Jasper Sherman Bilby: To Map the Earth, Part II

Part one, covering Bilby’s early life and years working for the US Coast and Geodetic Survey, can be read here.

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A Bilby Steel Tower, 110 ft. high in the San Joaquin Valley, California. Photograph by Floyd Risvold. Courtesy of NOAA.
A Bilby Steel Tower, 110 ft. high in the San Joaquin Valley, California. Photograph by Floyd Risvold. Courtesy of NOAA.

Jasper Sherman Bilby’s time in the US Coast and Geodetic Survey (US C&GS) is best remembered for his invention, the Bilby Steel Tower. The tower revolutionized the Survey’s procedures, costs, and efficiency. As described by historian John Noble Wilford, the Bilby Tower was used for horizontal-control surveys (measuring latitude and longitude) and allowed surveyors to see over hills, trees, and other impediments to make their measurements more accurate.

In his manual, Bilby Steel Tower for Triangulation, Bilby detailed this problem of visibility:

In many regions it is not possible to select stations for a scheme of triangulation and have the stations intervisible from the ground, as trees, buildings, and other objects obstruct the line of vision between adjacent points. On geodetic surveys, covering wide expanses of territory, the curvature of the earth must also be taken into account. Towers are, therefore, necessary to elevate above intervening obstructions the observer and his instrument at one station and the signal lamp or object on which he makes his observations at the distant station.

According to US C&GS documents on his field assignments, Bilby began his designs on the tower as early as December 1926. He then took his early design plans to the Aeromotor Factory in Chicago to make a prototype. Once the prototype proved successful, twelve complete towers were manufactured by the same company and were first tested on assignment in Albert Lee, Minnesota with positive results.

A schematic drawing of the Bilby Steel Tower. Courtesy of NOAA.
A schematic drawing of the Bilby Steel Tower. Courtesy of NOAA.

In terms of design, the Bilby Tower was actually comprised of two independent towers. An inner tower carried the intricate instruments for survey calculations and the outer tower supported the surveyors who made the measurements. These towers never connected, so that the vibrations of either one did not disturb the survey calculations. In 1927, it was named the “Bilby Steel Tower” by Colonel Lester E. Jones, then director of the US C&GS.

In a 1927 commendation letter, Secretary of Commerce (and future President) Herbert Hoover commended Bilby’s invention for its cost and time efficiency and cited the surveyor’s service as essential to the United States government.

I have just learned, upon my return to Washington, of the excellent results which the Coast and Geodetic Survey is getting in its triangulation from the steel towers which you designed.

The accelerated progress of the work, accompanied by a reduction in its cost, is highly gratifying to me and justify the commendation which this letter conveys.

However, Hoover’s letter was not the only special commendations he received while in the US C&GS. He earned financial promotions through 1915- 1916 and in 1930, the position of “Chief Signalman” was created for him. Understanding Bilby’s work as essential to the US C&GS, President Hoover used an executive order in 1932 to waive the mandatory federal retirement age.

Letter from Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover to Jasper Sherman Bilby. Hoover commends Bilby for his invention of the Bilby Steel Tower. Courtesy of Surveyors Historical Society Collection.
Letter from Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover to Jasper Sherman Bilby. Hoover commends Bilby for his invention of the Bilby Steel Tower. Courtesy of Surveyors Historical Society Collection.

Within the first ten years of use, the Bilby Steel Tower saved the federal government $3,072,000, according to the itemized cost listing of both wooden and steel towers from 1927-1937 by the US C&GS field assignment reports. The 1928 US C&GS annual report explained how the implementation of Bilby Towers cut unit costs down by nearly half, much more than the projected 25-35% savings. It also increased their surveying progress to over “150 miles per month.”

Within a few years of its invention, the Bilby Steel Tower was used in nations such as France, Australia, Belgium, and Denmark. In particular, Major M. Hotine, Royal Engineer of the Ordinance Survey Office in Southampton, England, wrote of his satisfaction with the Bilby Steel Tower in the December 1938 issue of the US C&GS Field Engineers Bulletin:

We have just completed among other work this season, the primary observation for our new triangulation in the Eastern Counties of England. The country here is so flat and enclosed that we had to use Bilby Steel Towers at 34 of the main Stations [sic], to say nothing of several secondary stations surrounding such Steel Tower States, we thought it would be advisable to observe at the same time as the primary work. You may be interested to know that these admirable Steel Towers were entirely satisfactory; and that we were very deeply impressed with the conception, design, and construction of these Towers.

