We may be about to lose this underappreciated Morgantown landmark.

When it comes to iconic Morgantown structures, we think of the WVU Coliseum and Woodburn Hall. The PRT. Maybe the Creative Arts Center and the Seneca Center.

Yet one iconic structure eludes our awareness: the four giant smokestacks across the river from University Motors on Don Knotts Boulevard.

That towering manufacturing landmark, an artifact of Morgantown’s contribution to World War II, sits with a few dilapidated structures on a two-acre section of the sprawling Morgantown Industrial Park. Long suspected to hold environmental contaminants, the site has been left untouched by industrial park owner Enrout Properties as principals Glenn and Kevin Adrian developed the area around it over the past decade-plus.

But it sits where it does for a reason: It’s on a spur of the Norfolk Southern rail line through town. If the site were cleared, it could be made newly productive for businesses that rely on rail.

The Adrians have been in communication for years with the local brownfield redevelopment community that addresses past environmental contamination. And in late 2019, those conversations got traction. Testing by the nonprofit West Virginia Land Stewardship Corporation (WVLSC), which rehabilitates commercial and industrial sites as part of its mission, confirmed the presence of asbestos, mercury, and other contaminants. Enrout transferred the property to the WVLSC and, in May 2020, the organization received a grant to clean the site up and ready it for a new use. 

The first step, scheduled for this summer, is to figure out whether the stacks need to come down. “We’re going to get an assessment from an engineer,” says WVLSC Director of Operations Jessica McDonald. “We have to do some environmental testing of the material inside the stacks to see what’s there and what needs to be done with it—either tearing them down and dealing with contamination that’s there, or letting them stand and sealing them off so it’ll be safe. We can’t really decide on our cleanup plan until we know how we’re going to handle those.”

The real work of demolition and cleanup is scheduled to begin in the fall. It’s expected to take at least a year and up to two years, depending on the scope of work, McDonald says. Enrout is paying the WVLSC for its services and contributing in-kind resources to the project and, when site cleanup is complete, the WVLSC will sell the property back to Enrout for redevelopment. 

Keeping the history alive

Meanwhile, the Monongalia County Historic Landmarks Commission (HLC) heard a while back that the site might be demolished and took an interest. 

“It’s one of the only structures in town that tie us to a nationally significant historic event,” says HLC member and past president Paula McClain. “We hear so much about how World War II essentially pulled us out of the Great Depression. I’m really interested in the human aspect of the plant—how it drove and shaped the local economy during that time.”

Early in World War II, the Morgantown Ordnance Works served chemical manufacturer E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company as a facility for producing ammonia needed in the making of explosives. In 1942, the U.S. government asked DuPont to join the Manhattan Project, to contribute to the development of the atomic bomb by making deuterium oxide, also known as “heavy water.” In secret—as secret as a multi-state, heavy industrial operation can be—DuPont completed the first part of the process in Alabama, Indiana, and Morgantown, then refined all of that product at the Morgantown plant and shipped it off to the University of Chicago. The deuterium oxide was a backup plan that was not needed in the end. Still, DuPont’s wartime operation in Morgantown was significant, said to have employed 1,400 at peak production.

The HLC’s main objective is to document what remains of the site and to educate residents and visitors about the history. Group members first thought of nominating the site to the National Register of Historic Places. “But it doesn’t have great physical integrity,” McClain says. “It’s essentially a ruin.” They are, however, completing a Historic Property Inventory form that the state will keep on file. 

And as preservation associate and historian at the Morgantown architecture, planning, and preservation firm Mills Group, McClain has access to a laser scanner that can shoot high-definition panoramic images. “We could host it online, like a real estate walk-through,” she says. “That would be something cool, so people could see 360-degree photos.” The scanner can also create a highly accurate 3D “point cloud” representation. McClain plans to photograph and scan the structures that remain on the site this summer, before demolition begins in the fall.

The HLC is also thinking about interpretive signage. “We could include a couple of historic shots and a photo of what it looks like in 2020 and a little bit of information,” McClain says—a description of the plant’s contribution to the war effort and of the neighborhoods that were built to accommodate the workers. “That would be a way to interpret the history and get people excited.”

The best place for signage might not be at the site itself. “You don’t want tourists wandering into the middle of an active industrial park,” she points out. “So maybe it’s not at the site, but across the river where you can see it from, on the rail-trail. I think that’s kind of a cooler way to view it anyway.”

Next-gen industrial park

The Ordnance Works cleanup is part of a master plan for the 500-acre Morgantown Industrial Park that the Adrians have been working on since they acquired the property in 2007. One aspect of the plan involves removing dilapidated structures. “We have slowly but surely been eliminating those eyesores—we did one major piece on our own many years ago, and we now have a business on that site,” says Glenn Adrian.

Another aspect of the plan calls for more fully developing the property’s advantages as an industrial park. Enrout has improved barge access in the past, for example. The current step will allow the company to improve the rail function. “They have what they call ‘unit trains’ which are 70 or even 90-plus cars,” Adrian explains. These are freight trains that ship just one commodity from origin to destination—say, a raw material for manufacturing. “You want to be able to bring them all into the park, and they need to be left there. They can’t be unloaded in one day. For that, you need to have not just one line in, one line out—you need arms of rail. You become a rail yard.” Rehabilitating the Ordnance Works site, even if the stacks remain in place, will make room for a more robust rail operation of this type as well as for off-loading and storage.

Combined with another major project now under consideration by the state—a proposed interchange on Interstate 79 at the far side of the industrial park—an enhanced rail function will bring the Morgantown Industrial Park to the attention of a much greater variety of potential tenants. “You can bring your raw materials in by barge, or by rail, but the finished product nine times out of 10 is going to go out by truck,” Adrian says. “Nothing trumps interstate.” 

We could ♥ our stacks

The Ordnance Works smokestacks take on different personalities from different angles and in different lights. They can seem to nestle into the backdrop of the Westover hills or tower over their surroundings in a display of past industrial might.

“Something else I’ve noticed since I’ve been aware of the property,” McClain says. “There are all sorts of stop signs throughout town where you have an amazing view of the smokestacks. Once you’re aware of them, you see them all the time—South Park, First Ward, even up at the top of Falling Run. It’s crazy. It’s one of those things you don’t see until you see it, and then you can’t stop seeing it.”

Adrian, who’s been working in the shadow of the stacks for more than a decade, is open to any outcome. “I know some people would like them to stay because they’re the remaining historical component of the Ordnance Works,” he says. “If they stay, we think we can work around them. And we could use them as an identifier, to mark the park—they’re very visible from across the river and coming down from the Ramada exit off the interstate. We’ll do whatever the Land Stewardship Corporation wants to do.”

Several years ago, the National Archives at Philadelphia discovered 91 panoramic photos of the 1940–42 construction of the Morgantown Ordnance Works. The 10-by-60-inch prints were tightly rolled up and had to be handled carefully. They’ve since been conserved and digitized, and they make good viewing on the National Archives’ website.

posted on June 30, 2020

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Pam Kasey
Written by Pam Kasey
Pam Kasey has traveled, brewed, farmed, counseled, and renovated, but most loves to write. She has degrees in economics from the University of Chicago and in journalism from West Virginia University. She loves celebrating Morgantown and West Virginia as executive editor at New South Media.