By Thomas Wright Cultural Resources Officer
The Naval Powder Factory Historic District located on Naval Support Facility (NSF) Indian Head was found eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places in 1996. The district was found to be eligible under Criterion A for its historical association between 1900 and 1945 as "the first major chemical powder factory operated by the Navy and an important supplier of smokeless powder in World War I and World War II."
It is also eligible under Criterion C for "embodying distinctive characteristics of a type, period or method of construction, for its industrial edifices that were designed to house machinery and processes." The earliest buildings were ornate; later buildings display "advances in building technology and the more functional aesthetic of the modern era."
The Naval Powder Factory Historic District is located in the restricted area of NSF Indian Head and is roughly bounded by Bronson, Benson and Farnum Roads. The district encompasses approximately 370 acres and is comprised of 206 buildings. The first buildings of the powder factory were situated with respect to topography. Buildings are disbursed throughout the hilly terrain and were connected first by railroad tracks and later by paved and gravel roads.
The single base line, the first manufacturing corridor, was an S-shaped valley that drained into Mattawoman Creek. The few buildings remaining from the original smokeless powder factory are the most ornate, with Romanesque and Classical details. Most of the remaining buildings have little to no detailing and were designed and built with the specific purpose of efficiently housing manufacturing equipment using brick, metal and concrete materials.
Other character-defining features include safety features, such as copper flashing for grounding, lightning rods, escape chutes, spark-proof floors and shatter-proof light fixtures. Spatially, buildings (specifically dry houses) were designed with blast arcs to decrease the chance of sympathetic explosions.
Lt. Joseph Strauss, the namesake for Strauss Ave. on board NSF Indian Head, was in charge of the building of the Powder Factory. Having the Navy produce the powder was a means of last resort after DuPont, Laflin, Rand and California Powder declined to venture into the new process fearing lost revenue.
Dr. George Patterson and the original equipment that developed "smokeless powder" was shipped from the Naval Torpedo Station at Newport, Rhode Island and arrived at Indian Head in 1900. The original laboratory, Bldg. 101, housed much of the work that perfected smokeless powder. The installation's original power plant (Bldg. 111) was constructed in 1900 to provide both power and steam.
Early Energetics Research
In 1910, the Naval Powder Factory (NPF) established a process that introduced the use of the surveillance test that heated material to 150 degrees Fahrenheit for indicating the probable life of powder. Old powder was also sent to the NPF from ships and other locations for reworking and was significant in extending the life of the powder and reducing costs. Reworking up to 1 million pounds of powder in a year was not uncommon.
From its early operation, the Naval Powder Factory was a leader in research and development for the U.S. Navy. Sulfuric acid, a necessary component in the manufacturing of smokeless powder, was produced at the NPF using brimstone in place of pyrites. Dr. George Patterson conducted the first American work on flashless powders by using potassium nitrite and potassium sulfate. This achievement was significant in the night battles of World War II. Throughout World War II, NPF had a three-fold responsibility: manufacturing smokeless and flashless powder, rocket grains, and ammonium picrate, tetryl and lead azide, and examination and analysis of foreign ammunition.
There were three expansion phases for the Naval Powder Factory occurring in 1910, 1918 and 1942 in association with World War I and World War II. With each expansion came additional dry houses, solvent recovery, ether production, nitric and sulfuric acid production, and chemical storage, processing and testing. With the 1910 expansion, the implementation of explosive arcs was established. This pattern can be seen today in the existing layout of the dry houses. This was utilized to prevent sympatric explosions.
With the installation being self reliant on materials necessary for the production of smokeless powder, any disruption due to fire or explosion could have significant impact to the mission. Small fires were often experienced in the mixing house, press house, cotton dry house and dehydrating house, but resulted in no material loss or delay. On Nov. 19, 1917, a fire destroyed the solvent recovery house and all of the material and equipment which caused a delay in the production of powder.
This single incident resulted in the loss of over one-half of the solvent recovery capacity of the plant and similar production capabilities for the next 10 months.