Along his invention, he wrote several government manuals on the theory and practice of geodetic surveying. His most famous and influential work was the manual on his invention, the Bilby Steel Tower. Bilby Steel Tower for Triangulation (1929) covered every aspect of his invention, from concept and construction to its usage and transport. It stayed in publication through two editions. Other manuals include Precise Traverse and Triangulation in Indiana (1922), Reconnaissance and Signal Building (1923), and Signal Building (1943).

Jasper Sherman (right) with his son and fellow surveyor Walter J. Bilby (left), circa 1926. Courtesy of Surveyor's Historical Society Collection.
Jasper Sherman (right) with his son and fellow surveyor Walter J. Bilby (left), circa 1926. Courtesy of Surveyor’s Historical Society Collection.

Bilby retired from the US C&GS in 1937. His final assignment was at a triangulation station in Hunt City, Jasper County, Illinois, completing his 53 year career exactly where it began on the 39th parallel. His 1927 manual for the Bilby Tower was revised for surveyors in 1940 and his work continued to influence the trade well into the 1980s. The last Bilby Tower was erected in 1984, in Connecticut. A complete survey tower, originally constructed on an island south of New Orleans, Louisiana called Couba in 1972, was restored and moved to the town park in Bilby’s hometown of Osgood, Ripley County, Indiana in 2014.

Bilby died on July 18, 1949 in Batesville, Indiana. He was buried in Washington Park Cemetery in Indianapolis. His long career and advancements in geodetic surveying technology, particularly on the 39th parallel, ensured the completion and accuracy of the National Spatial Reference System (NSRP), a first-order triangulation network of the United States.

The NSRP, according to the National Geodetic Survey, is a “consistent coordinate system that defines latitude, longitude, height, scale, gravity, and orientation throughout the United States.” This system’s continued use ensures accurate information for the United State’s Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS), known domestically as the Global Positioning System (GPS).

The National Spatial Reference System. Bilby's work on the 39th Parallel laid the groundwork for the completion of this system. Today, it informs our GPS technologies. Courtesy of NOAA.
The National Spatial Reference System. Bilby’s work on the 39th Parallel laid the groundwork for the completion of this network of survey points. Today, it informs the US’s GPS technologies. Courtesy of NOAA.

Jasper Sherman Bilby’s innovation and inventiveness left an indelible mark on surveying in the United States and the world. His Bilby Steel Tower, and the knowledge it advanced, revolutionized mapmaking for generations.

In short, Bilby helped us map the earth.

Jasper Sherman Bilby: To Map the Earth, Part I

Surveyor Jasper Sherman Bilby on assignement in Minnesota, 1903. Courtesy of NOAA.
Surveyor Jasper Sherman Bilby on assignment in Minnesota, 1903. Courtesy of NOAA.

Indiana’s history is rich with inventors and pioneers. Philo T. Farnsworth, who lived in Fort Wayne for over a decade, invented the television and designed an early model of a fusion reactor. Elwood Haynes, Kokomo native and scientific prodigy, designed and assembled one of the first horseless carriages in the United States. Another Hoosier whose scientific mind for innovation proved indispensable to the nation was Jasper Sherman Bilby. His steel surveying tower radically reshaped the accuracy of map making and left a permanent mark on the way we view the United States.

Jasper Sherman Bilby (known as “J.S.”) was born in Rush County, Indiana on July 16, 1864 to Jasper N. Bilby and Margaret E. (Hazard) Bilby. Bilby’s early life has a rather tragic side; his father committed suicide in 1877 after being arrested for the sexual assault of one of his daughters. This hardship forced Bilby to leave school and to work on the family farm for a number of years in Fayette County to support his widowed mother.  After his marriage to Luella Cox in 1891, Bilby moved to Ripley County as early as 1893, according to Ripley County deed index books.

