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By Tiana Hall
Governor's Intern

Chapter Two
How World War I Shaped the State of West Virginia

Naval Ordnance Plant in South Charleston

Naval Ordnance Plant

U.S. Naval Ordnance Plant, South Charleston, August 8, 1919.
Smith-Giltinan Collection

On August 29, 1916, Congress authorized the building of the Naval Ordnance Plant to be located between U.S. 60 and the railroad in South Charleston, West Virginia. The plant took two years to build as it was rather large, spanning the distance of 900,000 square feet, and it began operating in May of 1918. According to Secretary of Navy Josephus Daniels, this naval base was the first in U.S. history to be placed away from seawaters; however, West Virginia's natural resources of coal, oil, and gas combined with its "moral environment and splendid citizenship" is why Congress chose the location of South Charleston. Military equipment such as armor plates, gun forgings, and projectiles for battleships and cruisers were all manufactured at the plant and were used by the U.S. Navy in World War I.1
Naval Ordnance sections

U.S. Naval Ordnance Plant sections, February 20, 1920.
Smith-Giltinan Collection

blacksmith shop

Blacksmith shop in Heat Treatment Shop No. 1, Naval Ordnance Plant

shell test

A damaged armor-piercing shell after testing, October 1919

machine shop

View from the west end of the machine shops, Naval Ordnance Plant

All photos from the Smith-Giltinan Collection

David Giltinan

Lt. (j.g.) David M. Giltinan, U.S. Naval Reserve Forces.
Smith-Giltinan Collection

Naval Reserve officer, Lieutenant David Giltinan, was assigned to be the inspector's assistant of the Naval Ordnance Plant in South Charleston on January 31, 1918, and arrived to serve out his duty just 5 days later. On February 20, 1919, he was relieved from duty, but chose to continue to work at the plant as a civilian. The U.S. Navy awarded him the victory medal in 1922 for his outstanding service.2

The plant closed down in 1922 but was reopened in 1939 for World War II production, closing down again in 1946. A company known as FMC purchased the plant in 1961 and it was used to produce armored vehicles for the Vietnam War.3 The complex was later leased to the American Motors Corporation as an automobile body parts stamping plant and was later used by other automobile companies, remaining a stamping plant until 2012.4

blacksmith shop

shell test

blacksmith shop

shell test

All materials from the Smith-Giltinan Collection


"I have never been back to this land of rolling hills and good natured, honest people, but I plan on coming in a few years, the Lord willing, to again revisit the scenes of my boyhood when the hustle and bustle of war activity was at its height." - A sixteen-year-old worker from Iowa5

Once the site of the peaceful villages of Lock Seven and Sattes, the area was transformed into the World War I boom town of Nitro, which was founded on January 2, 1918. The town is believed to be named after nitroglycerin, but this a common misconception. According to Historian Bill Wintz, Nitro's name derived from nitrocellulose, which was used to manufacture smokeless gunpowder and other explosive devices.6 The plant was one of three chosen by the U.S. government under the Deficiency Appropriations Act to relieve a severe shortage of gunpowder. The act provided for the construction of three huge explosive plants, each with the capability to produce 500,000 pounds of gun powder.7 City of Nitro

Main gate to the plant area at 41st Street, 1918
William D. Wintz Collection

Explosives Plant C

General view of Explosives Plant C from the west side, November 28, 1918
Annette Adkins Collection

