Sublime Explosive Pastoral
IN A PICTURESQUE VALLEY NEAR Wilmington, Delaware, the romantic ruins of what was once America’s largest powderworks has been preserved and maintained by the Hagley Museum, promoting the legacy of the Duponts, whose company began here. Part park, part memorial, part living history museum, the stone buildings and ruins of the 19th century powderworks seem too old world to have been in this country. The powderworks are a conflicted place, a calm, bucolic European village where worker’s flesh once dripped from the trees, following the frequent accidental explosions. These dark Eleutherian Mills are one of the most remarkable and moving corporate mythscapes in the nation, and their story is an important key for understanding the American paradox.
America was built with explosives. In the 18th and 19th centuries, gunpowder propelled the bullets that settled settler’s disputes with the Indians, the British, the Mexicans, and, finally, amongst ourselves, and bullets provided food in the form of meat. Explosives cut the paths for the railways and canals, made the production of cement possible, and allowed mining and the collection of the minerals that form products to reach an industrial scale of production.
Though a few domestic powder plants existed in 18th century America, most of it was imported. The French, sharing a dislike for the British, and holding a claim on much of the North American continent, furnished 90% of the powder that enabled America to gain independence in the Revolution. After Pierre Dupont arrived in America with his family auspiciously on New Years Day, 1800, fleeing growing instabilities in France, the search for a business to support the family eventually settled on explosives.
Pierre’s son, Eleuthere Irenee Dupont, had studied powdermaking as a young man in France, and was impressed at the lack of quality domestic powder in the young American nation. Urged on by Thomas Jefferson, whom the family knew from Jefferson’s tenure as ambassador to France, and who understood the importance of domestic powder production to the country’s independence from both the British and the French, Eleuthere Irenee established the E.I. du Pont de Namours Company in 1802, and began construction of the powderworks on the Brandywine Creek.
With the first contract coming from Jefferson’s government, the Eleutherian Mills, as they were later called, opened in 1804, and by the War of 1812 it was the largest powderworks in the nation, a position it would hold for several decades. But not without financial difficulties and personal tragedies. The first major explosion, in 1818, was said to have been felt 40 miles away. It killed 34 workers, and inflicted serious injury on Irenee’s wife. In 1857, a series of fires and blasts accidentally triggered by Alexis Dupont, killed him and six others. During 117 years of operation, the Eleutherian Mills exploded hundreds of times, and over 200 workers were euphemistically sent “across the creek.” After each explosion, the damaged parts of the plant were rebuilt, and production resumed.
A succession of Dupont men ran the company for the first 100 years, and members of the family lived and worked on the Brandywine. It was a family business, an insular microculture combining personal and family dynamics with gunpowder production. The Duponts lived and died on this ground. In 1834, the plant produced a million pounds of powder for the first time. In the Civil War it was protected by Union troops, and was the largest supplier of powder for their cause.
In 1867, Alfred Nobel patented Dynamite, a stable form of formerly unstable nitroglycerine. The improvements this brought with it changed not just the explosives industry, but industries of all kinds. Gunpowder, or “black powder,” which is what was made at Eleutherian Mills, is the combustible combination of carbon (charcoal) and potassium nitrate (saltpeter -often imported from other counties, but also available in forms like bat guano). Though the mixture is catalyzed with sulphur, it only burns when ignited. In order to detonate, it had to be contained. This works fine for cannons and guns, but for tearing up the earth, it has its limitations.
Dynamite detonates. Immediately following its introduction into the US, transportation projects accelerated, mining projects multiplied their output, and new materials, previously inextractable, became available, creating new industries and products. Lammot Dupont, grandson of the company’s founder Irenee, led the company into Dynamite production, building a new plant for it in Repauno, New Jersey. In 1884, an explosion at the plant killed Lammot and five others. The plant remains.
In 1902, with the death of Eugene Dupont, 100 years of dynastic family control ended, and the family partners put the company up for sale. Though it was bought by a new group of Duponts, the company began a drastic transformation, and was reorganized into a more modern, diversified company. Research facilities were established to investigate new product lines, including the Experimental Station, which was built on the opposite bank of the Brandywine, above the mills, and remains active to this day. Dupont continued its acquisitions of competing explosives companies, begun in the late 1800’s, and continued its reign as largest of them all. But Dupont’s explosives monopoly was one of the major American industrial trusts attacked by Roosevelt, and in 1907, Dupont’s explosives businesses were separated into the Atlas and Hercules Powder Companies.
As the 20th century progressed, industrialization changed, and with it—and often by it—the Dupont company. The increasingly antiquated Eleutherian Mills, still producing black powder, finally became obsolete, and closed in 1921.
The company’s diversification and research continued, largely based on compounds and materials related to those that make up explosives, like nitrocellulose and cotton. Synthetic plastics began to replace more organic plastic material, and Dupont experimented with coatings, paints, shellacs, and plastics mixed with fabrics. Further delving into organic chemistry and petrochemicals, eventually the company invented and marketed successful products like nylon, teflon, rayon, darcon, cellophane, and mylar. In WW2, Dupont built dozens of major munitions and explosives plants for the federal government, including, for the Manhattan Project, the world’s first plutonium plant at Hanford, Washington.
By 1971, black powder was a very minor product in the world, used mostly by historical reenactments, and Dupont stopped making it altogether. The company was fully engrossed in pursuing, as their motto of the time proclaimed, “Better things for better living—through chemistry.” Part of the feeling exuded by the restored ruins of the Eleutherian Mills is a nostalgia for simpler times, when America was young and idealistic, when families, not corporate boards, ran businesses, and when explosions, while dramatic and tragic, were also kind of quaint—we hadn’t yet figured out how to really blow stuff up. ♦