Plat book image of the Bilby Homestead, 1921. Coutesy of Ball State University.
Plat book image of the Bilby Homestead near Osgood, Ripley County, 1921. Courtesy of Ball State University.

Bilby joined the United States Coast & Geodetic Survey in September of 1884. Congress established this agency, originally called the United States Survey of the Coast, on February 10, 1807. Initially under the purview of the Treasury Department, the survey was reorganized under the US Department of Commerce in 1878 and renamed the United States Coast & Geodetic Survey (US C&GS). Today, it is under the umbrella of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and called the National Geodetic Survey (NGS).

Geodetic surveying is the geographical analysis of an area of land or bodies of water, accounting for the shape and curvature of the Earth. According to the NGS official website, the National Geodetic Survey, from its inception in 1807, has ensured accurate data for government and commercial purposes, such as “mapping and charting, navigation, flood risk determination, transportation, [and] land use and ecosystem management.” Additionally, the National Geodetic Survey’s work provides “authoritative spatial data, models, and tools [that] are vital for the protection and management of natural and manmade resources and support the economic prosperity and environmental health of the Nation.”

Bilby conducted his first survey work in Illinois along the 39th parallel. According to surveyor Raymond Stanton Patton, the 39th parallel was a line of latitude that spanned from Cape May, New Jersey to Point Area, California, and was the “first great piece of geodetic work accomplished by the Survey….”  His official position within the US C&GS for most of his career was that of “signalman.” A signalman uses flags or signal lights to indicate points within a geometric calculation between two survey points, usually between a point on shore and a point within a body of water. This practice ensures that those making the calculations on shore accurately represent the point in water.

A map of the 39th Parallel Arc. According to NOAA, it served as the "first great geodetic arc in the western hemisphere ." Courtesy of NOAA.
A map of the 39th parallel arc. According to NOAA, it served as the “first great geodetic arc in the western hemisphere .” Courtesy of NOAA.

Bilby traveled 511,400 miles during his 53 years in the US C&GS, from Illinois to California, according to his career field reports. Newspapers throughout the country recorded his cross-country traveling for the US C&GS, notably his work in states like Louisiana and Texas. Department of Commerce publications also chronicle his time in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Georgia, detailing his work in specific counties. In 1920, Bilby and his team surveyed the majority of Wisconsin and Illinois, providing exact coordinates for most regions adjacent to water. In these surveys, Bilby used the Traverse method of surveying, which is less accurate but quicker to calculate than Triangulation. (The traverse method uses pointed lines for measurements while triangulation uses angular measurements based on triangles.) Bilby and his team completed surveys within the Rio Grande valley in 1917, specifically from Harlington to Dryden. His efforts in the eastern area of the Rio Grande ensured more accurate measurements, adding to the US C&GS’s triangulation of the American west.

A 1926 article published in Popular Mechanics provides some of Bilby’s own words about his job, especially its difficulty before his invention and some personal stories. One of Bilby’s tasks within the US C&GS was reconnaissance, which is the practice of marking triangulation stations before the main survey party arrives. This cuts down on their work and ensures accuracy in their measurements. He told the magazine about the harsh weather and loneliness that often accompanies a surveyor’s life:

Especially…when the wind is howling through the trees, and the rain is pattering down on the tent, and you know there’s little change of anyone dropping by.

An artistic depiction of a wooden survey tower, in the July 1926 issue of Popular Mechanics. Courtesy of Google Books.
An artistic depiction of a wooden survey tower, in the July 1926 issue of Popular Mechanics. Courtesy of Google Books.

Nevertheless, he enjoyed his work and appreciated how radio was improving the public’s knowledge of the work of the US C&GS. Bilby notes:

Radio has made the coast and geodetic survey known more than it used to be. A few years ago people were always asking what the name meant, but now I often find they know us pretty well, from talks they’ve heard on the air. One lecture on mountain building which was broadcast from Washington was the means of getting me a fine dinner. I had stopped at a farmhouse to make inquiries and the farmer noticed my ‘geodetic’ tag. He mentioned this talk he’d heard, and when I said it must have been given by the chief of my division, Major Bowie, he became so interested that he made me stay to dinner and answer his questions. However, that wasn’t unwelcome after eating my own cooking for so long.

