Point Pleasant's West Virginia Ordnance Works - From Wartime Production to Superfund Cleanup Site

By
©Lew McDaniel

This article was written for several reasons. Prime among them was to tie together several sources in order to provide background and perspective on one of the area's greatest undertakings and its impact. Another was to show how rapidly the United States could move to meet wartime needs. Last, but certainly not least, to show the difference in how environmental concerns have changed.
Information herein, other than the personal recollections or comments, is based on newspaper clippings from the Charleston Gazette or from the US Army Corps of Engineers web site.
Today not much is left of the World War II $55M ($608.3 million in 2010 dollars) project 4 miles north of Point Pleasant. The buildings, refractories, and pipelines have either crumbled, been removed during toxic waste cleanup in the 1980s, or are covered by vines. Some vast ponds where dinner plate size frogs gronked for mates or to establish territories are filled in. All that remains are "igloos" that once housed tons of TNT and miles of roads that provided secluded trysting spots over the years. Even the "mothman" that made an appearance here on November 12, 1966 is gone.

From 1942 to 1945, West Virginia Ordnance works produced trinitrotoluene (TNT). Raw materials were shipped in and TNT produced at the site was transported to other government loading plants for insertion into various munitions. TNT production began in October 1942. The facility had a design capacity of 720,000 pounds of TNT per 24 hour period, and operated 7 days a week, 3 shifts per day. Ten TNT lines actually produced an average 250,000 tons per day according to a 1995 EPA report. [NOTE: the daily output was quoted in several locations, although I find it hard to believe the quantity was tons, rather than pounds.]

In January 1942 Point Pleasant relied mainly on river trade and agriculture for its livelihood. All that changed when the war department announced construction of the West Virginia Ordnance Works on 8,000 acres north of the town. Faced with the Nazi onslaught in Europe and Japanese aggrandizement in the Philippines and elsewhere, the need for explosives rose dramatically. Morgantown Ordnance Works and the West Virginia Ordnance Works (WVOW) Point Pleasant munitions plant aimed at meeting that need.

WVOW would be built and operated by a private concern under the control and supervision of the US Army, according to Lt. Col. B. F. Vandervoort, fifth zone constructing quartermaster. A land acquisition office opened the next day to cope with moving approximately 150 families from the 8,000 acre area. By March 23, Judge Harry Watkins of the Fairmont WV US district court ordered the title to 8006.67 acres to the Federal government for the plant. The government deposited the same day a check for $23,910 ($264,441 in 2010 dollars) for the land with the court clerk.

On January 23, 1942 Col. A. W. Ford was announced as the commanding officer once construction was completed. Ford established his headquarters at Camp Conley. On June 9, 1943, the government paid the West Virginia National Guard $37,341 for the 200 acres used in construction of the ordnance works. The land formerly served as the base of the annual summer encampments for the 150th Infantry of the National Guard.

In July 1943, a condemnation committee awarded Lucy Long Anderson and others $35,000 ($387,095 today) for rights of way for 11 secondary roads at the ordnance works. Robert Roush and others were awarded $4,129 for 129.95 acres for right of ways for pipe lines and other utilities.

Several challenges presented themselves immediately. Area roads were not adequate to support construction and operation traffic volume of approximately 7,500 workers or heavy construction truck weights. On January 27, 1942 the Army handed the West Virginia state road commission an order rebuild 14 miles of State Route 62 from Point Pleasant to Mason City. The war department would build four miles of the road in the plant area. All roads were to be completed by June 1 of that year. By April 7, all but the "traffic circle" and 4.15 miles of road were completed.

Workers with the skills necessary to build and operate the installation were not readily available in the area. On February 10, 1942 E. B. Badger of Boston, MA, the company charged with building the plant, opened an office in Huntington to employ 50 draftsmen and engineers. An employment office was also opened at the plant.

By March 19 that year, living costs and rents had shot up. Some rents were raised 200% above what they have been before the announcement. Ten cent sandwiches rose to 25 cents. Although the federal housing authority planned to build 190 new homes at the north city limits, some workers were living in what had been an automobile sales showroom before automobiles were rationed. By October 19, 1943, only three percent of dwellings in the Point Pleasant/Gallipolis area were vacant.

Office space was at a premium as well, with land acquisition offices operating out of the junior high school music room, a classroom, and a laboratory. Manpower was also scarce with some town workers and teachers resigning to work at the plant.

Local lumber companies were building small factory row buildings for rent at moderate rates. I was told some Burdette Addition houses, originally in St. Albans, were moved to Point Pleasant on barges to meet housing needs. Construction of 700 demountable dwellings for ordnance plant workers was announced on June 24, 1942. Erected in sections, the houses would be one-story two bedroom dwellings located near the ordnance works (350 units) and Marietta Manufacturing (350 units). These structures were in addition to the immediate establishment of trailer camps and large housing projects funded by the FHA. This effort was estimated to support half the estimated 3,800 workers to be employed at the TNT plant and 8,000 employees at the boat manufacturing facility that was being expanded. Approximately 3,5000 workers worked at the plant when it was in operation.

