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The du Ponts and Gunpowder

Article by Tom Straka
Photographs by Pat Straka


Charcoal burners making charcoal for the gunpowder. 
This went on all along the creek.

If anyone has kept track of our columns, they would have noticed many of the articles deal with charcoal. Charcoal kilns, ironworks, and now even gunpowder. Technically, this column's travel location is Hagley Museum and Library, an educational institiution located in northernmost Delaware that preserves and interprets the history of American enterprise. However, our real topic is the manufacture of gunpowder.
All along the river the cultivated willows grew and still grow.
They were an integral part of the process.
Our topic could have been been the du Pont family in America, as this is their ancestorial home,  and they located their gunpowder mills on the property. In 1802, Eleuthere Irenee du Pont, a French imigrant, established his gunpowder mills on the banks of the Brandywine Creek. This is "where the du Pont story begins." The location provided all the necessities for such a mill: a water flow sufficient to power a mill, available timber of the proper species (specifically willow, a tree that makes charcoal fine enough for gunpowder), close proximity to the Delaware River and shipments of sulfur and saltpeter (the other two ingredients of gunpowder), and nearby stone quarries that would provide building materials.  Over time it grew into the largest black powder manufacturing firm in the world—the E. I. du Pont Nemours & Company.

Our topic could have been the Brandywine Valley. There are many more du Pont mansions and other museums close-by.  There is a discounted Brandywine Treasure Trail Passport that will allow visitors into 11 museums and gardens along a 12-mile stretch of road that follows the Brandywine Creek.  It gives a view of the how the American aristocracy lived. Nemours Mansion and Gardens (another du Pont plantation) is one of the eleven. The mansion has 70 rooms and the French ancestry shows in a Louis XVI style of architecture and Versailles-style gardens.


Eleutherian Mills – the first du Pont family
home in America. Courtesy Hagley Museum
But our topic is Hagley Museum and Library.  It has the original mansion and gardens. The mansion can be toured and the restored French-style gardens are open. E. I. du Pont had a love of gardening and it shows yet today.  Eleutherian Mills, the Georgian-style mansion, was the original du Pont family home in America. It was built by E. I. du Pont in 1803 and it reflects the tastes of five generations of du Pont's that lived there. Empire, Victorian, and Federal periods of furniture are accentuated in the various room settings. Inside are exhibits and demonstrations that highlight the connections between early industrial technology and early American industry. Exhibits also showcase personal stories of nineteenth century DuPont Company workers, including everyday life and how lifestyles improved with changing technology and new production methods in the mill.

Enough of the worker's community (Worker's Hill) still exists to give an idea of what life was like for the workers. A restored 1880's machine shop sits at the bottom of Worker's Hill. Volunteers demonstrate the machinery that is powered by whirring belts. Further up Worker's Hill the Gibbons House gives insight into how a powder yard foreman's family might live:  what their meals were like and what type of furniture and conveniences they had.  Even the old schoolhouse is nearby and one can see what their lessons looked like.  There are interpreters in period dress that will explain how a normal family lived and what their daily activities were. Belin House Restaurant is on Worker's Hill and offers a panoramic view of the estate. There is even a store that sells tourist items located in a historic building once used for cotton and wool picking.  The estate is large and the attractions are scattered enough that a small bus will carry the weary from area to area.


The buildings that housed the gunpowder works were built for safety, to endure an explosion. So, it should not be surprising that most of the buildings in the powder yard are still there. There are plenty of mansions and gardens in the United States, but few places to an on-location historical overview of the gunpowder industry. Our emphasis will be the du Pont Powder Yard. An earlier, smaller mill was established upstream in 1803, and ten years later expanded demand for gunpowder required a second mill. The second mill was built downstream at Hagley and became the black powder mill in the world. There were 33 mills in the complex at the height of production.  The Powder Yard is on Brandywine Creek, so this part of the tour has two highlights, the yard and the spectacular beauty of the creek.  

Some of the mill buildings had additional thick stone
"blast barriers."  Everything was constructed for safety.

Small mill buildings dot the edge of the creek.  The side not visible, facing the creek, is open and used to have a wooden wall.

The Powder Yard walking tour covers the mill grounds where du Pont manufactured gunpowder and blasting powder at Hagley from 1814 until 1921.  It covers the process of making gunpowder and describes how it changed over the years. Each step in the process is demonstrated (even ignition). The tour includes an operational waterwheel that powers the equipment and an operating steam engine.  
Hagley mill race on the Brandywine River
Courtesy Hagley Museum

The mill race (a manmade canal) that supplied power for the waterwheel is still there and adds to the beauty of the creek. One reason many of the manufacturing buildings are still on the edge of the creek is that they had very thick stone walls, but only on three sides. The fourth side, facing Brandywine Creek, had a light wooden wall that could easily blow away if the gunpowder exploded. Since the wooden side faced the creek, the explosion would be carried away across the creek, far from the other mills and grounds. Explosions were a constant threat; 40 people were killed in an 1818 explosion at the yards.  The mill race is behind the mill buildings, making them even more isolated in case of an accident. A single spark could produce a catastrophe. Safety was a huge issue.  Horse wore leather booties over their horseshoes; men could not wear shoes with nails: and the small narrow gauge railroad had wooden rails held down by wooden nails. Any worker caught with a match was immediately fired.    

