Town That Explosives Built Fizzling Out : Peace: Nitro, W.Va., population sinks to 6,800. Chemical plants are aging, closing.
It seemed over for Nitro when the fighting was over over there.
But Nitro, built almost overnight to supply gunpowder during World War I, exploded into a chemical manufacturing center. Now, 75 years later, the chemical factories are aging with Nitro’s population and some wonder whether Nitro’s future is a dud.
“It’d make you feel bad to know the town you were raised in is going to the dogs,” said Paul M. Willard, 80, whose father brought him to town during the first boom.
Some say Nitro’s 6,800 people should build on their history. Others want to look to the future.
Nitro was built by the Department of War in 1917 and 1918 to produce nitro-cellulose--cannon powder--and the name stuck to the flatlands on the navigable Kanawha River about 11 miles west of Charleston.
Railroads, used mostly to haul coal, also moved raw materials in and explosives out, an average of 104 cars a day in 1918.
The once-peaceful farmland teemed with thousands of workers, including Clark Gable, then an unglamorous ditch digger.
Crews quickly constructed an ordnance plant and erected hundreds of prefabricated brown bungalows, among the nation’s first.
Known as “Ready-Built Units,” the bungalows were copied from prototypes first built in Hopewell, Va., in 1915. Each house, shipped one to a boxcar, was placed atop foundations.
On May 7, 1918, a record 60 houses went up, according to author William D. Wintz.
Each house was furnished with grass rugs and wicker furniture, Wintz wrote.
The bureaucracy had no time for fancy names. The plant was named “Explosive Plant C” and the dirt streets were laid out in a grid and simply numbered consecutively, much like a Manhattan in the mountains.
Still, there was humor among the wartime transplants. For example, the soda fountain on 21st Street was named the “Powder Puff.”
According to the public library, Dr. A. A. Swanson, a member of the government’s ordnance team, was the first to suggest the name Nitro for the town. Since the place was known as Crawford City in 1917, townspeople were surprised when the U.S. Post Office was officially designated Nitro.
Swanson said one of the other team members suggested the name Redwop, which is powder spelled backward.
Residents still marvel at the war effort.
“They’d put up a street or two streets in a day,” Willard said. “You could go through here one day and the next day you’d come back and you wouldn’t know where you were at because there’d be so many new streets.”
“Nitro was built in 10 months,” said resident Jack Moody, 74. “We couldn’t do it again today if our life depended on it.”
But peace in Europe almost doomed Nitro.
“There was a time that the population of Nitro was approaching 100,000,” said Don Karnes, the current mayor. “Then World War I was over and everybody walked out. The population dropped to 2,000 or 3,000 in just a few days.”
Nitro fizzled, but it slowly returned through the decades as chemical factories opened nearby, including American Viscose Corp.'s rayon plant, Monsanto Chemical Co. and FMC Corp.
But the American Viscose plant, which employed about 1,500 workers in the 1940s, was sold in the 1970s and eventually closed. Others have cut back.
“The chemical industry is going through a downsizing, restructuring, cost-cutting mood,” said Tom McKean, Monsanto plant manager and a Putnam County development official. “What we have to do is find ways to substitute other employment.”
Population sagged from 8,074 in 1980 to 6,851 in 1990 and Nitro’s median age rose from 27.4 years in 1960 to 38.7 years in 1990.
And the smell doesn’t encourage newcomers.
A rank odor from the plants hung over Nitro for decades. The odor has weakened, but the reputation remains, Karnes said.
Most of the World War I bungalows still stand, but few home buyers seek them out, said Brenda Tyler, 46, a secretary at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church who has lived here for 24 years.
“Nitro has what I call an internal market,” said Charleston real estate agent Marlene Cruickshank. “People do not tend to locate in Nitro, but residents who live there tend to stay there.”
David Burch, 51, who works at a service station, tried to move to Charleston in 1965 when he got married, but the newlyweds came to Nitro two days later.
“This is just home, I guess,” he said. “Back when I was a kid, just about everyone worked for the plants, and the kids pretty much stayed.”
“I think it’s just a pleasant place to live,” said Dennis Knapp, 81, a federal judge and a Nitro resident for 53 years. “Your neighbors are really neighbors.”
Tyler is worried about her town, but she won’t move.
“The people are the friendliest kinds of people I’ve ever known,” she said. “If you walk down the street, everybody speaks to you.”
Tyler is among those who say Nitro should forget the past and spruce up its downtown.
“We can’t keep having a town that resembles society back in World War I,” she said. “You can preserve your history, but that doesn’t mean keeping the town looking as such.”
But, she said, “the people who live here like it as it was and want to keep it that way.”
Others are more optimistic.
Karnes, like many mayors, believes the 1990 census shortchanged his town and he thinks it is healthier than it seems. For example, he said, Nitro’s municipal budget has a surplus and it could spend $82,000 to convert an old school into a community center.
He is banking on Nitro’s history and its name.
A St. Louis manufacturer recently named a caffeine-packed soft drink after Nitro when he saw the name on an exit sign flash past on Interstate 64. Nitro, a soft drink with its own bang, is available in the Midwest.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sued several chemical companies last summer for $24 million in pollution cleanup costs at the former Artel Chemical plant.
Karnes thinks this, too, is a plus.
“People have heard of Nitro all over the world, especially due to Artel,” Karnes said. “If people have heard of it, there’s no reason you can’t try to turn that into a positive.
“It’s like the old saying, ‘As long as you spell the name right and put it in the paper, it doesn’t matter what it’s about,’ ” Karnes said. “People forget what it’s about. They just remember the name.”