Morgantown Ordnance Works Panoramas, 1940-1942

Today’s post comes from Nicholas Novine, a processing intern at the National Archives at Philadelphia.

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Photograph of the Morgantown Panoramas pre-treatment, 10/19/2015. (Photo by Gail Farr)

We are pleased to announce that a series of 91 panoramas documenting industrial developments of the Morgantown Ordnance Works at Morgantown, West Virginia have been digitized and are available through our online catalog.

Staff at the National Archives at Philadelphia discovered these panoramas, which were tightly rolled and inaccessible, while processing a series related to the construction of the Morgantown Ordnance Works.

The panorama series required special attention because of the large size (approximately 10 inches in height by 60 inches in width) and condition of the pictures, which had been stored in tight rolls for decades.

Staff gently unrolled the photos enough to create a preliminary inventory and sent them to our colleagues in the Conservation department for treatment. After being conserved, the panoramas were digitized by our colleagues in Digitization Services and are now available through our online catalog.

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Panoramic photograph of the construction of the Morgantown Ordnance Works in West Virginia, 12/18/1940. (National Archives Identifier 72014151)

The photos, taken between 1940 and 1942, are not only compelling for their compositional and aesthetic quality, they also provide a more intimate glimpse into the transformation of a small rural community into a multi-acre manufacturing complex, and illustrates a striking relationship between country and industrialization.

The site, built by E. I. DuPont De Nemours & Co. under the supervision of the Quartermaster Corps, was used by several groups, including the U.S. Department of Defense for the manufacturing of chemicals used in weapons production during World War II.

The Morgantown Ordnance Works, along with the Wabash River Ordnance Works in Indiana and the Alabama Ordnance Works, was part of three construction initiatives built by DuPont selected for the P-9 Project, a code-named endeavor spearheaded by physicist Hugh Taylor via the Office of Scientific Research and Development in 1943.

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Panoramic photograph of the construction of the Morgantown Ordnance Works in West Virginia, 1/19/1941. (National Archives Identifier 72014158)

The project had two primary objectives: to provide heavy water (water that contains a large quantity of the hydrogen isotope deuterium) to serve as a moderator for nuclear reactors, and to examine the properties of the water for new uses.

The U.S. Government was aware that the Germans were working on heavy water production. Staying abreast of research in the event that an additional use was discovered became a priority. The P-9 project was a component of the Manhattan Project, which resulted in the creation of the first nuclear weapons, and the Morgantown facility played a significant role as an electrolytic finishing plant—the final step in the production process.

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Panoramic photograph of the construction of the Morgantown Ordnance Works in West Virginia, 2/25/1941. (National Archives Identifier 72014163)

By the end of 1944 it was determined that the P-9 project had met its goals, and in the summer of 1945 the Morgantown plant as well as the two other facilities were completely shut down.

The manufacturing activities resulted in the contamination of nearby soils, sediments, lagoons, as well as the neighboring Monongahela River, which supplies drinking water for approximately 60,000 residents of the county.

Concerns regarding air quality in the region and surrounding the adjacent Monongahela River began to emerge between 1946 and 1951 in the local newspapers, which reported on the activities of various individuals and organizations addressing the issue.

Panoramic photograph of the construction of Morgantown Ordnance Works looking north and east at the Plant, 8/20/1942. (National Archives Identifier 74627954)

In 1986, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) added this site to the National Priorities List (NPL), initiating clean-up activities including off-site removal of contaminated soil and replacing the affected areas with clean soil, as well as repairing the wetlands along the Monongahela River.

On September 29, 2017, the EPA signed the Final Close-Out Report and is preparing the site for NPL deletion consideration; however chemical companies under the guidance of the EPA continue to monitor ground and surface water.

The panoramic photos of the construction progress include views of various facilities including factory buildings, coke oven works, coal wharf and gas generator building, pumping station, gas house, coke handling tower, light oil plant, and the formaldehyde and examine production area.

Ultimately, the juxtaposition of the rolling hills of West Virginia with the angular metal and billowing smoke of industry portrayed in these panoramas provide a contemplative reflection of the cost of military industrialization and the development of what is arguably an example of a truly American landscape.

Panoramic photograph of the construction of Morgantown Ordnance Works looking southeast at the plant, 10/9/1942. (National Archives Identifier 74627974)


4 thoughts on “Morgantown Ordnance Works Panoramas, 1940-1942

  1. Congratulations on your most recent “accomplishment” (?!) However, when are you folks going to realize that what you’re calling a “full size” image at less than 5 MB is hardly “full size”.

    What’s needed are multiple file types (JPEG, JPEG2000, TIFF)

    where are the 100+ MB TIFF versions of these images that one could actually do something with if they wanted to include them in a printed book?

  2. Do you know whether they have employee records for that plant around 1940? My mother worked for DuPont on heavy water production, which did occur at that plant for a while.

    1. We hold 17 series (in addition to the one highlighted in this post) related to the Morgantown Ordnance Works, but these records document the work of the Chief of Ordnance, not necessarily Dupont (though there could potentially be some crossover due to the nature of the site. The records in the other series are primarily administrative in nature, consisting of correspondence, orders, organizational charts, regulations, plans, etc. They offer a detailed history of the site and its operations, not necessarily the individuals who worked there (especially considering your mother wasn’t a Federal employee). All of the series we hold related to this site are in the National Archives Catalog, so you can check there to see if something sparks your research interest:

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