The remaining mills illustrate the process of marking black powder; so they stress three processes: purification, crushing, and mixing and three ingredients: charcoal, saltpeter, and sulfur. Later glazing and corning (reducing particle size) are discussed as part of the process.  The entire manufacturing process is the essence of the tour, but the buildings also include a blacksmith shop, machine shop, quarry, and steam plant and powerhouse. There is also a sulfur storehouse, dry tables, and the press house. The making of metal powder kegs is even included. Anyone with an industrial/mechanical interest had better plan for at least a half day just for the power yard.

William Carr described the du Pont process well in The du Ponts of Delaware: "In the mills by the Brandywine the dangerous work of making powder was carried on steadily. In the stamping mill, saltpeter, sulphur and charcoal—the ingredients of black powder—were moistened and pounded and thoroughly mixed. Next the powder was taken to the press room, where it was forced into compact cakes from which moisture was squeezed. The third step was in the graining—or corning—mill where the cakes were broken up and the powder passed through sieves to produce the various sizes of gunpowder. The last step took place in the grazing mill; here the grains of powder were moved about in barrels of graphite to make each grain rounder, drier, and coated against dampness." The powder line is illustrated and discussed as the tour moves through the mill buildings.


The two eight-ton grinding wheels.  Probably the most dramatic demonstration is these
two wheels being moved by the power of the creek.


Recall we discussed charcoal production at Hopewell Iron Furnace in an earlier column (located at http://www.americanroads.net/fall2011-iron-trails.htm). Just like charcoal was produced for iron production, it was produced for gunpowder production. Pit production was used, where wood is piled on level ground, then covered with dirt to prevent air from reaching it, and "burned" so as to char, leaving nearly pure carbon, with the moisture and volatile gases expelled. Charcoal was the foundation of many early American industries.  Fine grade charcoal was the foundation of the gunpowder industry.

Charcoal quality greatly impacted gunpowder quality. Better charcoal produced more heat or more consistent heat. For gunpowder production, charcoal quality was critical, as it controlled much of the powder's consistency, moisture retention, and ignition properties. If du Pont wanted superior gunpowder, he must have superior chemicals, including charcoal. Charcoal for gunpowder is of best quality when made from a light, spongy wood, with minimal mineral substances. Very rapid wood growth was preferred, as it tends to make wood lighter.  Willow was the preferred wood. Other woods commonly used for gunpowder were alder and dogwood. These tended to produce long grains that made better charcoal. Willow and alder might to 4-5 inches in diameter and dogwood about an inch in diameter.  They were purchased in pieces 3 feet long. The wood had to be straight, perfectly sound, and bark free.  Most was felled in the spring of the current year.  It would be air-dried before charring.

Charcoal production involved colliers who were trained to do the burning and many woodcutters to produce the wood for burning. Gunpowder production required clean wood, both dirt- and bark-free. Most charcoal was used to produce heat in furnaces. Bark made no difference for that purpose.  So another group of laborers were necessary in producing gunpowder charcoal. Bark peelers stripped the bark off the willow stems cut the wood into equal sizes for uniform burning.  Thus, the culture of willow was a necessary practice along this section of the Brandywine and it was constantly being processed into wood for charcoal pits. We could not help but to include a simple photograph of willow along the bank. It is all over the streamside and most visitors probably never have a clue it is an important part of the equation at the powder yard.


This was emphasized as a technology-based road trip, stressing early American industry and enterprise, the gunpowder industry, and the charcoal industry. But there is much more here. The mansion and gardens are a second trip to themselves, and they are just a part of a set a mansions. Various museums are part of the Brandywine Valley and they all have different themes. We just described the tip of a very large "iceberg," in terms of road trip potential. This little part of Delaware should not be overlooked.


For more info:

http://www.hagley.org/ Hagley Museum and Library Homepage.

http://www.hagley.org/library/ The Hagley Library, including on-line exhibits.

http://www.prweb.com/releases/2013/5/prweb10728957.htm Brandywine Valley treasures.


Authors:  Tom Straka is a forestry professor at Clemson University in South Carolina.  His wife, Pat, is a consulting forester.  Both have a keen interest in history.  

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