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Steele Creek Contributed to the World War II Effort (Part 2 of 3)

(May 1, 2016) In 1942 the federal government bought 2,260 acres of farmland in Steele Creek to build a naval ordinance plant, locally known as the Shell Plant. After the plant closed following the war, the land was developed as the Arrowood Business Park. It has spurred additional industrial development along Westinghouse Boulevard, both to the east and west of the original Shell Plant property, and helped define the character of Steele Creek.

The main Shell Plant cafeteria was located on what is now Westinghouse Boulevard about 1000 feet east of South Tryon Street. The original building burned in 1944 but was soon rebuilt. The rebuilt cafeteria has been the location of various restaurants over the years and is now home to La Poblanita Mexican Restaurant and the Trap. It most likely is the only building still left today that existed when the plant closed in 1957.

The map below shows the approximate area of the Shell Plant in yellow cross hatch based on a variety of historic maps.

This is the second of three articles adapted from stories collected or written by Walter Neely and published in Gleanings, Newsletter of the Steele Creek Historical and Genealogical Society. Part 1 of this series, Why Do We Have So Much Industry? It All Started with the Shell Plant, covered the period that included the initial land purchases. Part 2 continues the history.

Homes, Land Gone, Steele Creek is Reconciled to Big War Plant

On November 2, 1942, the Charlotte Observer published an article on the new war plant. It described how an unsuspecting and peaceful community discovered that it had been caught up in the swiftly-formed plans of government and initially gave the cold shoulder to the proposition

Construction turned Steele Creek into a boom-town development. No longer a quiet rural community, it seethed with activity and experienced an inrush of workers, many of them living in an improvised fashion that contributed to the impression of impermanency. The land that in peacetime yielded to the plow changed to support the production of supplies intended for death and destruction. Families had tilled this soil since before the American Revolution and created a place centered in home, church, and community development.

Rumors spread that the government was considering the area as the location of a war plant. Resentment followed the announcement that one of the best farming areas of the state definitely would be bought by the government and become a war plant. They later learned that the other site considered along Paw Creek had unsuitable terrain and land asking prices that were too high.

Who worked at the Shell Plant and how did it operate? In an article written in 2001, Louis Pettus stated that at its height the plant had more than 12,000 employees, over 90% of them women. Men were the mechanics, guards, janitors and warehouse people, but only women worked on the conveyor line, where they filled the shell cases – 16 shells to a can. Fifteen women weighed the powder and put it in the shell cases. Some of the women rolled 4-inch strips of lead foil which acted like grease on the inside of the shell casings. Two of the lead foil rollers, and many of the other women, were grandmothers.

One of the workers, Mae Pettus Griffin, later said that she had never before done “public work,” but she had three sons and two sons-in-law in service and felt it was her duty to back them up. Almost all the women had only done house work or field work previously. Seven days a week for the three shifts, buses collected the workers from Gastonia, Concord, Albemarle, Monroe, and other places in North Carolina and from Lancaster, Kershaw, Rock Hill, Richburg, York, and other places in South Carolina.

Woodrow “Toby” Wilson of Indian Land in Lancaster County was one of the building foremen. He remembered that smokers could smoke only in the cafeterias. No matches could be brought in but cigarette lighters were placed at intervals for the convenience of the smokers. The cafeterias were about 200 feet from the main plant. Everyone wore insulated safety shoes. The men wore uniform coveralls with no pockets. The women wore uniform dresses. The floors were concrete and kept shiny. Every 10 feet there were big doors built for easy exit in case of explosion. None of the machinery was electrical (although there were electric lights). All machines were run by air. There weren’t any major explosions and only one accident. One of the women workers lost her left arm. Powder was so sensitive that if any were left under the fingernails, lighting a cigarette would blow away the fingers. The plant won a number of safety awards.

At first, workers on an 8-hour shift were turning out 8,000 rounds of ammunition. At their peak, they were producing 29,000 rounds a shift. Still, there were was only enough labor to run two “load lines.” There was the capacity for a third line, but labor was scarce.

Then something happened that would have been un-thought of in normal times: black women were hired to staff a shift on the third line. Toby Wilson was put in charge–the only southerner to be a foreman. The other foremen were northerners sent south from other U.S. Rubber plants. Mr. Wilson said that he had one of the best, hardest-working crews in the plant.

