CHILDERSBURG, Ala. (WIAT) — The city of Childersburg has its share of history, going back to when Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto visited the area and its caves back in 1540.
However, a lesser-known fact is how it was once home to one of the largest Army munition plants in the country, which put Childersburg on the map.
“Without the Childersburg powder plant, the U.S. and its allies could not have won World War II,” said Vern Scott, an author and former columnist for the Talladega Daily Home.
Before the plant was built, approximately 515 people lived in Childersburg. Upon opening in 1941, the 13,000-acre plant would employ over 20,000 people and bring many economic opportunities to the town.
‘The Powder Keg’
When Alabama Ordnance Works arrived, the peaceful farm community that was once Childersburg became an industrial city overnight. The DuPont company was tasked with managing the plant.
The site was chosen for its readily available water supplies in the Coosa River. Additionally, according to a report by the Birmingham News on August 19, 1945, the site was chosen because it had soft soil, so that if an explosion were to occur, the soil would serve as a buffer.
When the nearly $100 million facility was being constructed, over 100 houses and barns had to be torn down to make room for it. Numerous cemeteries had to be moved, including a prominent Native American burial ground located in the land that the plant sat on.
Donald G. Macdonald, a former manager with DuPont at the time, asked what should be done with the remains. Under normal circumstances, the plant would have shut down and the remains would have been collected by the government, but in wartime, other matters took priority.
Macdonald also remembered an occasion when a hard rain poured overnight at his home in the Pine Crest community.
“We looked out the next morning and skulls and bones were all over our yard,” Macdonald wrote in “Pearl of Great Price,” a recollection of his experience at the plant. “The top soil had been taken from Indian burial mounds by the Coosa River. We went down to see it. It had been cut in half and there was an Indian in a crouched position in the side of the cut.”
When construction first started, those involved thought the plant would not be ready for at least 14 months. But with many workers and people coming to the area, construction progressed so rapidly that the plant was able to begin in nine months, with some operations starting in late 1941.
With news of the powder plant coming to Childersburg, people began flocking to the town, raising property values significantly.
According to Scott, there was a story about a man who had just bought a plot of land for $700 with plans to farm it. After it was announced the plant would be built in town, he was approached by two men from up North about selling the land. The man didn’t want to sell, so he told them a number he considered so outrageous, they’d walk away: $7,000.
“I’ll pay $3,000 now and I’ll have the rest on Thursday,” one of the men told him.
Three days later, he brought the remaining $4,000.
The smell of fresh cut pines and the knocking of hammers filled the dry air alongside the Coosa River. Bunk houses were quickly built with unpainted wood for incoming workers. Housing communities were also quickly put up. Residents even rented out space in their own homes.
As scarce housing became an issue, some workers made the decision to commute from the neighboring towns of Sylacauga, Talladega, and even Birmingham. In a story published by The Daily Home in 2003, reporter Rob Strickland said the Birmingham Highway became known as the “Suicide Strip” due to the high number of traffic accidents.
Strickland said farmers would keep an eye on the roadways to make a buck by pulling cars out of ditches with their tractors.
With not much to do, some saw an opportunity to bring entertainment to Childersburg, such as the opening of the Coosa Theater in 1942. Strickland wrote that Sylacauga residents would often ride their bicycles to Childersburg just to watch a film at the “nicest movie house in the county.”
Traveling games also came to town, such as shooting galleries, where players could buy shots to try and win cash prizes.
Illegal entertainment also sprang up. Gambling houses and beer joints opened their doors to powder plant workers. Strickland said that poker houses would operate within DeSoto Caverns and a floating casino made its home on a riverboat in the Coosa River.
While the boom brought many economic opportunities, some residents were not as pleased with the new powder plant. Many were concerned with what would happen if a major explosion were to occur. A newspaper article written by The Birmingham News following the plant’s closure after World War II had this to say:
“Persons living within a few miles of Childersburg who, at one time or another, during the war, wondered what would happen in case of a major explosion at the ‘Childersburg Powder Keg,’ may rest at ease now. At no time during the time the Childersburg plant was in operation, almost five years, was there any evidence of sabotage.”
