A blast from the past about the history of Hercules

A blast from the past about the history of Hercules
The city demolished a 13-foot tall statue of Hercules in 1920 after many people found it offensive.

Hercules began as a manufacturing plant that made dynamite and later TNT.

Known at that time as California Powder Works (CPW), it was first located on the sandy dunes that are now Golden Gate Park. As the growing population of San Francisco began getting too close to the plant, CPW moved production to the East Bay.

Because the Gold Rush of 1849 and the Civil War had made it difficult to get dynamite from factories in the East, several plants opened to produce explosives in the East Bay. Vulcan Powder Works was near Stege on the San Pablo Rancho, and the Atlas Powder Plant was at Giant, where the Point Pinole Regional Park is today.

CPW built its plant on 45 acres near Pinole in 1879. The company erected the buildings in gullies and ravines to separate the different products and to minimize the damage if one line exploded. W.A. Slocum & Co.’s “The History of Contra Costa County” describes an 1882 explosion in detail. People felt the blast in Oakland, San Rafael and Livermore, but only one of the 50 men working there was killed.

The Northern Railway station nearest the site was named Powning after CPW’s general manager. Upon Powning’s retirement in 1895, however, the station was renamed Hercules – the brand name of explosives CPW produced.

Hercules incorporated

In 1900, company officials applied for and were given the right to incorporate. At this point, Hercules became an entity with the privilege of governing itself and making its own laws.

Homes were built for the factory worker’s families. Twenty of those homes have been remodeled and are now being occupied. There were dormitories for the single men, and 350 Chinese were billeted in two dormitories with bunks stacked three high.

The Hercules Club, the social center of the community, included a meeting room, dining hall, post office and bar. In town, there was a hospital, company store and hotel. The CPW office building is still in existence but under private ownership. There were no other stores, so people trekked to nearby Pinole – which also offered 14 saloons. Jennifer Posedel and Stephen Lawton provide more detailed information in the book “Hercules,” which is available at cocohistory.org.

In 1907, the U.S. government filed an antitrust suit against DuPont, which had acquired full control of CPW in 1869 though it continued to use the CPW name. The result of that suit, in 1913, created two new companies, one of which was the Hercules Powder Co.

Statue too graphic

Also in 1913, a statue of Hercules was erected on a hill overlooking the Southern Pacific tracks. Though the 13-foot high Hercules was draped in a lion’s skin, many found the frontal view too graphic. It was demolished in 1920.

The Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 resulted in 14 deaths, despite an ordinance that everyone wear a mask to cover mouth and nostrils when in public places.

During World War I, the Hercules plant was the largest producer of TNT – at 7 million pounds a month. The plant greatly expanded during World War II, and it was claimed that they had produced 1.8 billion pounds of ordnance.

After the wars, the plant shifted to producing fertilizer that used nitrogen in its manufacturing.  After 75 years, the plant was sold in 1977.

In 1987, the Contra Costa Times headlined Hercules as the fastest growing city in Contra Costa County.  In 1989, its population was 14,550. Today, the population is estimated to be about 25,000. Talk about an explosion.

The Contra Costa County History Center prepares this column, using materials from the society’s collections. The center at 724 Escobar St., Martinez, is currently closed due to the coronavirus. For more information, visit cocohistory.org.