On Dec. 10, 1920, the powder factory experienced its first major explosion. It resulted when two workers were shoveling powder from an underground pit at Dry house No. 15. As a result, an explosion occurred killing the two workers and injuring several others. The lesson learned was that safety was compromised in the effort to "not make the customer wait."
Demands of War Bring Expansion
World War I had varying effects on the installation. Due to the limited area available for gun proofing, it was determined that additional area was needed to accommodate some of the proofing activities, specifically fuses. Areas at Stump Neck were evaluated but no suitable location was found. It was then determined that the adjacent 350-acre Fritz Reuter farm be purchased in 1918. This location was used for testing 5-inch 51-caliber, 4-inch 49-caliber and 3-inch 50-caliber guns. The remaining portion of Cornwallis Neck was also purchased at this time bringing the size of the installation 2,020 acres, which included Stump Neck.
In October 1917, Indian Head was ordered to expand its production capabilities. This requirement would double the output of the Naval Powder factory. However, in November 1917, at the height of the war, the order was increased to quadruple the output. In 1913, the NPF was producing 1.8 million pounds of powder. By 1918, the installation was producing over 9 million pounds of powder.
After the Armistice ended the conflict, the need for powder dropped significantly and production operated at a "fractional capacity." Construction contracts for expansion of the Powder Factory were cancelled and the work was slowly completed by installation labor.
It was slow work with significant delays in procuring construction material. Other delays faced by the installation included some significant components to the production of powder such as the power plant expansion; utility buildings that supported water, electrical and sewage systems; and piping and electrical systems for the accumulator and press houses. Boilers were delayed due to the foundations not being completed which affected the super heaters in the existing power plant.
Overall, the mission at the Naval Powder Factory was being compromised by the continued work at the Proving Ground at Indian Head, whose activities would not be completely transferred to Dahlgren, Va. until 1921. In 1919, the Navy reduced personnel at Indian Head while maintaining the same level of work. This led to a situation in which "conflicts with proof work continually interfere with the satisfactory performance" of the Powder Factory.
One area that did see significant improvement during this period was roads. Roads and paths were either newly constructed or improved, and electric street lighting was installed along the installation's main roads. Additionally, housing needs were finally met, 30 years after Ensign Robert Dashiell identified the significant shortage in 1890.
Many projects were delayed due to the lack of sufficient labor and transportation facilities. It was stated that "adequate transportation facilities would have increased twofold the rate of progress in the expansion of the powder factory and would have helped ... obtaining sufficient labor for the contractors to carry on the work."
Obtaining outside rail transportation to the Naval Powder Factory was the key to its future success. Although there was an efficient internal railroad system, connecting the installation to a main railroad line 14.5 miles away was necessary. In 1919, construction on the White Plains railroad spur began. This eventually supported the transportation of materials, powder and personnel from Washington, D.C. to the Powder Factory and allowed the dedicated use of the Potomac River barge system and the new upper dock for mission needs.
Key to Allied Victory
The Powder Factory had a significant role in the Allied victory in World War II. In 1938, with the threat of war looming, the Navy began increasing the amount of production through the expansion of the Powder line, Nitric Acid Plant, Sulphuric Acid Plant, and the Chemical Laboratory. The Navy constructed a new plant for the production of rocket propellant grains, and the first ballistite was extruded in July 1943. In order to test these grains, a Ballistic Laboratory and Test Firing Facility were also constructed. The war became more of a reality when the Explosive D plant was built as well as the installation of an anti-aircraft battery, and roaming armed Marine patrols were instituted.
Gen. Dwight Eisenhower was asked what were the five most important items that contributed to the U.S. victory over the Axis Powers. One of his answers was the Bazooka, developed by the National Defense Research Council at the Naval Powder Factory. The Bazookas were used extensively in the defense from heavily armored German tanks as well as against Japan during the "island hopping" campaign. During this time, the role of Indian Head had begun to migrate from production to research and development.
The Powder Factory continued to play a role in the Korean War and Vietnam conflict, as well as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The advancements in energetics developed at NSF Indian Head continue to support the warfighter in today's and future conflicts.