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DuPont -- Thumbnail History

HistoryLink.org Essay 5633 : Printer-Friendly Format

DuPont, located in southern Pierce County near Steilacoom, flourished as a company town from 1906 to 1976 with the singular purpose of producing dynamite. Because of the volatile nature of the town's product, safety became an important feature of every aspect of life, from the prohibition against drinking to maintaining grazing animals to control grass. The village is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the only former company town in the state with most of the houses remaining as they were. The village of Dupont, now known as the "old downtown" of the city, is today adjacent to Northwest Landing, a new housing development built on former dynamite production land and later annexed to DuPont.

Manufacturing Dynamite

The Eleuthere Irenee Du Pont de Nemours and Company bought out various land owners around Pierce County’s Sequalitchew Creek back in 1906. The land sits close to the Thurston County border. About 100 small, tar-paper houses sprung up around a former Hudson’s Bay Co. trading post between 1906 and 1909. The settlement formed for the purpose of building a powder plant and infrastructure to produce explosives on an industrial scale.

Dynamite production on the site started in 1909 in the DuPont Co. plant overlooking Puget Sound. The area next to the plant soon became a company town. The DuPont explosives company kept tight reins on its employees. Managers didn’t want their employees getting drunk in the nearby ruckus town of Steilacoom and returning to finish out their shifts to potentially explosive results. That meant everyone’s business was company business.

After the plant was built, the company set out to provide housing for the workers since the land sat well outside Tacoma, making commuting impractical. This neighborhood of wood-framed houses was about three blocks wide and six blocks long. Residents still call it the Village. The company town also had a church, a school, and a butcher shop. Everything was owned by the company. The current City Hall was once a hotel.

Although the town held only a few hundred people, sharp class lines divided the workers and their families from managers and their families. Department heads, managers, and "powder monkeys" kept mostly to themselves.

Birthday Cards and Company Turkeys

Workers rented their homes from the company until 1951. At that time the policy changed and they could buy their land and incorporate the town. The Village became less of a laborer’s neighborhood and more of a place for retired plant workers. One newspaper reporter at the time wrote, "This is not a young man's town. People come here and just don't want to leave." A city survey of about 50 houses in the late 1950s showed all had lived in their homes for at least 20 year. Fifteen of them had lived in them for close to 30 years.

Everyone in town was somehow connected to the plant even after incorporation. The company gave away turkeys at Thanksgiving. The plant manager actually signed birthday cards. The plant also held parties for retirees and for workers who didn't get hurt for a year.

Keeping Explosives From Exploding

The company was big on safety largely because even small accidents could lead to a new interpretation of the big-bang theory. The company motto plastered around the plant read, "When you know enough and are careful enough about safety, we shall have no accidents."

The longest injury-free period was five years, four months. Every aspect of life dealt with safety. No worker could wear any metal in the plant since sparks from even static electricity caused by watches scraping against jacket zippers could blow up the whole plant. No one even thought about smoking. The largely industrial plant also housed 70 deer and 55 head of cattle, which freely roamed the wooded buffer between the town and the plant since the animals controlled the wild grass and helped reduce the risk of fire.

The dynamite plant employed between a hundred and 400 workers during its 70 years of boom and bust employment records. The plant fired out more than a billion pounds of dynamite in the first 50 years alone. Explosives from the plant helped build the Grand Coulee Dam, the Cascade tunnel, the Alaska railroad, and the Panama Canal. The gelatin dynamite made at the company town cleared countless island airfields and outposts during World War II.

Northwest Landing

Production stopped in 1976. The 3,200-acre property was then sold to the Weyerhaeuser Co. The seed of what was to become Northwest Landing, a housing development built on dynamite production land adjacent to the village, was planted.

The planned community first erecting houses in the late 1990s and is set to sustain 12,000 jobs and 10,000 residents by the next decade. The town of 601 residents (in 1990) is no longer a village. But it’s still a boom town with one new house opening on the market every day.

Sources:
May G. Munjan, DuPont: the Story of a Company Town (Puyallup: The Valley Press, 1972).


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Moving nitroglycerin, DuPont, n.d.
Courtesy DuPont Museum Association


DuPont Hotel, DuPont, n.d.
Courtesy DuPont Museum Association


Newspaper carrier, DuPont, n.d.
Courtesy DuPont Museum Association


DuPont children at swimming hole, n.d.
Courtesy DuPont Museum Association


 
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