Sixteen Year Old Iowa Farm Boy
Kanawha Valley Leader
- Recalls Working at Nitro in 1918
September 13, 1963
Copy in Eugene Harper Collection, Ms2004-083
Kanawha Valley Leader
I came to Nitro in the summer of 1918. Most of the streets were of mud, but wooden sidewalks were being built as fast as the help came from the farms and towns of the west, north and south. Daily trains were unloading men from all over the country. I had come from Sioux City, Iowa.
There were some Army barracks across the street from the Depot. Troops of the 20th Infantry, Companies E and F were here, for guard duty, and behind the barracks was a large corral where nearly a hundred horses were quartered. The stables were next to the barracks and below them, about a block or so, was the hospital. All of this was across from the tracks.
During the great flu epidemic of 1918, I saw many boxes with the bodies of soldiers who were being shipped back home, all victims of the Spanish influenza.
Men would stay a few days and then move on to St. Albans or to find other living quarters. I tried it for a time and then boarded with a family on 19th Street. We lived near the very end of the street. A small creek was located below us and then the rise of the hills. Many folks would climb these hills on Sundays and set there in the grass and look down upon Nitro, for a scenic view.
I, being on friendly terms with the soldiers at the barracks, was privileged to "borrow" a riding horse on Sundays and saddle it, then to ride into the nearby hills for a friendly visit with the farm folks. We partook of many farmers' hospitality that way and also enjoyed many a snack with them.
Armistice Day in Nitro was a little on the exciting side. A parade consisting of some cars, two small "two man" tanks and a pickup band with a procession of school children seemed to be about all that was to it.
The shiny excitement seemed to have been worn off by a pre-Armistice Day false report, when all the folks were in a hilarious mood. When they discovered that the report was false, it dimmed the later true report.
I saw no picture shows in Nitro, but then one could always take the evening train to Charleston to see the movies or take the ferry to St. Albans and than the interurban train to Charleston, as they ran quite often.
During the time I was in Nitro, two soldiers from Co. E. 20th Infantry, were convicted of murdering a conductor of the interurban lines, robbing him and shooting him. They were caught, convicted and sent to Moundsville for life. Those were also exciting days in Nitro, after the war as the Charleston papers carried minute details of the trial and its highlights. The newsstands carried several papers - the NY Times, Herald, Cincinnati papers and a few more. These found a ready market and were all sold out within a few hours.
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.
There was a YHCA building that was always filled with men in the daytime and at night. Leaders would conduct group singing, like "Keep Your Head Down Fritzie Boy," "Roses of Picardy," "Over There," and many of the popular tunes of the times.
Men who worked nights in the plant would go to the YMCA to write letters home and the writing tables were always filled. Paper and envelopes were free to all. A phonograph was there for them to use and pass the time.
There were four large brick chimneys at the power plants. One day, curious to see what the view would be from the top of one of these chimneys, I decided to climb up the south east corner one. Needless to say, I could see for a great distance from here. I shudder when I think of the chance I took in climbing this great height, but being at the age of 16 then, I was unaware of the dangers that beset me.
We kept busy at the plant until October of 1919 when I was laid off and some of the men went to Hog Island to the shipyards and some went to the automobile plants of Detroit; others went back home or elsewhere.
I went to Detroit, where I lived until 1957, working in nearly all of the auto plants at one time or another. Later I came to Inglewood and am now employed as an accountant.
Military and Wartime