Penniman, the lost Williamsburg-area WWI boom town

Drive down old Penniman Road just south of Williamsburg VA and you’ll soon find yourself in what looks like a bygone era.

Old housing tracts give way to scattered homes and small industrial strips carved out of the woods — and as you near the Colonial Parkway traffic disappears and the trees take over.

It’s nothing like it was 100 years ago, when an army of laborers toiled to transform a slender wagon path into a hard-surfaced road for the new-fangled motor trucks hauling countless tons of supplies to the largest artillery shell-loading plant in the nation.

A new rail spur worked round-the-clock for the giant DuPont complex, too, bearing six trains of shift workers and as many as 300 boxcars a day filled with building materials for the ever-expanding plant — plus a deadly total of 2.8 million shells mostly sent straight to the Newport News piers and the war in France.

At its peak, the nonstop plant employed and housed 15,000 people — six times more than Williamsburg — and was building so rapidly for 6,500 more that six-unit apartments rose up complete in 29 1/2 hours.

It had electricity, sewer, water and hard roads, too, all at a time when pigs roamed free on muddy Duke of Gloucester Street.

But when the war ended in late 1918, the mammoth munitions factory closed, then disappeared.

“It started in early 1916, set off a land rush and quickly became this enormous village. But by 1921 they were selling off the pieces as salvage.”

Land crazy

Just how early and indispensable a role DuPont played in World War I can be seen in the observations of Lord John Fletcher Moulton, Director General of the British Explosives Department, who in 1916 credited the firm with “saving the British Army.”

But when it sent a buyer to look for land near Williamsburg in late 1915 — more than a year before America entered the war — its plans for Plant No. 37 focused squarely on the domestic market.

“Penniman started off being built to do something other than what it ended up doing,” says historian Lucas R. Clawson of DuPont’s Hagley Museum and Library.

“They built it to make dynamite — and then that job changed with the war.”

Buyer Daniel Caulfield started his search on the James River side of the Peninsula, with his first choice for a large, relatively remote site being 1,520 acres at Jamestown Island, Thornton says.

But when his offers were rebuffed by the owner — who had donated 22 acres there to the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities — he began assembling 5,000 acres on the York River.

By February 1916, surveyors were laying out a project shrouded in secrecy, but the Wilmington, Del., address of the bank issuing payments set off a land boom.

“Big plant at Williamsburg is now an assured fact,” reported the Daily Press on March 8 after Caulfield deposited $35,000 in the Bank of Williamsburg.

“DuPont had the building process down to a science,” Thornton says, describing the epic effort that transformed 4,000 box cars of building materials into an immense manufacturing plant and an instant town of some 15,000 people.

“People in Williamsburg said it rose up like a mushroom — and one lady later recalled that she’d never heard so many hammers singing. They were driving the nails so fast you couldn’t see the hammers.”

Psst, I’m a real estate agent.

This post was authored by local resident and REALTOR, John Womeldorf. John is known around town as Mr. Williamsburg, for both his extensive knowledge of the Williamsburg/ Hampton Roads/ Richmond VA area and his expertise helping buyers and sellers in the local real estate market.

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