Nemours, West Virginia

( 1904 )

This southern West Virginia community has a story to tell. From 1904 to 1950 workers of the E.I. DuPont Nemours Company facility in Mercer County produced untold tons of black powder explosives. The plant was situated in the very shadow of the massive sandstone outcropping, known as Pinnacle Rock. Nemours is located on the banks of the Bluestone River, just a few miles from the town of Bramwell. With the exception of a few out-buildings, the wheel mills are the only remnants of the once massive complex. This town is a feature article in the "Wonderful" West Virginia magazine for the month of May 1999.

Following article written By: Bill Archer, a graduate of West Virginia University, is a desk editor for "Bluefield Daily Telegraph." He has earned various writing and community services awards.

Nemours: Explosive Past Picture This: A National Geographic Photographer Finds Magic in the Mountains Bookshelf Photo Gallery Coming Attractions Send Comments Subscribe Online Shopping Nemours: Explosive Past By Bill Archer Black and white photographs courtesy of Bertha Riley Each southern West Virginia community has a story to tell, and every one of those stories is interesting in its own right. Starting in the last two decades of the 19th Century, and continuing until just before the start of World War II, coal operators literally had to bring civilization to the site of the coal reserves they were mining. Coal camp towns complete with company stores, theaters, churches and even bowling alleys sprang up everywhere. For the most part, there were many similarities among those early southern West Virginia industrial camp towns. Camps were racially and ethnically divided with homes of foreign-born workers and their families in one section, homes for African-American workers and their families in another, and club houses for single workers.

Company stores supplied the needs of the workers, and privately-owned saloons were plentiful. But in the great Pocahontas Smokeless coalfield, there was at least one camp town that broke the mold. From its establishment in 1904 through the first five decades of the 20th Century, the unincorporated community of Nemours never had more than 1,000 souls living there. There were no bars, no liquor stores and the 200-250 workers at the plant weren't even allowed to carry matches with them. From 1904 until about 1950, workers of the E.I. DuPont de Nemours Co. facility in Mercer County produced untold tons of black powder explosives, the key ingredient needed to wrest coal from the bowels of the earth. Black powder also played a major role in railroad, canal and highway construction nationwide. At any given moment, several thousand kegs of explosives were ready to blow. Nemours (pronounced "Knee-Mores") is located on the banks of the Bluestone River, about four miles from the Bluewell community. The plant is situated in the very shadow of the massive sandstone outcropping, Pinnacle Rock. While operations at the black powder plant ceased some 50 years ago, the homes that housed the workers of this remote, sheltered valley community are still neat and trim, almost giving mute testimony to the meticulous and careful people who once lived there. "You weren't allowed to smoke, and they provided you with uniforms that had brass buttons on them," Nemours resident Robert Myers said. "The shoes they had you wear had brass tacks in them. You couldn't carry any metal on you, nothing that would cause a spark." The powder mill worked three shifts every day from the time it was built until black powder was outlawed in coal mining a couple years after the end of World War II. The formula was essentially the same as the gun powder formula the Chinese shared with Marco Polo in the 13th Century. Dupont started making explosives in the U.S. in 1802. Myers, 72, could easily rattle off the ingredients: charcoal, nitrate, sodium, sulfur and wood pulp. "Different grades required different proportions," Myers said. "But the same ingredients went into making pellet powder or grain powder." The mill itself worked like the slow-moving, inner-workings of a clock. Rubber-boot shod mules pulled wagons on rails throughout the plant, stopping from point to point. Workers loaded or unloaded ingredients, most of which arrived by rail on a spur line that emerged from a narrow hollow from the (then) Norfolk & Western mainline. "I had one job as a pellet picker," Myers said. "There was a machine that pressed the pellets, then the pellet pickers got them off and took them to the dry house. From there, the pellets went to a wrapping machine, then on to packers and on up to the magazines. Those magazines were on the opposite side of the hollow from the wheel mills." With the exception of a few outbuildings, the wheel mills are the only remnants of the once-massive complex. At some 40-feet tall and 35-feet in diameter, formed from hand-cut blue sandstone rocks native to Mercer County, some weighing as much as five tons, the wheel mills are among some of the most interesting manmade structures of the coalfields. "The bins next to the wheel mills were made of wood," Myers said. "The mixer inside went around like a plow–it turned the powder over and over." An external electric motor powered the mixer. All the electrical wiring and switches were outside the giant mortar. "There weren't any electric lights in any of the buildings," Myers said. "The lights were on poles outside the buildings. They shone in through windows." While safety was tantamount to the operation, there were disasters at the plant.

An explosion at 3:20 a.m., April 12, 1916, killed one man at the plant, and hurled a 150-pound stone about a mile and one-half from the plant, killing two sleeping teenagers. The series of four blasts "lit up the sky" and shattered plate glass storefronts in Bluefield 10 miles away, was felt 30 miles away in Tazewell and emitted a cloud as black as India ink. DuPont estimated the losses at $100,000, and had to rebuild the plant from the ground up. Another explosion in July of 1947, claimed another three lives and may have hastened the plant's closing, according to some of the people who lived there. Bertha Riley heard the last explosion at the plant. Her husband, the late Bruce Riley, was among the clean-up crew. The grim task of recovering the remains of his deceased co-workers caused Mr. Riley to miss several weeks of work. Nemours was a close-knit community. Most of the workers were recruited from Mercer County. Families tended to be large and children attended a one-room school through the eighth grade. Upon graduating, most went on to Bluefield to finish their schooling. Although the plant was small, Nemours fielded a baseball team that competed in the old Coal Field League. The Nemours Ruritan Club keeps the close-knit spirit alive through its annual Nemours Ruritan Fall Festival, held on the first Saturday of each October. Although the people don't make black powder any more, the apple butter is dynamite!!!