Wurtland Was Chosen As Locale
For Black Powder Plant In 1920s
King Powder Company In Greenup County Employed
200 Area Men But Brought Emotional Stress To Many Families
By Thomas W. Heaberlin - 2009
In 1919, WWI was over and there was a brief industrial boom. It was the beginning of the "Roaring 20s." King Powder Company of King's Mills, Ohio, built a black powder plant at Wurtland, Greenup County, Kentucky. It employed about 200 area men. Most people of Wurtland today do not remember the plant. Those who do remember seem willing to let its sad history stay in the past. For 37 years, King Powder's black powder plant at Wurtland chopped a large slice out of the emotional life of the town's people.
Wurtland was chosen for the plant by a man who knew perfectly what he was looking for. In 1919 George King, president of King Powder Company of King's Mills, Ohio, where King's Island amusement park is now located, was riding a C&O train from Cincinnati to visit his customers in the coal mines of West Virginia. As the train drew near Wurtland, George looked out the window of his coach and noticed a long, steep hill that paralleled the railroad for a mile, from Greenup to Wurtland.
The hill ended at the mouth of a deep hollow. The hollow was divided into three branches running back into the hills. The deep hollow opens onto US 23 at the west end of Wurtland. George noted that the three deep branches running back into the hills would be perfect to seclude the dangerous process buildings of a blasting powder plant.
Immediately, Mr. King decided this was the place to build the much-needed expansion of King Powder Company. This area had everything that was needed, including a large labor force of men from WWI who were out of work. The Ohio River, C&O Railroad, and US 23, all within a quarter-mile of the site, offered sufficient transportation. It would be 100 miles closer to their customers and the coalfields of West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky.
George King began to purchase acreage. Initially he purchased 500 acres from John Harris, owner of the McConnell farm, and W. T. and Arminta Justice. (See Jo Harris Brenner's informative book, Dear Mother.)
George King sent Louis M. Dunn and his sons, Virgil and Drexel, from King's Mills, Ohio, to supervise construction of the new plant. The construction began in 1919.
Excitement was high in area communities, but a cloud of deep concern began to gather over Wurtland. There had been many explosions at King's Mills, and in one of them 11 people were killed, including three children. In Thomas D. Schiffer's excellent book, Peters and King, Mike Venturnio stated, "In a powder town explosions are a way of life."
It is this way of life that Wurtland would soon experience. It is this way of life that I remember as a boy growing up in Wurtland.
In October 1922 construction of the new King's Black Powder Plant was completed. There were over 65 new buildings, including a community of small cottages for employees along US 23 a few hundred yards west of Wurtland. The community had a hotel, restaurant, general store, and a clubhouse. Most of the process buildings were strung out up the three branches of the deep hollow. These buildings were separated far enough apart to prevent an explosion at one building from spreading to another. The new powder manufacturing complex was named KICO (King Company).
The little community of KICO was a suburb of Wurtland. The people worked together, worshipped together, went to school together, and grieved together. One of the boys from KICO, Benny Settles, a son of Kelsey Settles, who was a supervisor at the plant, and I were friends. We traded lunches at school. He had bologna on "store-bought" bread, and I had country ham on a biscuit. Each of us thought he got the better of the deal.
Some of the families at KICP were strangers, brought in from the mother plant of King's Mills, Ohio. They blended into the local society. When I was 11 years old, I fell in love with one of those beautiful little alien girls at KICO. Shakespeare said, "True love is a rough path." It sure is. Another boy stole my sweetheart, so I gave up romancing for a while.
On October 12, 1922, the wheel mills of the KICO powder factory began to roll. A courageous group of men began to learn the tedious business of making black blasting powder.
The process began when a teamster and his horse pulled a tram track wagon up to the soda house. Four hundred and fifty pounds of sodium nitrate were loaded onto the wagon. Then they went to the charcoal house for 90 pounds of charcoal, then to the sulfur storage for 60 pounds of sulfur. This was the ratio for 600 pounds of black powder. The well-trained draft horse and driver's next stop was at the pulverizer, where 600 pounds of raw material were crushed. These elements were now ready for incorporation.
At the wheel mill the three chemicals were ground into one compound. The teamster and mill operator, with wooden shovels, shoveled the 600 pounds from the wagon into the 10-foot diameter pan. The pan bottom was heavy steel with two eight-ton powered iron rollers that rolled around in the pan. The teamster and horse would move to a safe place and the operator would enter a small concrete bunker called a "dog house." It was the size of an outside toilet. It had an eye-level slot in the thick concrete wall. The operator would watch through the slot and start the wheels of the grinder remotely. No one was allowed in the wheel mill while it was running.
