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Why Do We Have So Much Industry? It All Started with the Shell Plant

(December 28, 2015) The Westinghouse Industrial Corridor is reportedly the second largest employment center in Mecklenburg County behind Uptown Charlotte and the largest industrial employment concentration in the state of North Carolina.

The corridor is the dominant feature affecting the geography of Steele Creek. It carves a large nonresidential swath through the middle of our community, separating Ayrsley, Berewick, Taragate, and other neighborhoods to the north from the Crossings, the Palisades, the Sanctuary, Yorkshire, and other neighborhoods around the RiverGate corner to the south. It provides employment for many Steele Creek residents but also generates a huge amount of traffic from employees driving into Steele Creek and clogging I-485 inbound in the morning and outbound in the afternoon. A large network of railroad spurs totaling about 30 miles continues to serve industries in Steele Creek today.
  40 mm

Bofors 40 mm anti-aircraft guns on a Mk 12
 quadruple mount firing on board
USS Hornet (CV-12), circa February 1945,
probably during gunnery practice.

It all got started in 1942 when a facility known locally as the Shell Plant was built to produce ordinance to support the Navy effort during World War II. The old Shell Plant covered 2260 acres. The land was sold by the federal government in 1959, after the plant closed. It became the Arrowood Business Park and was subdivided and sold off in smaller parcels. Later it spawned additional industrial development along Westinghouse Boulevard both east and west of the old Shell Plant as well as along Carowinds Blvd. The map below shows the area of the Shell Plant in yellow cross hatch based on a variety of historic maps.

The following was adapted from an article by Walter Neely in Gleanings, Newsletter of the Steele Creek Historical and Genealogical Society.

History of the Shell Plant – Part 1

The Charlotte Observer published an article about the Shell Plant on June 9, 1942, only three days after deed transfers for the first properties were registered.

The article said that surveyors had taken the first physical step toward construction of the huge plant. It would be operated by the United States Rubber Company for the production of ammunition for the United States Navy.

The article said that there would be about 3,000 persons on average employed in building the plant. It said that prospective workers should report to the site of the plant and make applications there in about a week. They predicted that construction might require six months.

In the meantime several officials of the United Sates Rubber Company had come to Charlotte from New York to help prepare for operation of the immense ordinance plant. Once the plant began operations, it was expected employ approximately 6,000 persons, the article stated.

It is unclear why the United States Rubber Company, later Uniroyal, obtained this contract since they primarily produced tires and rubber products. The entire contract worth $9,000,000.00 can be found in Book 1132 page 365 of the Mecklenburg Register of Deeds. Its title page states that it is a “Contract for the Acquisition and Installation of Special Additional Plant Equipment and Facilities Required to Expedite the National War Effort. Increase and Replacement of Naval Vessels Amor, Armaments, and Ammunition.” The contract, dated June 1, 1942, was between the United States of America and United States Rubber Company and signed by W. H. P. Blandy, Chief of the Bureau of Ordinance, acting under the Authority of the Secretary of the Navy.

The Scope of the Contract was for the contractor to “acquire and install or construct the buildings, machinery, equipment, facilities, services and appurtenances identified….furnishing or causing to be furnished the labor, materials, tools, machinery, equipment, facilities, supplies and services, adequate first aid, guard and fire fighting forces, and doing or causing to be done all other things necessary for the acquisition, installation, and construction thereof.” The contract and expenditures were authorized by Public Law No. 354, 77th Congress (December 18, 1941) entitled “An Act to Expedite the Prosecution of the War Effort” and Presidential Executive Order No. 9001 (December 27, 1941). It furthermore stated that “the contractor will assemble and load complete rounds of 40 mm ammunition.”

This contract was preceded by a Letter of Intent dated March 4, 1942, between the Government and the contractor to expedite the completion of the facilities in the interest of the successful prosecution of the war. The properties began to be purchased and assembled in June, 1942, and the plant was operational by November of that year. The contract consists of 24 pages with 33 Articles and an Appendix.

Can you imagine how long it would take to follow that process in 2015? From the intent to purchase, to contracts with the land owners, to a time for inspection, rezoning applications, public hearings, building permits and approvals, construction contracts, and completion would take years in today’s marketplace. Yet in 1942, the acquisition and construction was accomplished in less than six months.