This story was published a year before the first usage of the Bilby Steel Tower, when wooden towers were still standard equipment.

His early years as a geodetic surveyor, particularly his negative experiences with wooden survey towers, would influence his greatest contribution to the field: the invention of the Bilby Steel Tower.

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Bilby’s influential invention, the Bilby Steel Tower, will be covered in Part II.

Bean Blossom: The “Brightest Spot” in Brown County

JAMBOREE TENT GRAPHIC
Covered Bridge at the intersection of Indiana Highways 135 and 45, near the original site of the Brown County Jamboree. Courtesy of  Indiana Memory.

By 1939, the Great Depression had ended and Hoosiers had a little more money in their pockets. More folks had access to automobiles and most had a little bit of free time after church on Sunday afternoons. So rural Hoosiers gathered at each other’s homes, turned on the radio, and listened to variety and comedy shows and country music. Sometimes they got out their own fiddles, rolled back the rugs, and danced, much as they had since the previous century.

The Hendricks family of Brown County plays music on their porch, no date.

 

They also gathered at schools and halls for more organized concerts and dances. Despite such diversions, down in the quaintly-named town of Bean Blossom in Brown County, locals reported there was still the feeling that there was nothing to do. According to an August 10, 1941 Indianapolis Star article, Bean Blossom had no movie theater and the town’s only tavern was closed Sunday, so the locals “must provide their own entertainment.”

BROWN COUNTY MAP GRAPHIC
http://www.browncounty.com/files/file/County_Map14.pdf

Bean Blossom, originally spelled “Beanblossom,” is located in Brown County just four miles north of Nashville. The history of the descriptive moniker is clouded with folklore. There are at least two different accounts of men with the name of Bean Blossom or Beanblossom who almost drowned in the creek which was then named for them. An alternate explanation is that it is a translation from the Miami name for the creek. Still another tradition holds that the town is named after the wild bean plants that grew along the stream and provided sustenance for early settlers.

In the late 1930s, early 1940s, there still wasn’t much to the little town, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t excitement to be had – especially at the intersection of Indiana Highways 135 and 45, where there was a lunch counter at a filling station owned by Dan Williams. Sometimes musicians gathered there to play country and “hillbilly” music. They played some tunes they grew up with, and some they heard on the radio – country music popularized by the broadcast of the Grand Ole Opry. One day a man was passing through town with a speaker system set up on top of his truck through which he could amplify records. This drew people to the filling station to listen to music and some of the locals got the idea to put on a free show. In 1941, the Brown County Democrat recalled: “The Brown County Jamboree, which it has been commonly named, was not formally planned but just grew out of an evening when a passing truckman with a loudspeaker system proposed that he connect it up and play records which he was allowed to do.”

RUND PROPERTY GRAPHIC

According to recollections gathered by historian Thomas Adler in his thoroughly researched work Bean Blossom: The Brown County Jamboree and Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Festival, the first show was modest, but successful. There was one microphone set up on a stand and a small amplifier for the musicians who played popular songs both live and on recordings. One of the original founders and performers, Guy Smith, had some experience organizing country band performances and dances. Another, Denzel Ragsdale, also known as “Spurts” or the “Silver Spur” was a performer and took on the role of soundman and promoter. He created a series of “ballyhoo cars” to advertise the free show. Painted with the words “Brown County Jamboree,” the cars had horn speakers on the roof that projected sound from the record player and a microphone located in the car. Jack McDonald, an early Jamboree attendee, recollected the events but not the names in an interview collected by Adler:

Sometime in the early forties when life in the country was a little slow, some men decided that Bean Blossom needed a little country music to lighten things up a bit. One person had an old station wagon with a sound system including a couple of big horn-type speaker mounted on the roof of the car. . . they [The car owner and two others] went through Bean Blossom and other towns, called out to those they say standing near their path or sitting in yards and porches for them to ‘Come to Bean Blossom for a free music show!’” Now, a short time earlier, about a week or two, these same country music buffs had set a microphone and speaker system up on the grassy area in front of the local filling station . . . In those days and nights were at a slow pace so a little thing like someone singing into a microphone and telling stories created a little excitement.

