The Powder Plant
photo courtesy William Burke
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Dear Vance: What’s the story behind the two giant smokestacks standing in the woods southwest of Millington? I’ve been told they’re the remains of a long-abandoned U.S. Army gunpowder factory, but don’t know if that’s true. — r.b., memphis
Dear R.B.: Many years ago, I wrote about the Chickasaw Ordnance Works, the official name of the complex you’ve discovered, but I don’t mind doing it again, for two reasons. First of all, it’s a nice tie-in with Veterans Day, which takes place this month. And second, a fellow named William Burke has turned up dozens of never-seen-before photographs of the place while it was under construction, like the one you see here.
My pal Ed Frank, curator of Special Collections at the University of Memphis Libraries, is an authority on the old “powder plant,” as most everyone around here called it, and contributed a chapter on the place to the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture. Much of what I’m about to tell you is a blend of Ed’s research and mine — a combination of brainpower that, if hooked up to electric generators, could light most of the homes in Itta Bena, Mississippi.
But I digress. The powder plant was originally conceived in 1940, by an organization called the Anglo-French Purchasing Board. They formed the Tennessee Powder Company to produce munitions — especially a new kind of smokeless gunpowder — for the British forces in World War II. A change of hands took place in 1941, when the U.S. entered the war. As a result, the mighty industrial empire of E.I. DuPont de Nemours took over the plant and operated it for the U.S. Army.
It was an awesome complex — sprawling over 6,000 acres a few miles west of present-day Highway 51. Not many people know — or remember — the strategic role our community played during World War II. In addition to the naval station and air base at Millington, the 2nd U.S. Army was headquartered at the Mid-South Fairgrounds. The Defense Depot, one of the largest military distribution centers in America, opened in South Memphis. Kennedy General Hospital opened at Park and Shotwell, the latter street name quickly changed to Getwell — a more appropriate address for a facility treating those wounded in battle overseas.
But none of these facilities were as dangerous as the Chickasaw Ordnance Works, which produced raw TNT and gunpowder packed into high-explosive “cakes” called guncotton. In fact, some of Burke’s photos show rows of railroad tank cars marked “TNT.” Anyone with a nervous disposition probably didn’t want to see that rolling through town. Although wartime censors restricted most of the details, I turned up a few newspaper articles explaining that guncotton was “a waxlike cake that will explode when detonated in a gun barrel, but a match can be touched to it and it will burn more slowly than celluloid.”
I assume that none of the plant’s 8,000 employees tried that while they were at work. In fact, I understand that employees would have been fired for carrying matches, lighters, and even ballpoint pens, since a simple click of that pen might create a deadly spark. Ed Frank reports that during its years of operation, the Chickasaw Ordnance Works never had a serious accident, and earned the coveted “E” pennant from the U.S. Army for its near-perfect production efforts.
Despite all the Army’s safety measures, some things were just beyond their control. On the morning of April 8, 1944, a B-24 Liberator bomber took off from Millington, carrying a crew of 10 bound for Florida. The plane developed engine trouble as it flew over the powder plant, and exploded and crashed in a field just west of it. One member of the crew parachuted to safety and was rushed to Kennedy Hospital, but the other men on board perished. Later, everyone shuddered to think what might have happened if that plane had gone down in the middle of thousands of barrels of TNT. (By the way, the son of one of those B-24 crewmen has a website that’s a tribute to the men who lost their lives in that crash (www.boston.quikus.com/kurtdold).
Those smokestacks you noticed, R.B., belched smoke from the plant’s massive electrical generating power plant. Before censors put a stop to all press coverage, a Press-Scimitar article noted that the Chickasaw Ordnance Works included more than 100 buildings, including chemical laboratories, mixing plants, storage magazines, overflow tanks, a medical department “comparable in size to the hospital of a medium-sized city,” a railroad terminal, a fire department, and even a cafeteria operated by Pig ’n’ Whistle. Eight artesian wells drew 22 million gallons of water a day — more than was used by the entire city of Memphis.
When the war ended, nobody could decide what to do with the plant — most of the buildings were temporary structures anyway, built of wood or corrugated-metal siding — so it was dismantled in 1946, and the remaining structures fell into ruin. For years and years, I had located only a few photos of the Chickasaw Ordnance Works. But then William Burke contacted me. Employed at DuPont as the fire chief of the company’s present plant just north of Memphis, he had long been interested in the history of this place and even traveled to Wilmington, Delaware, to dig through the company archives. That’s where he turned up dozens of previously top-secret photos that showed the plant being erected. Burke’s photos reveal a sprawling complex of buildings, shacks, sheds, railroad lines, parking lots, smokestacks, water towers, and all sorts of structures — odd-looking things like “poacher tub houses” and “save-all tanks.” One thing that stands out in the somewhat grainy photos is how muddy and cluttery everything looks; there’s not a sidewalk in the whole place, but maybe such niceties came later; there was a war on, after all.
I’m sorry that I have space for only one of Burke’s photos here. For others, go to my blog: www.memphismagazine.com/Blogs/Ask-Vance.
Those smokestacks have stood guard over Shake Rag Road for more than 70 years, and if you know just where to look, you can still find building foundations, chemical basins, and other remains in the woods. But don’t wander around there. Not only is this private property, but it was a chemical plant, after all, and there’s no telling how much bad stuff leached into the soil. What’s more, some of these structures were built below ground, and it’s easy to drop into open manholes that lead into these underground chambers, many now filled with water, while you’re stumbling around in the woods. In other words, keep away. It’s no place for a picnic.