Kings Mills once site of busy explosives industry
By Jim Blount
To recent generations, Kings Mills is known as a neighbor to Kings Island, the amusement park that adopted part of the town's name when it opened in 1972. Older Butler County residents associate the town with an industry that employed some local people and periodically shook and woke up others.
In 1878, King's Great Western Powder Co. was incorporated. Joseph King and his nephew, Ahimaaz King, two of the founders, built a small powder mill on the Little Miami River at a town formerly known as Gainesboro or Gainsborough. Farming was the major occupation around the site and in most of Warren County during the 19th century.
Gainesboro possibly was the site of the first mill in Warren County, built about 1799. The town was platted on the west side of the Little Miami River in 1815, and had a post office from 1822 to 1825.
Warren County's new industry produced 12,768 kegs of sporting powder and 28,067 kegs of blasting powder in its first five years. That was meager when compared to its future output that was sold to the military in the U. S. and other nations, and for commercial shooting and explosives markets.
Great Western prospered despite the 1885 death of Joseph King, who had learned the business at the Miami Powder Co. in Xenia. His son-in-law, Gershon M. Peters, became president with Ahimaaz King remaining as manager.
In 1887 Gershon Peters, a former Baptist minister, and a brother, O. E. Peters, incorporated the Peters Cartridge Co. that operated in the powder plant before building its own facilities on the other side of the river. Another change came in 1889 when Great Western was renamed the King Powder Co. and started the company town of King's Mills (originally spelled with an apostrophe).
Among several advances, Peters claimed it marketed the first automatic machine-loaded shot shells, improving a process that formerly required employees to put components in empty shells by hand.
In 1895, Peters built a Kings Mills landmark -- a tall shot tower to produce lead pellets. It was replaced by a larger one about 20 years later.
Peters was an aggressive promoter, including ads in appropriate magazines, booklets for shooters, calendars, shooting demonstrations and participation in trade shows and trapshooting events.
Business for King and Peters increased during the 1898 Spanish-American War, World War I and World II. Military orders, U. S. and foreign, required new buildings and expansion of production equipment. Peters claimed output averaged 1.5 million cartridges daily during World War I.
By the end of the war in 1918, a complex of buildings and supporting facilities had spread on both sides of the river. Job estimates vary, most ranging between 1,000 and 3,000, and as high as 5,000 people during World War II.
As employment increased, Kings Mills grew and added services for employees, including a 100-room hotel. Starting in 1902, some workers, instead of residing in the town, arrived on an electric interurban line that connected Cincinnati and Lebanon.
In 1934, with orders declining during the Great Depression, the Kings Mills plants were sold to Remington Arms, which was owned by DuPont.
During World War II,. said George Crout, in Miami Valley Vignettes, few soldiers from southwest Ohio "realized that the 30 M-1 shells they used in the 15-bullet clip were made in their own area." With the war winding down in 1944, Remington closed the Kings Mills Ordnance Plant (as it was known then). The powder plant operated a few more years. Since then, some buildings have been razed, others have deteriorated.
Over more than 60 years, owners and tenants of surviving structures have included Columbia Records, Seagrams Distillers, Lenscrafters, real estate developers and a variety of other companies that used the buildings for production, warehousing, offices and a TV-movie set. In the early 1970s, part of the complex was occupied by a company that created special effects for neighboring Kings Island Amusement Park.
For nearly 70 years, employees at Kings and Peters faced danger every day. That story will be covered in this column next week.
# # #
Explosions at Kings Mills plants rocked Butler County
By Jim Blount
Buildings shook and windows rattled in most of Butler County Thursday, July 30, 1942. It was an uneasy time. The outcome of World War II was much in doubt and awareness was high of possible German or Japanese sabotage to the hundreds of defense industries and facilities in the area. It was less than seven months since Pearl Harbor. U. S. forces had yet to launch an offensive in Europe or the Pacific.
Concern peaked when it was revealed there had been an explosion at the King Powder Co. in Kings Mills, about 15 miles east of Hamilton. Five employees were killed and 11 injured at the weapons complex that included about 50 Hamilton residents among its employees.
An FBI investigation -- common after incidents at war-related sites -- later determined the blast was a production accident, not sabotage. Because of war time secrecy, no details were released.
The Kings Mills complex -- also known as the Kings Mills Ordnance Plant -- included the King Powder Co. on one side of the Little Miami River and the Peters Cartridge Co. on the other side. They had been established in 1878 and 1887, respectively, in the Warren County town originally known as Gainesboro or Gainsborough. Both firms had been acquired in 1934 by Remington Arms, part of DuPont.
King and Peters -- both supplying military and civilian markets -- were estimated to have employed between 3,000 and 5,000 at peak World War II production.
In August 1945 -- after atomic bombs had devastated two Japanese cities -- it was reported here that about 30 Kings Mills workers had been recruited through the Hamilton office of the U. S. Employment Service for jobs at the secret Hanford, Wash., atomic plant.
Kings Mills also had prospered during previous wars, including the Spanish-American War in 1898 and World War I, 1914-18.
Even in peace, working at Kings Mills was dangerous. There had been several accidents, some fatal, during production, testing and shipping. Most of the blasts damaged facilities and destroyed product and materials. Some also damaged or leveled nearby houses in the company-owned town.
The July 1942 explosion wasn't the first one felt in parts of neighboring Butler County, including Hamilton.
The deadliest and most spectacular Kings Mills calamity began about 3 p.m. Tuesday, July 15, 1890, killing 11 people, including three children, and injuring dozens of others.
Some residents of southwest Ohio thought an earthquake had rocked the area. Those closer to Kings Mills saw clouds of black smoke after a large blast followed by smaller explosions. They sensed it originated at either the King or Peters plants, employing about 1,000 people. Immediate attempts to contact the town failed because telegraph lines had been severed. Details, often conflicting, emerged later.
Reports said two box cars loaded with delicate black powder -- totaling 1,000 kegs, or as much as 1,600 by some reports -- sat on Pennsylvania Railroad tracks at the King Powder Co.
Possibly because of brake failure, a train exceeded the speed of normal switching operations in attempting to couple with one of the box cars. Both railroad cars exploded, causing another blast in cans of powder in a nearby building. Thirty-five women working in that building escaped death as the structure collapsed.
Miraculously, only two buildings were destroyed in what could have been a chain reaction disaster. Greater loss of life and property was averted when the wind shifted away from a magazine containing three months production, or about 50 tons of powder. Fires continued for about five hours.
The company town was evacuated as a precaution -- except for a few houses converted to temporary hospitals for the injured -- and an appeal for doctors was sent to surrounding areas.
The 1890 damage estimate exceeded $250,000. Allowing for inflation, that would equate to a loss of more than $5.4 million today.
Operations ceased at the end of World War II. Some buildings -- embedded with years of powder residue -- were burned as a precaution. Others were abandoned and vandalized. Part of the site has continued in use by a variety of companies.
The former ammunition complex is on the National Register of Historic Places. And, after years of inspections by state and federal agencies, it also is on the National Priorities List of Superfund hazardous waste sites
# # #
Wednesday, June 20, 2007
Hamilton had its own suspension bridge in 1868
By Jim Blount
Hamilton dedicated its fifth High-Main Street bridge in May, a six-lane, 543-foot, five-span concrete arch structure. Among its predecessors, Hamilton historians have focused most of their attention on the first bridge at the site while slighting its successors.
Ignored in local histories and newspaper reminisces is the second bridge, built to replace the 380-foot Miami Bridge, a two-lane wooden covered bridge. The Miami Bridge toppled when hit by debris during the September 1866 flood. It was not only Hamilton's first bridge, but also the first built over more than 160 miles of the Great Miami River. The privately-funded bridge had opened in December 1819.
Its replacement was a suspension bridge, perhaps the most picturesque of the city's bridges. A distinguishing feature was two tall pillars at each end. It was a state-of-the-art structure in 1868.
In the mid 1800s, suspension bridges were popular replacements for long wooden covered bridges and wooden trestles. The 1,010-foot Wheeling Suspension Bridge, built by Charles Ellet, was the world's longest when finished in 1849. It was rebuilt in 1851 after the Ohio River bridge collapsed in a wind storm.
John A. Roebling designed the 821-foot Niagara Suspension Bridge, completed in 1855. It had an upper deck for a railroad and a lower deck for road traffic. It earned Roebling credit for designing the first suspension bridge firm enough to withstand strong wind and the concentrated load of steam locomotives.
An advantage of the suspension system, explains a PBS web site, is that "the towers enable main cables to be draped over long distances. Most of the weight of the bridge is carried by the cables to the anchorages, which are imbedded in either solid rock or massive concrete blocks."
Another explanation on a National Park Service web site describes it this way: "a level deck hung from a catenary system suspended over towers and anchored in the ground, and a truss-stiffened deck, resulting in a rigid bridge capable of supporting relatively heavy loads." Illustrations of the Hamilton bridge show the cables extending from the tapered pillars to brick or stone boxes on the ground at each end of the bridge. It had no piers in the river.
Choosing a suspension design in Hamilton may have been influenced by the Jan. 1, 1867, opening of the Covington-Cincinnati Suspension Bridge, known recently as the Roebling Suspension Bridge. That bridge, which still carries traffic, was designed by John Roebling. He supervised the start of construction in 1856. Problems delayed work, including finances and the Civil War (1861-65). It was completed after the war by Washington Roebling, the designer's son. At 1,057 feet, it was the world's longest suspension bridge until 1883.
John Roebling, the father, left Cincinnati to design the Brooklyn Bridge. The Prussian native suffered a foot injury while surveying and died of tetanus a few days later, July 22, 1869. The Brooklyn-Manhattan suspension bridge was completed by his son in 1883. At 1,595 feet it became the longest bridge in the world.
The $85,000 contract for the new 400-foot Hamilton crossing -- described as "an iron wire suspension bridge" -- was awarded by county commissioners Feb. 12, 1867, about six weeks after the privately-built Covington-Cincinnati span had opened.
The contractor for the Hamilton span was Gray, Morse & Young of Cincinnati. John Gray built at least six suspension bridges between 1853 and 1872, including one that had to be rebuilt. They were in Delaware (Olentangy River), 1853; Tiffin (Sandusky), 1853; near Harrison and Elizabethtown (Whitewater), 1868; and Branch Hill (Little Miami), 1872, all in Ohio; and in 1854 over the Licking River between Newport and Covington in Kentucky.
The $80,000 Licking bridge opened 13 years before Roebling's Covington-Cincinnati suspension span. Jan. 16, 1854, shortly after completion, the Licking bridge collapsed, tossing two men on horseback and 19 cattle into the river. One horse and six cattle drowned. Gray supervised its rebuilding.
The Hamilton suspension bridge -- with a final cost of about $90,000 because of additional work -- was completed April 7, 1868, and conveyed to the city May 6, 1868. It stood 27 years. It was razed in 1895 and replaced by a $109,000 iron truss bridge, 440 feet long and 66 feet wide. Its builder, the Toledo Bridge Co., claimed it was then the longest single span highway bridge in the world.
# # #
Canal transported freed slaves through county in 1846
By Jim Blount
Canal boats cruising through Butler County received little attention by the summer of 1846. The Miami-Erie Canal had been transporting people and cargo to and from Hamilton, Middletown and other local ports for nearly 20 years. Its most unusual passage -- and probably one of the most observed -- began when nearly 400 freed slaves boarded northbound boats in Cincinnati.
Their voyage to freedom and land ownership began in Virginia 13 years earlier. They had been the property of John Randolph, owner of an 8,200-acre plantation in Charlotte County, Va.
He was "known as John Randolph of Roanoke to distinguish him from kinsmen," explained the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. Roanoke was the name of his estate in Charlotte County. Randolph was a horse breeder and his outstanding Eastern quarter horse was a stallion named Roanoke.
The eccentric bachelor served several terms in the U. S. House of Representatives, starting in 1799, and an abbreviated term in the U. S. Senate. He was U. S. minister to Russia for a few months in 1830 before again winning election to the U. S. House. He died May 24, 1833, before completing that term.
His will ordered his slaves freed and set aside $8,000 to buy them land in a free state. William Leigh, a friend and cousin, was designated to handle details of manumission and relocation.
"I give and bequeath to all my slaves their freedom, heartily regretting that I have ever been the owner of one," Randolph had declared in his first will in 1819. He repeated his desire in later versions, but one document mentioned that his slaves should be sold.
Randolph's intentions were contested in court, complicated by the presence of three wills and several codicils. A brother challenged their validity, claiming that Randolph was insane.
It wasn't until 1846 -- 15 years before the Civil War -- that Leigh implemented Randolph's direction. He spent $6,000 for land what was then part of Mercer County, Ohio, the amount reported variously as from 2,000 to 3,200 acres. A court listed 596 Randolph slaves eligible for 10 acres in Ohio.
The exodus from Virginia began June 10, 1846. Numbers vary, either 383 or 387 slaves of all ages, with their possessions in 16 wagons, each pulled by four horses. They traveled over the mountains in what later became West Virginia, arriving June 18 in Charleston on the Kanawha River. There they boarded one or more steamboats, reaching Cincinnati July 1.
A Cincinnati newspaper reporter wrote that "I had an interview with one of the managers, an intelligent man, warmly enlisted in their welfare. He represents them as being a body of honest, pleasant people, great pain having been taken by their masters to instill in them honest principles."
"The Randolph Negroes" -- one of several names given the group -- transferred to canal boats in Cincinnati and proceeded north. They are believed to have traveled through Butler County July 2, 1846, and stopped briefly north of Middletown, where they received food from African-American families residing in the area.
Their reception near New Bremen -- then in Mercer County, later in Auglaize County -- wasn't a warm one. After the more than 380 freed slaves had encamped on Ohio land purchased for them, they were surrounded by an armed mob and ordered to leave the area. The next morning canal boats carried the freed slaves to a point near Piqua.
In a July 25 edition, a Piqua newspaper said "these unfortunate creatures have again been driven from lands selected for them in Shelby County, but like the previous attempt in Mercer, it has failed. They were driven away by threats of violence. About one third of them, we understand, remained at Sidney, intending to scatter, and find homes wherever they can."
Eventually, individuals and groups obtained helped from Quakers and others sympathetic with their plight. The former Virginia slaves settled in Piqua, Troy, Sidney, West Milton and smaller communities in that area.
The prohibition of slavery in Ohio had its origin in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. That legislation mandated that slavery was banned in states to be formed northwest of the Ohio River. In 1803 Ohio became the first state created in the territory that also included the future states of Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin and that part of Minnesota east of the Mississippi River.