After May 8, 1945, when the war in Europe ended, all other shell plants in the U. S. closed, but the Steele Creek plant stayed in full production until Japan surrendered on August 15, 1945. Even then the plant did not completely close. A work force of 150-170 people stayed on until June 30, 1957, reconditioning the unused shells returned by naval ships.

John and Irene Youngblood lived on what is now John Price Road but then was York Road and boarded about 10 people at their house. At lunch time they fed 20 to 25 people lunch every day in shifts. A bus went all over Steele Creek picking up people to take them to work at the Shell Plant. The plant worked 24 hours a day, and some of the Youngblood boarders slept during the day and worked at night while another shift worked during the day and slept there at night.

Charlotte’s “Shell Plant” Vital in War and Peace

Another article from the Charlotte Observer written just after the end of the war said that investments in the plant had totaled more than $300 million by May, 1945. During the war the Shell Plant approximated the size and activities of a small city. Administrative personnel from 40 states and over 10,000 employees worked in 13 production areas. Six cafeterias located in production lines and one main cafeteria served thousands of meals daily around the clock. There was a large medical department headed first by Dr. David Welton and later by Dr. Grace Jones, both of Charlotte. First aid stations were scattered over the plant. Medical staff numbered 52.

The safety department and a security force under the supervision of Stanhope Lineberry and later Captain W. H. Nichols under the U. S. Coast Guard maintained safety and security. The fire department had 50 members, but only a few flash fires occurred in loading lines during production. However, one chemical drying building burned, and the main cafeteria was destroyed by fire on a Sunday afternoon in 1944. The latter was rebuilt at a cost of $75,000. The health and safety record of the plant was among the best in the country. Due to perpetual vigilance, work in this munitions plant proved safer than in the average industrial factory.

The peak production of 213,143 final rounds in 24 hours was achieved on Pearl Harbor day in 1944. Production had far exceeded expectations, and the plant had to establish its own ammunition testing range in South Carolina.

On July 1, 1945, the Navy ordered the first cutback in production and personnel because of a large backlog of ammunition that had been built up for the fleet. Over 60 million rounds had been delivered in addition to millions of specialized shells such as armor piercing, target practice, loaded fuses, tracers and primers, and primed cartridge cases.

Two days after the end of the war with Japan, the government production contract with the U. S. Rubber Company was canceled. The Navy had maintained inspection offices at the plant that employed over 100 Charlotte women, but the Navy took title to the whole plant site in June, 1945. On November 5, the last departments of U. S. Rubber were removed and the Navy assumed complete control. The shell plant was commissioned a naval ammunition reserve depot as of this date. Many millions of inert components in process of manufacture by other activities were received and stored in over 70 magazines and warehouses. The Charlotte Observer believed the reserves of ammunition would prove valuable in the event of a future emergency.

The depot was also responsible for the preservation and maintenance of line production machinery and tooling. Much surplus equipment has been sold, but the remaining equipment was valued at over $2 million.

The Shell Plant was originally constructed to serve a limited war period. After the decision to turn it into a reserve depot, several major maintenance projects were found to be necessary, including the regravelling of miles of roads, reroofing of nearly all buildings, the renewal of power poles and railroad tracks and ties, and the repair and painting of the elevated water tanks. Buildings and improvements were valued in excess of $6.25 million. Some buildings familiar to wartime employees were renovated to new purposes.

The plant had a civilian personnel ceiling of 62, including maintenance men, ordinance men, and a small office staff. After it was commissioned as a naval ammunition depot, the commanding officers were Lt. Cdr. W. H. Ridpath, Captain F. P. Wencker, Captain Alston Ramsay, and since October, 1948, Captain O. P. Thomas, Jr.

This series will conclude in a few months with the final installment. Walter would like to interview anyone who has information about those who sold land for the plant or  worked at the plant, or are familiar with the transition to a privately-owned industrial park. Please contact Walter Neely by email at wlewneemoo@aol.com if you can contribute to the story.

Please email info@steelecreekresidents.org if you would like to receive copies of the original articles in Gleanings.

To comment on this story, please visit the Steele Creek Forum.

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