Nitro's location, 14 miles away from Charleston, was chosen because it met the criteria of being secure from coastal attacks and climatic conditions, as well as having access to railroads, waterways, and raw materials. The large complex, known as Explosives Plant C, was three miles long and one mile wide. Explosives Plant C was built in just 11 short months and thousands of workers, supplies, and materials arrived practically overnight. The town's housing facilities included 28, 200-bed army barracks built to house 5,000 unmarried men in Companies E and F of the 20th Infantry, who served as guards to protect the plant from being the target of enemy attacks, as well as rows upon rows of prefabricated brown bungalows for workers' families.8 In addition, the town contained schools, a police department, a fire department, a grocery store, a hospital, and a recreational center or assembly building, where townsmen could go to the movies, buy a soda, candy, or tobacco.9 The assembly building also served as a Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA), a gathering place where men would sing war songs such as "Keep Your Head Down Fritzie Boy," "Roses of Picardy," and "Over There." Men who worked nights in the plant would go to the YMCA to write letters home to their families because paper and envelopes were free to all. The men would also listen to the phonograph, which was a sound device that played records.
Sedimentation Basin and Filters

Sedimentation Basin and Filters, Explosives Plant C, Nitro, November 26, 1918
West Virginia State Archives Collection

Explosives Plant C

General View, Explosives Plant C, Nitro, November 28, 1918
West Virginia State Archives Collection

Sulphuric Acid Plant

Area B, West Side Sulphuric Acid Plant, Nitro, November 26, 1918
William D. Wintz Collection

Explosives Plant C

Area A, 24-room Bunkhouse, May 29, 1919

Explosives Plant C

Area S, Skilled Mechanics 5-room Bungalow Type 176, January 27, 1919

Explosives Plant C

Area S, Type 176 5-room Bungalow Living Room, January 27, 1919

Explosives Plant C

Area S, General Stores, December 12, 1918

Explosives Plant C

Area A, White YMCA, November 25, 1918

Explosives Plant C

Area A, "Colored" YMCA, November 25, 1918

All photos from the William D. Wintz Collection

Base Hospital

Area S, Base Hospital, Explosives Plant C, Nitro. This picture was taken during the flu epidemic.
William D. Wintz Collection

During the 11 months that Explosive Plant C was in operation, 110,000 people were on its payroll. Although there was a high turnover of people coming and going, there were 41 different nationalities of workers,10 which included those of Eastern European descent and Native Americans.11 Unskilled workers such as carpenters' or horseshoers' assistants were paid an hourly wage of 40 cents,12 equaling between six and seven dollars today.13 Steam shovel engineers and electricians were paid 85 cents,14 which would be between 13 and 15 dollars today.15 Lead burners were paid a dollar or more per hour,16 equaling between 15 and 17 dollars today.17 There are several first-hand accounts of what it was like to live in the town of Nitro which explain the impact that the Spanish influenza had on townsmen. In one account, a worker at the plant, New Jersey native Parker Terhune, described how train loads of workers with influenza, who had just arrived to Nitro, were immediately escorted to the hospital. Terhune also said that army barracks and other buildings had to be converted to hospitals because there were so many ill men.18 Another worker from Iowa recalled the effect that influenza had on its townsmen, as he emphasizes, "I saw many boxes with the bodies of soldiers who were being shipped back home, all victims of the Spanish influenza."19

Artillery Gun

Area U, Artillery Gun.
West Virginia State Archives Collection

The Explosive Plant C had produced 350 tons of smokeless gun powder per day by the end of the war on November 11, 1918. On Armistice Day, Nitro had an enthusiastic celebration, with a parade consisting of some cars, military tanks, and a band.20 Four days earlier, the townsmen of Nitro had received a pre-Armistice Day report and celebration commenced until they discovered that the report was false.21 Within two weeks after the Armistice, 12,000 people left Nitro and there were not enough workers to sustain production. The director of the plant turned the operation over to the Ordnance Department on January 15, 1919. The government declared the plant surplus and began preparing to liquidate the property, as the plant was never fully completed. Workers were laid off in October of 1919 and a month later the facilities were sold at auction to the Charleston Industrial Corporation. Nitro became the center of one of the most productive chemical industries in the world.22 Group at Nitro

