Place: Hagley Gunpowder Mill (originally named Eleutherian Mills)
Location: Wilmington, DE
History: The Hagley is the site of E.I. du Pont’s historical black powder mill. In 1802, having just left France to escape the French Revolution, Éleuthère Irénée chose the land for the raw power provided by the water.
In France he had been a chemist, studying explosion techniques and gunpowder manufacturing as an apprentice. Though he supported a change in government powers, he and his father had assisted in protecting King Louis and Marie Antoinette when the palace was stormed. They were arrested and discouraged by France’s future. Soon they decided to move to America.
Using plans, financing and equipment from the French government the mill was assembled originally for 30 workers. Of course a flurry of wars (the Mexican-American War, the Crimean War and the U.S. Civil War saw production skyrocket). As the first high-quality powder being produced in America the Federal government bought 4 millions barrels during the Civil War.
The manufacturing of gunpowder was a volatile business. Of the 288 explosions that occurred at the Hagley 228 people died from explosions. And with workers’ homes located on a hill close by, and E.I.’s mansion also so close to the site, it was not always workers who suffered the consequences.
The mill took all the precautions possible though: an inspector stood by a small gate on Workers Hill where he checked each man for metal, cigarettes, matches and nails (in your shoes). If he was free of all these things only then could he pass through and go to work.
The du Pont family not only lived close to the danger but sacrificed their own as well. In 1857, Alexis (son of E.I. and the baby who had been saved by his mother in the 1818 Great Explosion) was in a mixing room when workers sliding a pine box across the floor created enough friction for a spark. Instantly everyone in the room was alight. All of the men made it into the water to extinguish themselves but Alexis saw that the fire, a gunpowder manufacture’s worst enemy, was spreading.
He rushed back, climbed onto the roof and asked for buckets of water to extinguish the flames. Before anyone could fetch him a bucket a blast sent him flying where he was crushed to death on the drying stands.
He wasn’t the only du Pont to go down for the family business. Lammot du Pont was E.I.’s grandson who ran a blockade during the Crimean War with a ship full of gunpowder. He pushed the family into the dynamite business where they made many innovations in the field under his leadership.
He was working with dynamite in 1884 when a worker came rushing in and told him to save his life and run. Lammot instead ran towards the fire and tried to put it out. Soon, an explosion ripped through. They recovered his body later; it had been buried deep into a sand heap from the power of the blast. The du Ponts prided themselves that they “did not send any man into danger where they would not go themselves.”
Founder, E.I. du Pont died in 1834, whether of cholera or a heart attack the records aren’t clear. His sons, Alfred and Henry, took over management of the company. Alfred, an inquisitive chemist, had returned to the mills from his studies in 1818 to help his father rebuild after an explosion that killed 34. Henry, a military man and a West Point grad, resigned his commission to return to the mill a year before his father died.
When the War began the du Pont’s could have sold their gunpowder to both sides for a good profit. Henry hoped to reach a compromise with both sides. But feeling socially responsible (and as his support for President Lincoln grew fervent) he made the decision to only supply the North (and they did, 40% of the gunpowder the North used was from them).
After over a hundred years of production the du Ponts owned 28 of the 32 gunpowder mills in the country. But the invention of smokeless powder closed the site in 1921 after the completion of WWI.
Notes: Today the house is restored but most of the buildings are left in their abandoned state. The ultimate please-touch museum.