Nitro, West Virginia History
The city of Nitro is rich in West Virginia history.
Our story began a century ago.
At an elevation of 590 feet, the city of Nitro, located along the Kanawha River, just off I-64 about 12 miles west of Charleston, was born as a World War I boom town. It was built by the United States Government to manufacture gun powder for the war effort.
Its very name stands as a reminder of its sudden and explosive beginning. Shortly after the United States entered the war, it became apparent that America faced a critical shortage in gunpowder production. When it was determined the nation could not produce enough powder to supply its troops in combat, US Congress went into an emergency session and passed the “Deficiency Appropriations Act” on October 6, 1917.
The Appropriations Act provided for the construction of three huge explosive plants, each capable of producing 500,000 pounds of gunpowder per day. The War Department immediately sent engineers into a 10-state area to find the best-suited locations for the proposed plants. Such criteria as security from coastal attacks, climatic conditions, rail and water transportation, available raw materials, and the lay of the land, determined the site selections. The number-one location picked to build the first plant was a wide section of bottomland along the great Kanawha River, 14 miles below Charleston, West Virginia. Three months later when Nitro came off the War Department’s drawing boards, a wartime construction project was launched that challenged the entire nation.
The preferred building sites selected for the other two plants were near Nashville, Tennessee, and Louisville, Kentucky. However, as work progressed at Nitro and Nashville, it was decided to increase the production capacities of both plants to 700,000 pounds per day, thereby eliminating the need for the Louisville installation.
The name Nitro was selected by the Ordnance Department. It was derived from the chemical term Nitro-Cellulose, which identified the type of gunpowder that was to be produced. Another name seriously considered at the time was “Redwop” which was obtained from the reverse spelling of the word powder.
Ground was broken December 23, 1917, at the site of the present Nitro city park for construction of the first of twenty-seven, 200-bed barracks. Practically overnight thousands of workers and train loads of materials and supplies began pouring into the muddy pasture field along the river. Government records indicated that over 110,000 people were on the payroll during the eleven months it took to build the plant. The turnover rate, however, was extremely high since the average employee only remained on the job approximately 40 days.
Workers came from every state in the Union and represented 41 different nationalities. Amazingly, this wartime pickup labor force, in only eleven months, managed to transform 1,772 acres of muddy pastures and cornfields into a landmark of America’s engineering greatness.
By the time the war ended on November 11, 1918, the sprawling manufacturing complex, officially known as Explosive Plant “C”, was already in production and was capable of producing 350 tons of smokeless gunpowder per day. The town was also 90 percent complete at that time and was housing 23,951 people. The community not only provided the latest design in housing and utilities, it also included a modern independent school system, full-time police and fire protection, a hospital, and a variety of recreational facilities.
Within two weeks after the war, approximately 12,000 people had streamed out of town. Production was halted and the Hercules Powder Company was ordered to begin putting the plant in mothballs. On January 15, 1919, the Director of Explosive Plant “C” formally turned the operation over to the Ordnance Department. The government had already declared the entire reservation “surplus” and they immediately began the necessary accounting procedures in preparation to dispose of the property. During this period, the town facilities continued to be maintained in order to furnish housing and services for the remaining workers and their families who were now mostly employed at security and shutdown jobs.
As soon as the government agents finished the inventory of the big installation, it was advertised for sale. A number of bids were submitted for specific items, but several offers were also received to purchase the entire reservation outright.
On November 3, 1919, a state charter was granted to the Charleston Industrial Corporation which was organized for the specific purpose of purchasing and redeveloping the surplus government property at Nitro. This firm was backed by six well-known Charleston businessmen and five other New York investors. Their bid of $8,551,000 was accepted by the government, and the new owners began a negotiated takeover of both the industrial and residential facilities.
During the transition from government to private control, provisions were made for the remaining residents of the town to purchase the houses they were then living in, at a minimum cost. Many took advantage of this opportunity while others were satisfied to continue to pay reasonable rental fees.
The Charleston Industrial Corporation (C.I.C.) lost no time in launching a sales promotion campaign to attract new industries and businesses. The practically unused industrial sites included new buildings, machinery, power, water, and steam, all offered at outstanding bargains. Several up-and-coming young industries were attracted to Nitro during this period, and besides breathing new life into the town, they brought with them key-management personnel. Not only did these people become important in industry, many of them eventually provided outstanding civic leadership in the new community. Professional people, craftsmen, and merchants were also attracted to Nitro by its promising opportunities.
By 1921, the future of the town was beginning to shape up and most of the wartime holdovers were calling it home. Many of the new residents were from out of state and had only recently broken the close family ties to which they had been accustomed. A great number of the young couples soon learned to depend on their friends and neighbors for fellowship, common interests, and help in time of need. They also formed a number of active clubs and civic organizations which contributed much to the growth and development of the town. They realized early that much more could be accomplished collectively than by individual effort.
This early community spirit and neighborly concern carried over and has become a very special part of West Virginia history, and the legacy still lives today.
Special thanks to the Nitro Historical Commission for providing much of the content for this page.