Evidence of Morgantown’s role in building the atomic bomb still stands.
Four stacks standing in a row in the Morgantown Industrial Park are nearly all that’s left of a massive World War II production complex: the Morgantown Ordnance Works. Prominent across the river from University Motors on Don Knotts Boulevard, the stacks are idle today but, in 1944 and 1945, would have spewed smoke as part of an urgent wartime effort. Ordnance—weapons and ammunition—was the facility’s original and public aim, but its ultimate mission was secret.
In the WWII race to develop the atomic bomb, one way of making the uranium and plutonium isotopes needed to fuel the bomb called for deuterium oxide, or “heavy water.” Suspecting Nazi Germany was already pursuing that path, the U.S. government asked E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company in 1942 to enter the ongoing Manhattan Project to speed the construction of a U.S. bomb. The chemical manufacturer already had an electrolytic plant at the Morgantown Ordnance Works, where it made ammonia needed in the making of explosives. When it joined the larger bombmaking effort, du Pont built three distillation plants for the production of heavy water: one each in Alabama, Indiana, and alongside its ammonia plant in Morgantown.
Although du Pont had three facilities, the final refinement took place in Morgantown. The company shipped its intermediate product in from Alabama and Indiana by rail, where it was put through electrolytic finishing to concentrate it from 90 percent to 99.75 purity. The final product was shipped back out by rail to the Manhattan Project’s laboratory at the University of Chicago. Some of Morgantown’s most basic characteristics coal, water, rail, and an educated community—made it a good location for the program. The Ordnance Works is said to have employed 1,400 at its peak, about 8 percent of the 18,000-plus people who lived in Morgantown and Westover in the 1940s.
The U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945. Morgantown’s role turned out to be peripheral: The deuterium oxide was conceived as part of a backup production method and in the end was not used to make the bombs. The Morgantown Ordnance Works was shut down later in August 1945.
Parts of the 800-plus-acre complex have served other manufacturers since, though by now most of the facilities have been demolished. Today about 450 acres of the property are managed by Enrout Properties as the Morgantown Industrial Park. The stacks aren’t going anywhere. “They’re just too big to do anything with, and there’s not really any gain,” says co-owner Glenn Adrian, whose office is in one of the last remaining original buildings. “There will always be reminders of the Ordnance Works there.” While the remaining structures are not safe to enter, he says, visitors are welcome to drive down for a closer look.
To see additional photos of the Morgantown Ordnance Works, visit the West Virginia and Regional History Center’s History OnView collection at wvrhc.lib.wvu.edu.
posted on July 1, 2015