JAMBOREE TENT GRAPHICThe “free” aspect of the free show didn’t last long, as the organizers couldn’t help but see how the crowd was growing. The lunchroom business was booming and there was no reason the promoters and performers shouldn’t make a little money too. They built a small stage, fenced in the area, and started to charge twenty five cents per show. Soon, they put up a tent as can be seen in the only known photograph of the Jamboree from this period.

The admission fee didn’t dissuade the crowds. The Brown County Democrat reported August 18, 1941, “Large crowds have been attracted to the place and each evening the performance has been staged the crowds have been becoming larger. Attendance was estimated at over 4,000 for last Sunday night.” The Indianapolis Star covered the boom in attendance at the Jamboree as well, even noting that the State Police had to get involved with traffic control. Lester C. Nagley, reporting for the Indianapolis Star August 10, 1941, wrote:

Thousands of furrriners who have been touring Hoosierdom on their vacations and have been visiting Brown county’s hills are writing postcards to send back-home, telling their acquaintances about this rustic program of Sunday evening recitals of Brown County Music . . . Well, the fiddling and the ballad singing has gone over big for the last six weeks and traffic jams at this crossroads village in the Bean Blossom valley from sundown to almost midnight have required special duty by state police. Cars bearing many foreign tags . . . are thronging the village. Parking space is becoming a problem too.

In addition to drawing large crowds, the Jamboree drew the attention of radio stations. According to the Brown County Democrat in August 1941:

Brown County talent may soon be heard over the air, and believe it or not it will be broadcast from Beanblossom, according to Dan Williams, proprietor of the lunch room at the south edge of Beanblossom. Mr Williams states that representatives of Indianapolis broadcasting stations have been to Beanblossom several times in efforts to make satisfactory working arrangements to broadcast the programs which are being held there each Sunday night.

RUND PROPERTY GRAPHICJust before the Jamboree launched, locals Francis and Mae Rund had been making improvements to their nearby property and building cabins with some sort of tourism-related business in mind as early as August 1940. By the summer of 1941, as the large crowds coming to the Jamboree were causing traffic and parking problems and more seating was needed at the outdoor venue, the Runds saw an opportunity to construct a permanent building (as opposed to a tent) so the programs could continue be held in the winter. Construction began in October. The barn-like building was funded by residents and was to seat 2,500 attendees. On October 23, 1941, the Brown County Democrat reported:

Plans for a large permanent building to be used for the Brown County Jamboree in Beanblossom to replace the tent which is now being used have been completed. . . It is to be located on the land owned by Francis Rund just north of Beanblossom where the tent which houses the jamboree now stands.

JAMBOREE AD GRAPHICThe shows during the Rund decade (1941-51) generally featured a variety show format hosted by an emcee which included comedic performers as well as music. However, the country and “hillbilly” music was always the main draw. Adler writes, “Brown County Jamboree shows were professional, fast paced, and entertaining. From the beginning, the music, comedy, and ambience of the site combined to present a nostalgic and entertaining whole.” The Indianapolis Star on August 10, 1941 described the Jamboree as “a co-operative program providing real, homespun talent, rail-fence variety of music and frivolity . . . old fiddlers and rural crooners, who would sing and warble Brown county ballads brought over the mountains by their pioneer ancestors.” The Indianapolis Times noted October 10, 1941 that in addition to “singing and dancing” the Jamboree included “vaudeville skits.” The Runds ran large advertisements for the Jamboree in the local newspaper and partnered with nearby radio stations, notably WIRE and WFBM, Indianapolis. On October 23, 1941, the Brown County Democrat reported that the Indianapolis radio station WIRE referenced the Jamboree many times during its programs.