The black powder was considered a low power explosive compared to nitroglycerin and ammonium powders, but it was ideal for blasting coal out of the slate and rock. It was a subsonic explosive. The other explosives were supersonic during explosion, but black powder was still a powerful explosive and needed only a spark to explode. It would strip the leaves and limbs off the trees on hillsides nearby and shatter window glass for miles around.
Making black powder was a business that allowed no unsafe practices. Infractions of strict safety rules could not be tolerated. If a person took matches onto the job, it was reason enough to be fired. That may seem too harsh, but it saved lives, and the company. Explosions had shut down some companies.
Ennis Griffith stated, "King Powder was not indifferent to the safety of its employees. The man who supervised construction of the plant, Superintendent Lewis M. Dunn, crawled into a dangerous, powder-loaded place to correct a problem that he would not allow his employees to do."
Every reasonable precaution was taken to prevent an explosion. The tools were of brass and wood, the horses wore brass shoes, men's shoes had no steel in them, and the wagons had brass wheels. There were concrete safety bunkers to get in for protection and large water tubs for men to jump into in case of fire.
Milton Lindsley, Jr., was over all of King Powder's operations. He stayed in King's Mills, Ohio, most of the time but would fly his small plane into Worthington, Kentucky, about three miles from Kico. He would buzz the office on his way in and Mr. McKee, office manager, would dispatch someone to pick him up. He expected the KICO plant employees to follow all the rules. He was a chemical engineer, smart, and his eyes were sharp. He knew the powder business and had himself invented a powerful explosive he named "detonite." It was Mr. Lindsley's ingenuity that kept King Power Company in business. They all respected him, but uneasiness rippled among the employees when "Old Milt" came to town. He could show up anywhere unannounced, but he was courteous and impartial. One day he visited the press where young Joe Quillen was working. He asked Joe if anyone had instructed him in the proper way to run the press. Joe said, "No." Mr. Lindsley proceeded to give him a lesson on how to safely run the machinery.
One of the horses saw an explosion and broke away from the wagon and fled. They found him next day on Route 1 out of Greenup, heading south. Some of the men would quit following an explosion.
Shortly after that, I hired in at the E. I. DuPont sulfuric acid plant just across the railroad tracks from KICO. Many of the local people thought that the acid plant and the powder mill were all one operation, but this was not true. DuPont had made black powder for 100 years elsewhere and the nitrates that King Powder used at KICO had a sulfuric acid base, but the sulfuric acid did not come directly from the Wurtland DuPont Plant. There was no connection, but in 1934 King's Mills was sold to Remington Arms, and E. I. DuPont owned Remington Arms. There were many misunderstandings about both plants. Some people thought that the powder was mined out of the hills. Some believed that the dangerous liquid, nitroglycerin, was used to make black powder. Some thought that dynamite was made at KICO, but one of King's biggest competitors made dynamite by absorbing the dangerous nitroglycerin in a wood pulp substance. This was Alfred Nobel. He made millions by manufacturing dynamite, and he established the Nobel Prize Foundation.
When the name "black powder" is mentioned, people automatically think of a gun, but there was no gunpowder made at the Wurtland KICO plant.
The first fatality at the Wurtland plant was a young man who transferred from the company plant at King's Mills, Ohio. He was an inexperienced teamster driving one of the well-trained draft horses. This horse knew what he was supposed to do. He knew where to go and when to go for a load of powder. He knew where to stop for switches that opened the spur tracks, and when placing a tram-track wagon, the horse would look back to see if the wagon was where it was supposed to be. (Information obtained from Acy Gibson). The horses also knew how many trips were in a day's work, and when overtime was required, the teamsters had a problem. The horses wanted to go to the barn. Sound familiar? Did you ever wonder where the term "horse sense" came from?
This young man had been on the job about 15 minutes. He and his horse and wagon were moving along the track with a load of powder. The horse knew where it was supposed to be delivered and stopped at a switch to give time for the teamster to throw open the switch to the proper spur. The new teamster didn't know why the horse stopped so he made the horse go on. The horse turned onto the spur where he was supposed to go and the switch being closed caused the wagon to jump off the track, causing the 600 pounds of powder to explode, killing the young man and the horse.