During the plant’s run, three employees were killed in an explosion while two others died in separate accidents.
‘They set records out there’
The plant produced three times the amount of TNT that the War Department anticipated, making as much as $1 million worth of material per month. The plant also produced 15 million pounds of powder monthly, 30% of which went to rifle and machine gun ammunition for Russia.
The igloos that housed TNT were camouflaged with foliage on top in the off chance that Japan or Germany were to ever raid and bomb the United States.
Billy Atkinson, a longtime Childersburg resident who has studied the history of the plant, said the employees were doing unprecedented work.
“They were enthusiastic,” Atkinson said. “They went to work and they got the job done. They set records out there.”
At its peak, the plant used 46 million gallons of water and 1,500 tons of coal a day. According to information given to The Birmingham News by DuPont, the water was purified after being used to make powder and returned to the river ‘in a purer form’ than when it was taken.
The plant even had a role in the Manhattan Project, known for being the group that researched and created the first nuclear weapons. The Alabama Ordnance Works was one of three plants that produced heavy water, a chemical used as a moderator in the atomic pile. Hundreds of pounds of heavy water were produced in Childersburg.
“It was considered to be at Plant Five,” Atkinson said. “I interviewed several people that knew about the project, and what happened was, there was some secrets in there, and in the actual paperwork, they didn’t really know what was going on.”
Due to the work being done at the plant, both security and secrecy were considered top priorities. At its peak, the plant had nearly 950 armed guards on hand. DuPont constantly reinforced the idea of “zip your lip,” to not talk about what was going on in the plant either inside the fence, or outside.
When news came of the war ending, the plant was shut down over the course of several months, bringing a shock to the local economy with subsequent layoffs.
The Childersburg powder plant supplied the Allies with a war’s worth of munitions and bombs over a few years, but lingering afterwards was soil pollution that would make the land unsafe to use for another 60 years.
In Strickland’s story, he wrote it was no surprise that the largest explosives manufacturing plant in the world, at the time, would bring about monumental levels of land pollution, especially with record-breaking production numbers.
When production ended, plant officials began cleaning equipment and the ground areas over a five to six-month period lasting until January 1946. From 1955 to 1957, contractors rehabilitated several explosives production lines to update them to the latest developments, but it was stopped when money ran out. The plant was then put on standby until the early 1970s.
In 1973, the Army declared the facilities were no longer needed, subsequently initiating a controlled burn of contaminated buildings and explosive residues. Further programs followed to remove demolitions and debris.
Following several studies done in the 1980s, researchers determined the soil at the former plant was still contaminated with hazardous chemicals. In 1987, the Environmental Protection Agency placed the site on the National Priorities List due to the possibility of groundwater contamination.
In an article featured in The Birmingham News on May 7, 1996, an estimated $35 million was needed to clean up the plant. A mobile incinerator destroyed contaminants from over 100,000 tons of soil while other portions of contaminated soil were taken to toxic waste facilities.
Cleanup was complete in 1998 for one area with the land being rezoned for industrial use and handed back to the city in 2003.
The Army continues to monitor the groundwater at the final area of contaminated land.
‘We’d just be a small town in Alabama’
The Alabama Ordnance Works ended up paving the way for Childersburg’s future. Thousands of families from across the country moved to the area, as well as neighboring Sylacauga and Talladega.
When the plant closed down, many left just as quickly as they came, but others chose to remain and invest in the town.
Due to the population increase while the plant was in operation, Childersburg pushed expansion and improvement projects, being awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars for water and sewage systems, housing programs, and education facilities.
As of the 2020, Childersburg had a population of 4,754 people, according to the U.S. Census.
Susan Carpenter, librarian of the Earle A. Rainwater Memorial Library in Childersburg, and Atkinson both agree that without the Childersburg powder plant, the town would not be what it is today.
“I think we’d just be a small town in Alabama,” Carpenter said.