Even gas rationing during World War II couldn’t keep the attendees away. One participant joked that the limited gasoline only kept people from leaving Bean Blossom. Adler explained, “Rationing took effect locally in late 1942, but audiences never abandoned the Jamboree. Weekly attendees from inside the county sustained the show through the war and the following years; that pattern remained unchanged until late-1960s bluegrass festivals began to draw national and international fans.” According to Adler, however, the advertising and perhaps the Rund’s interest waned by 1951. The Jamboree needed a new owner and would soon find it in Bill Monroe, one of the biggest country music stars of all time, and the “Father of Bluegrass.”

Part Two: Bill Monroe in Indiana: From Lake to Brown County, Oil to Bluegrass

Purchase Thomas Adler’s Bean Blossom: The Brown County Jamboree and Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Festivals in the IHB Book Shop.

World War II Comes to Indiana: The Indiana Army Ammunition Plant, Part II

Learn about Charlestown’s rapid transformation resulting from the WWII smokeless powder plant in Part I.
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Employment of women and African Americans at the Charlestown smokeless powder ordnance facility, groups that often faced exclusion or discrimination in the workplace, contributed to the plant’s nationally-recognized production accomplishments.

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Power Plant Building 401-1 at the Charlestown ordnance facility, Image courtesy of Abandoned, http://abandonedonline.net/locations/industry/indiana-ammunitions-depot/

WWII defense needs quickly brought women into the labor force, particularly later in the war as men left factories to enter into combat. The New York Times reported on October 19, 1941 that “entry of women into the defense factories of the nation is something that is just beginning on a considerable scale . . . now they are utilized for a wide variety of tasks by at least nineteen large plants.” The article asserted that women surpassed male workers in “finger dexterity” and “powers of observation” and possessed “superior traits in number memory,” completing tasks like painting planes, covering oil lines and packing powder bags. The article also reported that thousands of women had begun to produce smokeless powder at plants in Indiana, Alabama and Virginia and that “care is taken to select only women who are emotionally stable for these hazardous tasks.”

women cartoon yuhuck
Image courtesy of 1945 Indiana Ordnance Works newsletter, Powder Horn vol. 3, no. 1, 11, Charlestown-Clark County Public Library, Indiana Memory Digital Collections.

As with the nation, Indiana began employing women en masse at munitions factories and by 1944 the Indianapolis Star reported that while industrial work was once considered “unsuitable for women . . . this view has been abandoned since employers have found that women can and have been willing to adjust themselves to practically any type of labor if given the opportunity.”

Women were hired in large numbers at Charlestown’s ordnance facility and, while originally serving as mail runners and lab technicians, they eventually replaced men as powder cutting machine attendants. The bag-loading plant known as HOP employed 3,200 workers by December 1941, most of whom were women, who sewed bags and packed them with powder. By 1942, so many women worked at the Charlestown plants that the town had to rapidly expand child care facilities, enlarging the community center nursery at Pleasant Ridge Project.

In addition to child care, transportation proved an obstacle to women hoping to enter Charlestown’s workforce. The Charlestown Courier reported that women were prohibited from riding the “four special trains bringing employes to the Powder Plant. They have to find some other way to get to their jobs here.” Additionally, the New York Times reported that women working industrial jobs made “only about 60 percent of that of men doing comparable work.”

fam damily
Image courtesy of 1945 Indiana Ordnance Works newsletter, Powder Horn vol. 3, no. 6, 2, Charlestown-Clark County Public Library, Indiana Memory Digital Collections.

“Trailer wives” in Charlestown felt they too contributed to defense efforts by relocating their families to ordnance towns where their husbands found employment. The Indianapolis Star described these women as a “gallant band who ‘follow construction’ in order to keep the family life being lived as a unit and not subject themselves and their husbands to the hardships of separation.”

Much like women in WWII, defense needs partially opened the labor force to African Americans. A questionnaire from the Indiana State Defense Council reported that from July 1, 1941 to July 1, 1942 those firms reporting African American employment experienced a net increase of 82% in the number of blacks employed. Initially African Americans worked at Charlestown’s smokeless powder plant primarily in janitorial and unskilled fields. However, by the end of 1942, due to a labor shortage, they found employment in various roles, such as chemists, plant laborers, and plant operators.

black worker
John Williams, Nitrocellulose Department employee, after safety incident, Image courtesy of 1945 Indiana Ordnance Works newsletter, Powder Horn vol. 3, no. 12, 5, Charlestown-Clark County Public Library, Indiana Memory Digital Collections.