Shadle, Silver, and Mason - Pomeroy Bridge tolls were lowered to encourage people from outside the immediate Point Pleasant area to work at the plant. Silver bridge $3.50 coupon books would be sold for $1.75, while the Shadle Bridge $5 coupon books would cost $3. Pedestrian coupon books were available at similar discounts. Employee passes had to be shown to obtain the reduced rate coupons from the army ordnance authorities.

On August 27, state health commissioner C. F. McClintic announced contract preparation for a 60 bed hospital near the ordnance works. The Federal Works Agency allocated $250,000 to the project. McClintic pointed out the nearest available hospital was at Marietta, Ohio. [I do not know if this hospital was ever built]

Plant construction progressed with few hitches. E. B. Badger and Sons of Boston, the prime contractors and Calvin and Collins, a sub-contractor were fined for operating boilers without a state license. George E. Deatherage, a civil engineer who was former head of the "White Camellias" (a secret group opposing the northerners in the U.S. Southern states during the Reconstruction era and beyond), resigned as a plant worker after Rep. Dickstein (D-NY) charged the Army Corps of Engineers employed Deatherage with having him investigated.

Chemical tanks used to store TNT ingredients. Others not shown were spherical. All were removed in the early 1960s, leaving only the concrete foundations.

Water reservoirs under construction

On October 12, 1942, less than six months after ground was broken, production began at the plant, now expanded to 9,000 acres. The flag flown at the opening ceremony was from the coffin of Point Pleasant soldier Pvt. Clifford M. Quessenberry, donated by his mother, Mrs. V. E. Quessenberry who worked at the plant. Quessenberry was killed in action that summer and buried in Arlington national cemetery.

By August 2, plant workers wanted the same wages paid at other defense plants with some refusing to work. However, an Army agreement already in place remained in effect and everyone returned to work.

By July 8, 1943 29 representatives of Point Pleasant, Gallipolis, Middleport, and Pomeroy had organized the "Ohio-West Virginia Tri-County Industrial Association" to protest what they considered "the failure of the government to use costly war production facilities". The group specifically cited:

· The West Virginia Ordnance works at a cost they estimated from $55-70M;
· The navy boat yard estimated at $8M;
· $2M for the construction of 1250 homes in Point Pleasant, of which less than 300 were occupied;
· Bids that were out for a $250K hospital and an 8 room school;
· Additional money for sanitation, roads, and utility works.

A member who declined to be quoted noted only about one-sixth of the ordnance works was being used and the navy abandoned the boat yard before it was complete.

Carrying a group protest to Washington were Mayor B. W. Krodel and Bartow Jones of Point Pleasant, Col H. B. Eber and H. W. Walters, president of the Gallipolis Chamber of Commerce, V. A. Smith, president of the Pomeroy Chamber of Commerce, and attorney Edgar Ervin of Middleport. Maj. Gen. L. H. Campbell, Jr. chief of US army ordnance responded that the controlled production was "due entirely to the fluid nature of modern warfare" and the "Change in requirements is no adverse reflection upon either the management of the plant or any of its employees."

On May 16, 1944, General Defense Corporation and West Virginia Ordnance Works received the Army-Navy "E" Pennant for great accomplishment in the production of war material. Built in record time, the plant was recognized for the quality of its yield and developments in outstanding production methods.

After the war ended, the Army Corps of Engineers announced on February 27, 1946, a determination by the War Assets Corporation was pending regarding what part of WVOW would be sold and what part would be retained. About 4,000 cases of TNT remaining in the igloos presumably would be removed to Army storage facilities. Reportedly 6,000 acres of the land occupied by the ordnance works would be disposed of by the Farm Credit Association; former property owners would have fist chance to buy. By October 28, 1946 the West Virginia National Guard was working with the War Assets Administration to obtain the storage, shop, and housing facilities.

On May 2, 1947 the War Assets Administration offered Camp Conley's 31 acres for sale, along with 33 buildings, a water tower, a swimming pool, water and sewage systems and other utilities. West Virginia University announced on August 7, 1948 that it had gained title to 97 acres of the former ordnance works north of Camp Conley.

LATER IMPACT

In 1947, the Army certified the ground occupied by WVOW was not contaminated. Later science showed that was not the case. In 1954, contamination was noticed but was not acted on until 1981 when reddish water was found leading into a pond next to the TNT wastewater station and pumping house. The former ordnance works was placed on the National Priority List for cleanup of hazardous materials used in TNT manufacturing in 1983. Contaminants included nitro-aromatic residues including TNT, DNT (dinitrotoluene), spent acids, metals, and other waste products associated with the TNT manufacturing process.

The remediation process will take several years. Certain ponds, several long prized by local fishermen for their bass, bluegill, and catfish, were capped and soil removed in several locations. The two steam powerhouses were removed in 1994 due to asbestos contamination. Asbestos was used extensively throughout the plant to insulate steam lines. Approximately two inches of the carcinogen was on the powerhouse floors.

On September 8, 1983 the site became eligible under the Superfund program when it was listed on the National Priorities List. Noted as West Virginia's "top priority" cleanup site, it was among the national top ten most polluted sites. Portions of the site have been cleaned up or determined uncontaminated and removed from the list. However, cleanup was not completed as of 2007.

