The city of Nitro, born a boomtown during America’s mobilization for World War I, has a special link with the 100th anniversary of Veterans Day. It’s a history that the town is proud to tell in its World War I history museum.
Shortly after the United States entered World War I, the country faced a critical shortage in gunpowder production and could not produce enough powder to supply its troops in combat. Congress went into an emergency session and, on Oct. 6, 1917, passed the Deficiency Appropriations Act.
The legislation provided for the construction of three huge explosives plants, each capable of producing 500,000 pounds of gunpowder per day.
War Department engineers canvassed a 10-state area to find locations that were safe from coastal attacks and offered readily available rail and water transportation. The No. 1 location the engineers chose for the first plant was a wide section of bottomland along the Kanawha River, 14 miles west of Charleston. Three months after the passage of the legislation, a war-time construction project was launched.
“The town’s name was selected by the Ordnance Department,” said Mayor Dave Casebolt. “It was derived from the chemical term nitrocellulose, which identified the type of gunpowder that was to be produced.”
Ground was broken Dec. 23, 1917, at the site of the present Nitro city park for construction of the plant’s 27 200-bed barracks. Overnight, thousands of workers and trainloads of materials and supplies arrived. Government records show that more than 110,000 people were on the payroll during the 11 months it took to build the plant.
Workers came from every state and represented 41 different nationalities. Among those employed at the plant were soon-to-be actor Clark Gable and National Baseball Hall of Famer Harold “Pie” Traynor. In only 11 months, the workers transformed 1,772 acres of pastures and cornfields into a producing munitions plant.
When the war ended on Nov. 11, 1918, the manufacturing complex, officially known as Explosives Plant C, was capable of producing 350 tons of smokeless gunpowder per day. The town was 90 percent complete and housed 26,000 people. The community provided the latest design in housing and utilities, as well as a modern independent school system, full-time police and fire protection, a hospital and recreational facilities.
With the end of the war, the government declared the entire area surplus and turned plant operations over to the Ordnance Department on Jan. 15, 1919. The Charleston Industrial Corporation began a sales and promotional campaign to attract new industries and businesses. The practically unused industrial site included new buildings, machinery, power, water and steam at attractive low prices.
“Can you imagine the scene here 100 years ago, just one day before the signing of the armistice, with everything going on at the plant?” Casebolt said. “Then, the day after the signing, a city began to take shape.
“Manufactory industries arrived, breathing new life into the city,” Casebolt said. “Professional people, craftsmen and merchants were attracted to peacetime Nitro by its promising opportunities.
“The community spirit and neighborly attitudes of those early days are a special part of our heritage and our future,” he said. “Nitro has a welcoming downtown and a commitment to celebrating its past with events and a history museum that honor the men and women whose services has made and kept our country strong.”
The Nitro World War I History Museum, located downtown, offers visitors an exceptional look at the city’s unique heritage. Located in a former school building, the museum features a continually growing collection of artifacts and memorabilia from World War I and later military conflicts. The museum includes a replica of a World War I trench, military uniforms, original Explosive Plant C blueprints and more.