Former plant employees stated in interviews that they witnessed little or no segregation, but that separate restrooms may have existed at one time. However, housing and schooling for African Americans in Charlestown was segregated and often in poor condition. Due to protests by some white residents regarding mixed housing units, a section of 130 units were separated for black workers with a 300 foot wide area. A 1942 Louisville Courier-Journal article about the deplorable state of Clark County African-American schools, particularly in Charlestown Township, stated that grade school students:

were broken out in a rash of goose pimples yesterday morning as they shivered at their antiquated desks. . . . A not unbitter wind whistled thru broken window panes and thru cracks in the walls of the sixty-five year old frame building as twenty-three students . . . huddled together and with stiffened fingers signed up for a year of ‘education.’

The boom afforded limited employment opportunities for African Americans outside the plant, despite earlier employer prejudice, which often barred them from working at local Charlestown businesses.

In the spring of 1945, after deliberation by the Army, War Production Board, and union officials, approximately 1,000 German prisoners of war were transferred to Charlestown to supplement construction of the rocket powder plant (IOW2), the third WWII ordnance plant at the facility. The Charlestown Courier described the POWs:

“Far from supermen, the German POWs employed on the Rocket Plant are predominantly youthful, many never having required a razor to date. They seem to be in good spirits and are healthy and husky. A surprisingly large number speak English and don’t hesitate to say they would rather remain in this country.”

The Indianapolis Star reported on August 19, 1945 that the POWs had left the plant and returned to Fort Knox and other camps where they were “obtained.” Newspapers located by IHB staff did not report on the POWs’ contributions, but Steve Gaither and Kimberly Kane state in their report on the facility that it was “doubtful that the POWs contributed directly to construction.”

The massive Charlestown ordnance facility produced more than one billion pounds of smokeless powder in World War II, nearly as much as the “total volume of military explosives made for the United States in World War I” (Indianapolis Star Magazine, 1948). Output levels were so high that the military nationally recognized the facility’s production and safety records, conferring upon the plant the Army-Navy “E” Award, awarded to only 5% of the estimated war plants in the country during WWII.

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Image courtesy of 1945 Indiana Ordnance Works newsletter, Powder Horn vol. 3, no. 9, 3, Charlestown-Clark County Public Library, Indiana Memory Digital Collections.
award
Indiana Ordnance Works Excellence of Performance Program August 10, 1942, Charlestown-Clark County Public Library, Indiana Memory Digital Collections.

National munitions production wound down with termination of the two-front war, which concluded first on May 7, 1945 with German surrender and Japan’s informal agreement to surrender on August 14, 1945. The plants at Charlestown gradually reduced payroll in August before eventually shutting down. The Richmond Palladium noted that after reductions “scarcely a wheel turned, or a hammer fell. Now there are just a few thousand ‘running out’ the powder which was in process, and putting the whole installation in weather-tight conditions.”

The Indianapolis Star reported on August 19 of that year that Charlestown is “dying with the same gusto with which it was born.” The Richmond Palladium described Charlestown folding up “like an Arabian tent village,” as trailer caravans departed and workers returned to various states across the nation. Although the abrupt exodus shocked local residents, worried about maintaining their postwar economy, a trickle of new residents soon arrived, including veterans and their families. Boom town activity returned to Charlestown during the Korean and Vietnam wars when the ordnance facility again began producing powder, reuniting workers from the WWII era.

Charlestown’s 1940s ordnance plants illustrated how WWII energized local economies and afforded women and African Americans job opportunities. Accommodating the massive facility transformed Charlestown from a town to a city and led to its first sewage system,the resurfacing and improvement of miles of roads, and two major housing projects.

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View stunning 21st-century photos of the Charleston facility, such as this Air Test House, via Abandoned: http://abandonedonline.net/locations/industry/indiana-ammunitions-depot/