Group of military and civilian men.
West Virginia State Archives Collection

Excerpts from U.S. Signal Corp film. National Archives

National Guard

The West Virginia Legislature renamed the state militia the West Virginia National Guard in 1889. The National Guard is state military forces and an active component of the army when called into federal service by the president. In 1917, the infantry and the staff corps and departments were the two regiments of the National Guard. Heads of the staff corps and departments included Governor John J. Cornwell, Commander-in-Chief of the Executive Department; Major Thomas B. Davis, Adjutant General's Department; Major Gustavus H. Wilson of the Quartermaster Corps; Major Charles A. Wood, Ordnance Corps; Major Cassius C. Hogg and Captain William J. Blake of the Medical Department; and Captain Robert T. Colebank and First Lieutenant Nathan G. Matthew of the National Guard Reserve. In regards to the infantry, the First Infantry Regiment was organized in northern West Virginia and the Second Infantry Regiment in southern West Virginia. The Second Infantry had been activated on June 8, 1916, in response to President Woodrow Wilson's call for troops to pursue Pancho Villa on the Mexican border. The Second Regiment returned home on March 24, 1917, and shortly after, both it and the First Regiment were called on by President Woodrow Wilson to be federalized for service in World War I. By August 5, 1917, the two regiments, the enlisted men, and some of the officers of the quartermaster's corps were drafted into the U.S. service and were discharged from the militia. National Guardsmen did their military training at Camp Shelby, Mississippi, and were a part of the American Expeditionary Forces. These men would not return home until after the war.23 The West Virginia National Guard landed in Europe at the end of the war but saw no action in that conflict.24


1. Poe, J. Alred, and Albert Giles. The History of South Charleston, Vol. 1 (South Charleston, WV, 1990), 26-27.
2. Smith-Giltinan Collection, MS 2015-059, Box 8, Folder Giltinan, David M., WWI and U.S. Naval Ordnance Plant, 1917-1922, West Virginia State Archives.
3. Poe, 26-27.
4. Hieronymus, Robert C. "Charleston Ordnance Center," The West Virginia Encyclopedia (Charleston, WV: West Virginia Humanities Council, October 2012), Web,, accessed 30 May 2017.
5. "Sixteen Year Old Iowa Farm Boy Recalls Working at Nitro in 1918," Kanawha Valley Leader, September 13, 1963, West Virginia Archives and History. Web, Accessed 29 May 2017.
6. Wintz, William D. Nitro, the World War I Boom Town (South Charleston, WV: Jalamap Publications, 1985) 39-41.
7. Wintz, William. "History of the Chemical Industry in Nitro, West Virginia 1917-1960." (n.p.: n.p., 2003), 1, MS 2004-038, West Virginia State Archives.
8. Wintz, "History of the Chemical Industry," 1-2.
9. Terhune, A. Parker. "Nitro - A World War I Power Town," 2, MS 92-8, West Virginia State Archives.
10. Wintz, "History of the Chemical Industry," 1-2.
11. Wintz, Nitro, 43, 48.
12. Harper, Robert Eugene. Nitro, West Virginia - A World War I Industrial New Town. Thesis. The Ohio State University, 1986, 93-94.
13. "CPI Inflation Calculator," Bureau of Labor Statistics, United States Department of Labor. Web,, accessed 29 June 2017.
14. Harper, 93-94.
15. "CPI Inflation Calculator".
16. Harper, 93-94.
17. "CPI Inflation Calculator".
18. Terhune, 2.
19. "Sixteen Year Old . . . ."
20. Wintz, "History of the Chemical Industry," 1-2.
21. "Sixteen Year Old . . . ."
22. Wintz, "History of the Chemical Industry," 1-2.
23. Gilmer, John C. "The Advisory of Defense," in West Virginia Legislative Hand Book and Manual and Official Register 1918, ed. John T Harris (Charleston, WV: The Tribune Printing Co., 1918), 818-819.
24. Bailey, Kenneth R. "West Virginia National Guard." West Virginia Encyclopedia, 23 November 2015. Web,, accessed 27 June 2017.

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