I grew up across a range of hills from the powder plant. When there was an explosion, I would watch for the black columns of smoke to appear over the hill. At the same time, I could hear the women and children in Wurtland screaming and praying. They were gripped with an awful dread, watching as they ran down the highway, searching until they could see the familiar figure of their loved one emerge.
Margaret Cochran, who lived in Wurtland, said they all lived in fear. Harlan Fritz was night watchman at the plant. Most explosions occurred in daytime while Harlan was at home. When an explosion happened, he would determine by the column of smoke which building was blown up, and he knew who would be working at the building and would say, "There goes Estil, or Jonah, or whoever it would be who he knew should be at that particular place.
Harlan had three brothers working at the plant: Bud, Bob, and Joe. When their father, Thomas Fritz, died, there were so many of Thomas' sons, nephews, and in-laws at the plant that it had to shut down the day of funeral.
One of Thomas Fritz's nephews, Freeman Hannah, was fatally burned in an explosion in 1926. When it happened, Henry Crum had just started home, and he ran to the site and found Freeman lying on the ground terribly burned and suffering great, agonizing pain. Freeman begged Henry to take one of his tools and put him out of his misery, but, of course, Henry could not do that. Freeman died shortly afterwards. Henry Crum would have quit that very day had he known what lay ahead for him.
John Nickell, Sr., was the caretaker of the barn and horses. This job was later done by a Mr. Lawson and Howard Nelson. Mr. Nickell had three sons who worked at the plant. His wife, Clara, also wrapped powder sticks during WWII.
In 1933 John and Clara's son, Naaman, was burned fatally in an explosion. He ran to one of the large water barrels. When he tried to jump into the barrel, he fell on the edge of it. By the time he recovered and got into the barrel of water, he was fatally burned. He died six hours later in the hospital. Shortly after his death, his only child, a son, was born.
John and Clara's second son, Coleman, was a truck driver. He would load a truck with blasting powder and with a box of primer caps on the seat beside him. He would drive into the mountains of Eastern Kentucky to make deliveries to the mines.
The third son of John and Clara, Henry, worked for a short time at the plant and then went into the Air Force.
On April 27, 1934, "The Russell Times," wrote: "Another explosion at the Wurtland King Powder plant, and again, another worker killed; Jonah Elswick.
Jonah Elswick, an uncle, was married to my aunt, Maxie Heaberlin Elswick. They had four sons and a daughter. Jonah had just started his shift at the pellet house when it exploded. George Coffee, Adam Hilton, James Welch, and Amos Johnson were in a building nearby. One of the men saw flaming material falling around their building, and they fled, but the building didn't burn. Jonah was 50 years old. They found his body under a hot sheet of steel. It was thought that a spark ignited the powder of the pellet mill, but it will never be known for sure, because an explosion usually destroys the evidence of the cause.
One young man began to run during an explosion. In confusion he ran into the flames. He had just put on clean coveralls that had been treated with a fire retardant material. That saved his life, but he was burned so badly that his body swelled terribly.
Henry Crum worked safely at the plant for 14 years. He had seen so many things happen there. He helped the injured and cleaned up the carnage. Then tragedy came to Henry. As he began his shift, he was talking to some men at the wash house where he changed into his work clothes. He had worked in the same clothing the day before, and they were saturated with powder. Three times he started to his place of work but tarried to talk to the men. Then he crossed the highway to the pulverizer. When he opened the door, the building exploded and his powder-filled clothing ignited like a torch.
Henry was taken to a hospital in Ironton, Ohio. His brother, General Crum, went to see him. General asked Henry if he was praying, and Henry said, "I'm hurting too bad." Henry lay uncovered for six hours and drank about six quarts of water. He later succumbed.
In the mid-1930s, Estil Lewis was burned to death. He had just hitched his horse to a wagonload of powder that was ready to leave the glazing mill. Estil was on the front of the wagon; the mill exploded and the horse lurched forward, causing Estil to fall back into his exploding wagon, and he was burned beyond recognition.
One young man was oiling a turning shaft at one of the glazing mills. He leaned over the shaft, and it caught his jacket, and pulled him in and wound him around the shaft. It broke him up and beat him to death. If my memory is correct, it was Cecil Sturgill.
There were several injured. Acy Gibson, Sr.'s, coveralls caught fire, but he was able to get out of them, except that a tight wrist cuff hung up on his hand long enough for him to receive some painful burns, though they were not serious.