2,704 acres remained on the National Priorities List. $71.4 million in cleanup funding had been appropriated, although estimated completion is 2020 at a cost of an additional $27.9 million. Allowing for the current value of the dollar, the total reclamation cost will be $8.9 million in 1942 dollars.

Although not directly related to WVOW, 560 cubic yards of soil was removed in October 2002 from a location contaminated by lead. Prior to World War II, the National Guard used a small section of land near the WVOW as a small arms firing range. Lead-based bullets were fired at targets, many lodging into the soil backdrop and raised the lead levels in the area.

MY EXPERIENCE WITH THE TNT AREA

When I was growing up in Point Pleasant from 1949-1962, the "the TNT area" as we called it served as an occasional area for exploration. Most of the buildings, large chemical tanks, and the two power houses remained, the latter snake havens in later years.

It was not uncommon to find a piece of greasy clayish looking material lying on the ground. That was TNT and, when placed on a flat rock and struck with another flat rock, it would explode. The size of the explosion was directly related to the size of the lump of TNT and how heavy a rock you could lift to drop on it. I don't remember running with scissors, but given this experience it is likely we did.

My father worked for the National Guard at the ordnance works. Being a maintenance detachment for the entire West Virginia National Guard, shops to repair radios, various weapons, tanks, jeeps, and bulldozers were located there. In summers, when most of the guard members were on active duty and away for training, I often accompanied Dad to work. The tanks, bulldozers, tank retrievers, and other equipment there were a compelling lure for a young boy. Among the items transferred from the ordnance works to the Guard were two locomotives that had been used to bring raw materials via rail when the plant was in operation. The guard used the larger locomotive to occasionally bring large equipment needing repair to the shops located there; the smaller locomotive was used for switching in the rail yard at the shops. Fascinating indeed to a boy whose grandfather had been a New York Central track man charged with rail maintenance from Ambrosia to Point Pleasant.

The igloos were of great interest to a child of the nuclear age who participated in bomb drills while at Ordnance School. Having seen news films of Hiroshima, hiding under my desk did not seem a good notion. But if I could figure out how to get to an igloo, my little kid mind thought, my odds would be better.

I was occasionally in some of the igloos the National Guard used for storage. Concrete a foot or more thick (I do not remember the exact thickness) overlaid with over a foot of soil. The doors were massive with a vent that, coupled with the vent on top of the dome, was supposed to exhaust any pressure from an explosion inside the chamber as well as supplying ventilation to keep the interior dry and cool. Massive as they were, the doors opened relatively easily at that time. I remember a pickup truck driving inside once - there was plenty of room to spare. The igloo gridded placement was to prevent an explosion in one from impacting others. Some of the igloos were leased to Liberty Powder Company for storage at one time and I think later to other concerns.

Among other things, Dad was responsible for keeping the shops heated and security of the main compound and the entire 9,000 acres. His staff kept the coal fired boilers operating in what is now the fair building. Asbestos covered steam lines from the boilers ran mainly across the main road to the shops on the other side. Civilian guards patrolled the main compound, the igloos, and the many roads regularly at night and on weekends. There were stations at various locations where the guard inserted a key fastened to the station into his time clock. The clock recorded that he had indeed been there.

Dad and Mom were avid fishermen so we spent many afternoons in a rowboat on TNT area ponds. The catch was fried for supper over many years. I was not a fisherman, but I found the birds and other wildlife fascinating. And I was the designated rower.

Dad was an avid hunter and knew the best places on the ordnance works property for rabbit and deer hunting. I still have the mounted head of a deer he bagged from atop the south powerhouse around 1960. We spent many summer afternoons plinking at groundhogs that infested the banks near pond 9.

The roads of the TNT area were useful for another sort of sporting as well. The "inner guard road" surrounded the igloos and the shop area, while the outer guard road followed the periphery of the entire installation from Camp Conley Road to White Church Road.

Its many miles of roads with convenient pull offs (used for truck staging into the igloo roads when the plant was in operation) made an ideal location for youthful romantic liaisons. Occasionally the guard would tell a youthful couple to move on, but that seemed to rarely happen.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Photos of construction are available at the location below. Note that many of the identifications are not accurate. For example, an igloo in its original construction phase is labeled as part of Acid Area B Residual Acid Storage Tank construction.
http://www.lrh.usace.army.mil/PhotoBrowser/index.cfm?pge_id=1225&pge_prg_id=6487&fld_id=1659

More information about WVOW: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/West_Virginia_Ordnance_Works

George Deatherage
The so-called Great Sedition Trial of 1944 [3] followed from a series of indictments issued in Washington, D.C. against a group of some 30 prominent individuals accused of sedition and various related violations of the Smith Act. The defendants were alleged to be part of an international Nazi conspiracy, connected with the activities of the Mothers' Movement. The trial arose out of the strongly isolationist and/or allegedly pro-fascist stance of the heterogeneous group of defendants at the height of US involvement in World War II. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_E._Deatherage

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