount “sufficient to supply a city of 1 million people.” Simply put, the Old Hickory gunpowder plant was a massive operation.

Panoramic image of the Power House on Cinder Road. In the foreground are segregated outhouses.
Image courtesy of the Tennessee State Library and Archives.

In order to accommodate the tens of thousands of laborers, both domestic and foreign, who built and operated the plant, DuPont arranged the construction of what became known as the “village,” which featured both temporary and permanent housing. The former was reserved for unskilled/common workers while the latter for skilled/senior workers. It is important to note that housing was segregated according to race. For instance, the Mexican workforce and their families lived in the “Mexican Village” away from African-American, Native-American and white workers. In total, there were 3,867 buildings in the “village” including schools, churches, mess halls, an open-air theater, hotels, a bank and YMCA; again, many of these facilities were segregated along racial lines. In order to impress the size of workforce, in August 1918, the “village” mess halls served over 1,000,000 meals, which was “as large as that of the Commissary Department in the Panama Canal Zone during six months when the Canal Construction work was at its height.” While the government had acquired 5,600 acres of land at Hadley’s Bend, for the plant and “village,” it appears that only 4,706 acres was developed. Regardless, this was a massive undertaking whereby so much was accomplished in such a short space of time.

An image of employee housing southeast from Hadley & 12th.
Image courtesy of the Tennessee State Library and Archives.

While it appears that there were relatively few accidents and fatal injuries during the construction of the plant and “village,” one of the deadliest train disasters in American history involved plant workers. On the morning of July 9, 1918, two trains collided near Haring Road in Nashville, Tennessee, resulting in tragedy. According to the Nashville Tennessean 121 people died while another 57 were injured. Victims included First World War veterans and predominantly African-American plant workers.

Front page of the Nashville Tennessean July 10, 1918.
Image courtesy of the Tennessee State Library and Archives.

After the war, DuPont ceased powder production at Old Hickory. In 1920, the Nashville Industrial Corporation acquired the plant for around $3.5 million, a deal which ultimately saw Ernest C. Morse, the Director of Sales for the War Department, “indicted by a grand jury for fraud.” In 1923, DuPont returned to Old Hickory purchasing the plant site and a large part of the “village” The production of rayon began in 1925 while cellophane production began toward the end of the decade. DuPont renamed the community Old Hickory in honor of Andrew Jackson and operated it as a company town.

An aerial view of the DuPont facilities at Old Hickory taken some time during the 1930s.
Image courtesy of the Tennessee State Library and Archives.

Anyone eager to learn more about, or see stunning images of, the Old Hickory Gunpowder Plant need look no further than the Tennessee State Library and Archives, which has an online collection of photographs in the Tennessee Virtual Archive (TeVA). During the summer of 2018, I was fortunate enough to be involved in the creation of this collection. It was truly remarkable to understand more about the origins of the present-day community of Old Hickory and appreciate the impact the region had on the Allied war effort.

The Tennessee State Library and Archives is a division of the Office of Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett