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Locomotive links DuPont to its past
ANGIE LEVENTIS; The News Tribune
February 21st, 2004

Nearly 95 years ago, the DuPont Explosive Co. began manufacturing the dynamite that would be used to develop the Pacific Northwest.

The plant halfway between Tacoma and Olympia also produced millions of pounds of black powder during World War II. At its peak, DuPont employed more than 350 people who lived, worked, socialized and shopped in the 3,200-acre company town.

DEAN J. KOEPFLER | THE NEWS TRIBUNE

From company town to planned community - Former DuPont resident Gary Lucas of Lacey looks at narrow gauge railroad ties from the line that hauled explosives from the DuPont Explosive Plant to a wharf for shipping.

It was a world of its own, bordered and crisscrossed by hundreds of miles of rail line for hauling raw materials throughout the plant. From the day the company bought its first locomotive in 1910, trains played a critical role in DuPont's commercial explosives industry.

Today, the planned residential community Northwest Landing has replaced much of the area once occupied by the old plant. But some of the historic locomotive cars and rail line are still part of the city, though the last of the nitroglycerine, dynamite and black powder was shipped out long ago.

A handful of DuPont residents are working to restore an old Brookeville, 2-ton powder train built in the 1930s. It probably was last used in the mid-'70s, when the explosives plant shut its doors. The train now rests on an old rail bed in the city's historic village at the Dupont Historical Museum, 207 Barksdale Ave.

For almost three decades, the abandoned train rusted. At some point, faded gray boxcar No. 201 was vandalized.

"We're doing this so people will know what it was like to live here long ago," said museum volunteer Bert Wyant, 69. "This train depicts the plant - and why our town is here."

He, Fred Foreman, 45, Gary Lucas, 60, and about a dozen other volunteers stripped, sanded and repainted the side panels of the yellow locomotive in the last 10 months. They collected about 750 rail ties along the train's old route to build a new track. And they recovered an old "frog and switch," the pieces that change the train's direction.

Ten volunteers from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at Fort Lewis helped them take apart the engine, which they'll try restoring with parts from a similar train on display at the post's museum.

In a year, they hope to have the train running along a block of track outside the museum for the community to enjoy on holidays or special events. Lucas said they've collected more than $9,000 from DuPont's 3,750 residents.

The locomotive ran on what's called a narrow gauge railway, which was designed to let trains negotiate sharp turns and weave in and out of storage bunkers more easily than their larger, standard-gauge counterparts.

Safety was a priority, and for good reason: The entire plant was so combustible residents weren't allowed to use regular matches in their homes, according to "DuPont, the Story of a Company Town" by historian May G. Munyan in 1972.

At least four workers died in explosions in the early years. After black powder explosives became obsolete following World War II, there were no recorded deaths.

Since the ingredients mixed to produce the explosives were highly combustible, each was stored in a separate building. The roughly 450 miles of track took the train to each of these small warehouses and then to a Puget Sound wharf. The product was shipped as far as Alaska, Hawaii, the Philippines and South America.

For Foreman, the sight of the train brings back childhood memories. He grew up at the DuPont plant where his father and grandfather worked. If the company had not shut down, Foreman said he would have worked there as well, instead of becoming DuPont's water quality specialist.

He remembers standing for hours along the tracks as a toddler, eagerly awaiting the familiar chug and whistle. He often waited at the same site where the historic locomotive is kept today.

"My parents and grandparents moved up here, so I have an extreme sense of community," he said. "The fond memories we have of the early city and DuPont company we want to share those with new people who move here."

Angie Leventis: 253-597-8692
Angie.leventis@mail.tribnet.com

SIDEBAR: How to get involved

To help restore DuPont's historic locomotive or donate money for the project, call the DuPont Museum at 253-964-2399.
(Published 12:01AM, February 21st, 2004)