STEELE CREEK NEWS
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.
Gone, Steele Creek is Reconciled to Big War Plant
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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 email@example.com if you can contribute to
firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to receive copies of the original articles in
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