Explosion at the Hercules Powder Factory of
Kenvil, New Jersey on September 12, 1940
During 1940 the High Explosives plant at Kenvil, NJ had been increasing production to meet the needs of the US Armed Forces as well as our Allies involved in the war in Europe. The Kenvil munitions plant was one of several in northwest New Jersey, originally opened in 1871 to provide dynamite to the local Iron Mines.
The Kenvil facility was located in Roxbury Township, Morris County, and was owned by the Hercules Company, a spin-off from DuPont, who operated several other chemical & munitions plants in New Jersey. Covering over 1,200 acres, dozens of major buildings processed various types of high explosives, employing hundreds of local residents who worked the various shifts at the plant. Accidents had occurred over the years at the plant, with 2 explosions in 1934 killing a total of 6 workers.
Here is the entry for
"Kenvil" in a New Jersey Guidebook published in 1939:
At 1:30 PM on September 12, 1940 over 297,000 pounds of gunpowder blew
up in a series of explosions and fires, leveling over 20 buildings. The
explosions shook the area so forcefully that cars were bounced off the
roads, most windows in homes miles away were broken and articles flew
off shelves and walls.
Ultimately the facility was rebuilt with new safety measures and reopened in April 1941 to go on to produce munitions for World War Two as well as Rocket propellant and other products. By 1958, the Cold War was in full swing, and the Hercules Kenvil plant worked on materials for the Minuteman Missile. Smaller explosions continued from the late 1940's through the 60's, taking over a dozen additional lives. In 1964, two workers were killed in a fire in a building where smokeless powder was being prepared. In 1967 an explosion and fire leveled three buildings and killed two workers. More recently, a 1989 blast injured 20 workers and shattered glass for miles and in 1994, a machine mixing 500 pounds of nitroglycerin went up -- sending four workers to the hospital and showering the company parking lot with scraps of hot metal.
Operations at the facility ceased in 1996, the land is now fenced off
and gated. Plans are being made for future uses for the large plot, with
some sites needing remediation for contaminants left behind.
For several days the disaster remained the major story in the area, with this issue of the New York Daily News reporting on the earliest developments. Over coming days the newspaper would run many pages of photos showing the carnage.
At left is a full
page ad from 1918 publicizing
|- Local resident
Sal Valentino recalls the event:
"On September 12, 1940 the Hercules plant blew up with a horrendous explosion that killed 49, injured 200 and rocked Port Morris (5 miles away) causing many of the windows in my school to break. The German Bund was active in America at the time and were suspected of sabotage (Editor: The eventual death toll was 51, no official cause of the blast was ever determined). One of the injured was my brother Anthony who was blown 50 feet into the air and landed on a hot bed of ashes with fire all around him. He thought he was dying and called out for help from our sister Dolly who had passed away the previous year, 1939. Suddenly he saw an opening in the fire and crawled through. He suffered burns to his face and elbow and had permanent damage to his ear. His picture (left) being led away from the fire covered the whole front page of The New York Daily News on September 13, 1940. At age 5 my first memory in life was seeing him looking out the window of Dover General Hospital with his face all covered with white bandages"
Hercules Inc. provided company housing for some of it's employees. These examples on Hercules Road in Kenvil were photographed by the author in September 2005, the 65th Anniversary of the disaster, as they lay vacant for demolition. In April 2006 these houses were torn down, a last minute reprieve saved one for use as a museum.
On September 5, 2005, a Memorial Service was held to honor the memory of the 51 people who
perished 65 years earlier, and to dedicate a plaque with their names,
and the names of others who died at Hercules Kenvil Works from 1917 onward.
Cast Bronze Plaque at the Roxbury Township War Memorial pays tribute to all those who lost their lives at Hercules Kenvil over the years, especially
those who died in the 1940 explosion, among the first US 'casualties' of World War II, as we supplied our Allies in a war we entered a year later.
|EDWARD E. ALLEN, 20, Budd Lake.
JOHN T. ANDICO, 27, Netcong.
HARRY BACK, 29, Patchogue, Long Island.
HAROLD BAKER, 28, Dover.
JOSEPH F. BARNISH, Dover.
JESSE BENNETT, 67, Dover.
W. G. BLACK, 32, Flanders.
STUART T. CARROLL, 26, Morristown.
ARTHUR L. CLARK.
ALBERT COCKING, 33, Kenvil.
RAYMOND L. CORBY, 50, Rockway.
WILEY DEJONG, 35, Mendham.
EVART DUNN, Kenvil.
EDWARD M EXTROM, Kenvil.
REUBEN FANCHER, 22, Succasunna.
NATALINE J. FERRAINOLA, 26, Port Morris.
RALPH A. GRANATO, 22, Port Morris.
ELIJAH A. GREER, 20, Andrews, North Carolina.
JOHN B. GRIFFITH, 20, Budd Lake.
RAYMOND GULICK, 32, Wharton.
WILLIAM LEMAR HALKYARD, 40, Catawissa, PA.
PETER KNOTT, 27, Kenvil.
JAMES G. LIST, 34, Kenvil.
|FREDERICK M. McCONNELL, 20, Kenvil.
CHARLES RAYMOND MOORE, 44, Landing.
CHARLES L. MOSSER, 45, Pequannock.
WAYNE L. NIELSEN, 26, Ferndale, Michigan.
ROBERT NOLAN, 64, Kenvil.
H. E. OPDYKE, 48, Netcong.
RUBEN PARKER, 51, Dover.
EDWARD H. PAYNE, 20, Randolph.
NICHOLAS D. PISANO, 23, Netcong.
WILLIAM C. QUACKENBUSH, 18, Kenvil.
HARRY JAMES REED, 22, Kenvil.
JOHN SAVKO, 20, Mt. Hope.
RICHARD SCOTT, 25, Dover.
WALTER SISCO, 31, Branchville.
JACK W. SMITH, 18, Shonghum.
RUSSELL SOSSONG, 28, Ledgewood.
PAUL STALCUP, 33, Mt. Arlington.
WILLIAM HENRY STEPHENS, Succasunna.
ALVIN STOUT, West Belmar.
CHARLES SWAN, Kenvil.
CHARLES TICE, 47, Mine Hill.
G. E. TOBLER, 27, Bartley.
WARREN WALDRON, Mt. Arlington.
RAYMOND A. WOODS, 18, Kenvil.
SOURCES: Time Magazine, September 23, 1940
Rutgers Oral History Archive 1994 interview with E. Robert Hoppe, Chemist with Hercules Kenvil.
Interviews by the Editor of family members at the September 5, 2005 Memorial Service.
NEW: Carl heard his Father and Grandfather, Hercules workers, tell of the disaster. His new song about it is here.
This page was
first posted in 2005 as a free community service, and has been expanded several
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