Despite the danger every moment, there were still times when these men would play good-natured pranks on each other. One man brought eggs in and sold them to the others. One of the men slipped an egg out of a bag, hoping to stir up a controversy over a short dozen of eggs. He hid the egg on a shelf. Days went by and the incident was forgotten, until one morning a loud "chirp! chirp!" came from the shelf. A new baby chick was demanding his breakfast. The culprit confessed.
Garnet Stafford was the sixth grade teacher at Wurtland Elementary in 1948 when there was an explosion at the plant. Her class was in an upstairs room. The shattered glass of the windows scattered over the room. Some of the children thought it was the end of the world, but Patty Coffee knew instantly what it was. Her dad, George Coffee, worked at the plant. In an instant, Patty was out the door, down the stairs, and on the highway toward Kico. George was not injured. The school building was damaged so badly that the school year was finished out in the Wurtland Methodist Church. The school building was repaired and ready for the following year.
Then in 1950 another explosion damaged the school building so badly it could not be repaired. Acy Gibson, Jr., was in the second grade in the 1950 explosion. The children all ran outside. Acy saw a piece of glass sticking in Helena Hicks' head. Helena's little sister Polly was a first grader. She ran across the highway into Wurts Chinn's General Store. Mrs. Chinn walked the frightened little girl back across the highway to where the other children were gathered. For the next seven years, elementary school was taught near the high school building in a WPA cannery and two dwellings, the Woodridge Spears house and the Eskew house.
Eventually, black powder was banned from the mines. Being a low-power explosive, the flame was slow, but not so slow that the mind could calculate the length of time before the explosion, for it was still an indeterminable fraction of a second.
Sometimes the methane gas in the mine would get to the flame, causing a secondary explosion of methane and coal dust. The original blast of black powder and the methane and the coal dust ignition was such an instant reaction that it was all one mighty explosion, often killing miners.
My father, Jasper Heaberlin, was in an explosion at Matewan, West Virginia. He was not seriously hurt, but another man had both eyes blown out and coal dust was imbedded in the skin of his face.
Milt Lindsley, who had earlier invented a new white powder called detonite, which was acceptable in the mines, decided to build a production line for detonite at KICO parallel to the black powder line. It kept the Wurtland KICO plant competitive. The detonite was made of ammonia and nitric acid, wood pulp, sulfur, and sugar. I had never considered common table sugar as an element of an explosive.
By 1959 there was new powder on the market. It was made from ammonium nitrate and fuel oil. It was so cheap to produce that King Powder could not compete.
About this time, George King died and Milton Lindsley, Jr., retired. They shut down immediately and went out of business. Carved in a tree overlooking the wheel mills are these words, "Wheels installed Oct. 12, 1922; wheels stopped June 1959."
There are only a very few of the courageous men who worked at the plant now living. These are an elite brotherhood of survivors, proud of their accomplishments. The cloud that hung over the town of Wurtland for 37 years quickly disappeared, leaving no evidence that it ever existed, except in the minds of the older people.
A few days ago, I visited the site of the old KICO plant. I walked into the deep hollow and looked up the three branches of the hollow. They were once filled with process buildings where men worked, where explosions occurred and where men suffered and died. All that I could see was undergrowth; blackberry vines, sumac, and trees so large one could hardly reach around them. It probably looked the same 90 years ago when George King first laid eyes on it. It was a beautiful fall day. The trees were in full color, swaying gently in the breeze. They stood quiet and firm, as though they were guarding a secret. It seemed that they were whispering, "All the pain, the hurt, and the grief has been forgiven, and Mother Nature has come to cover the wounds." The little community of KICO, the hotel, the clubhouse, and all the cottages had totally disappeared, replaced by locust and silver maple. Even my little KICO gal was gone from earth.
I wanted so much to see some object that would give evidence that a massive powder manufacturing plant had once filled these hollows, and tram tracks with horses and wagons traversed every foot of it.
I turned to leave and something in the undergrowth caught my eye. There, almost hidden in the bushes, was a little "dog house," the concrete safety bunker; a stark reminder of the danger that once lurked there. It was at the foot of the hill, near where the press had been located. The long narrow observation slot in the little bunker was visible. It looked like a slightly open mouth with tight, grim lips. It was speaking to me. "Yes, we were here, a long time ago." And so it is history and we are happy to leave it there.
Thomas W. Heaberlin, 503 Virginia Street Wurtland, KY 41144; 606-836-5781, shares this article with our readers.
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