The following article is reprinted from Volume 1, Building the Navy’s Bases in World War II: History of the Bureau of Yards and Docks and the Civil Engineer Corps, 1940-1946, by the United States Government Printing Office, Washington, 1947.

On the first of June 1942, a contract was made by the Navy department with the United States Rubber Company, for the construction of a 40-mm shell loading and assembly plant on a 2,260 acre site, 10 miles south of Charleston, N. C.

In this construction, 249 individual buildings, ranging in size from 6 by 6 feet to 870 by 500 feet, were erected, most of them of wood-frame construction concrete-block foundations. The plant had three loading lines, and construction was planned so that the first of these was completed and in operation while work continued on the other two. Within the area, 13 miles of railroad tracks and more than 8 miles of gravel roads were constructed. Wide dispersal of the plant made a central heating system impracticable, and five boiler houses were erected so that each could serve one or two general areas. A complete sewerage and sewage-disposal system for the plant was installed. Water was obtained from the city of Charlotte.

The first test shells were loaded on December 12, 1942, and loading line No. 1 was in operation by December 17.

Other plants for loading 40-mm and 20-mm shells were constructed at Bristol, Va., Mayfield, Ky., Chillicothe, Ohio, Elkton, Md., Peru, Ind., and Hanover, Mass. Each plant included many buildings dispersed over a wide area.

Yes, the first paragraph said it was “south of Charleston, NC.” They got the city right in the second paragraph about the water supply.

Not everyone was happy with the decision to locate the plant in Steele Creek and Pineville Townships. The following is a portion of an unpublished article by Linda Blackwelder. The newspaper article referred to is from the Charlotte Observer, November 22, 1942, written by Marion Wright.

The U. S. Rubber Company hurried construction of the 2,400 acres to manufacture ammunition for the war effort. The community was stunned. In an article in the Charlotte Observer in the fall of 1942, it was noted that this was some of the best farm land in the area and that, “Home-loving, God-fearing men and women have tilled this soil since before the American Revolution. They erected homes, established churches and schools. A progressive, albeit a quiet and pleasant community, had evolved through each succeeding generation until today. Its success is not measured as much by material well-being as by its deep rooted feeling of permanency and law abiding citizenship; its idealism centered in home, church and community development.” The community asked the Rev. Dr., Raymond Young, minister of Central Steele Creek Presbyterian and Pleasant Hill Presbyterian, to act as spokesman for them and after appealing to the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce and then to Congressmen, the protest was sent to the Secretary of the Navy. The Secretary explained in his reply that this site was chosen, “because of level terrain, an interior location, easy transportation facilities and the type of pure labor needed, already at hand. Sorry I cannot grant the request and hope for the community co-operation.”

The community already had sent their sons to war and knowing the need for this facility to help the war effort, Dr. Young aided the community in no further protest. He stated, “Resentment died a natural death and full co-operation has been accorded from that day on, in every way possible. Men and women of the community joined the force of workers at the plant and all available space in the homes for miles around is filled with workers from supervisors to laborers. The plant is nearing completion now and we still hold on to our cherished ideals and make every effort to keep them alive.” At that time, Dr. Young made the statement that the facility would change Steele Creek community forever. At the time he said it, few would have any idea just how much the statement was true.

Central Steele Creek Presbyterian on York Road (now South Tryon Street) sat just yards from the entrance to this guarded facility and did all they could to help entertain, feed, and provide spiritual enrichment to those who worked at the facility.

So, how did they manage to assemble such a large parcel of land in such a short time? The Register of Deeds of Mecklenburg Count records the sales of the property to United States Rubber Company, a New Jersey Corporation with an office at Rockefeller Center, 1230 Sixth Avenue, New York, N.Y.

In addition, United States Rubber Company purchased Right of Way for utilities and railroad from the following:

The average sale price was a little over $108.00 per acre. However, the lowest sale price was $42.78 per acre and the highest was $875.00 per acre. It is unclear if agents of the purchaser contacted the property owners as a group or approached each individually. Was it done quietly or publically?

Part 2 of the Shell Plant history covers plant operations during the war. See Steele Creek Contributed to the World War II Effort.

Walter would like to interview anyone who has information about those who worked at the plant or sold land for the plant. Please contact Walter Neely by email at wlewneemoo@aol.com if you worked at the Shell Plant or sold property or know anyone who did and can contribute to the story. He will try to contact you to get a personal interview.

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