History of the company
and town of Hercules
name Hercules comes from a potent and explosive black powder made by the
California Powder Works. The company named their product after Hercules,
the Greek mythological hero known for his strength, in order to signify how
powerful the black powder was. What began as a California Powder Works
plant site on the shores of San Pablo Bay grew into the company town of
Hercules, which thrived through one hundred years, three transferals of
ownership, and five wars.
When the American Industrial
Revolution began in the 1800's, California Powder Works joined the ranks and
started a company on the west coast, near Santa Cruz, California, in 1861.
In the business of making black powder, a highly explosive substance, the
company prospered and provided fierce competition for the other west coast
explosive firms. In 1868, the company began producing dynamite.
In 1869, California Powder Works
established a dynamite plant in San Francisco in the same area that is now
Golden Gate Park. As San Francisco developed and the populace moved closer
to the plant, the dangerous business of producing explosives proved
undesirable, and California Powder Works was forced to find a new location.
In 1879, California Powder Works began
purchasing land on the isolated shores of San Pablo Bay. The plant was
constructed in two years, and finally, in 1881 began producing dynamite.
For safety purposes, the buildings were constructed in a series of gullies
and ravines. The Hercules plant did not start manufacturing black powder
until 1893, when the entire Santa Cruz plant and works moved north to
re-establish in Hercules.
From 1881 until 1919, 59 lives were
taken by explosions. The majority of the devastating blasts happened in the
nitro-glycerine house and in the building in which the dynamite was
produced. The most disastrous explosion occurred in February, 1908, when 24
men were killed in a single explosion.
Before the United States Government
declared war on Germany, the Hercules plant was involved in World War I
producing dynamite and TNT (trinitrotoluene) for the Allied Forces. In
1915, the plant manufactured 20,000 pounds of explosives daily, but in 1917,
after the U. S. entered the War, over seven million pounds of TNT per month
were produced, making Hercules the largest-producing plant in the United
States. Throughout its history, the Hercules plant experienced changes due
to expansion and new product development. The powder company was easing out
if its role as a manufacturer of explosives as early as 1940, when an
anhydrous ammonia plant (NH3fertilizer) was built.
In 1959, Hercules began construction
of a multi-million dollar manufacturing facility, the first of its kind in
the western states. The company's goal was to annually produce eight
million gallons of methanol, 50 million pounds of formaldehyde, and 11
thousand tons of urea formaldehyde composition. Completed in 1966, these
were the 1st buildings constructed in Hercules' 25 years
transition from explosives to fertilizer. Since it no longer manufactured
black powder, the Hercules Powder Company was re-named Hercules,
In 1976, Hercules, Inc. sold the plant
site to Valley Nitrogen Producers, a chemical and fertilizer producing
corporation which owned other plants in California.
The plant at Hercules had operated
without labor problems for over 95 years under the ownership of the Hercules
Powder Company. While relations between the company and the workers did
become strained at times, no disputes became critical enough to cause a
strike. The only strike in the plant's history was a bitter labor/management
dispute which curtailed operations in 1977, after Valley Nitrogen Producers
had taken control of the plant.
The plant was closed permanently.
Cost and profit contributed to the final shutdown that ended the strike and
laid off employees. It actually became cheaper to purchase the product from
another country and ship it to Hercules than it was to manufacture it here.
The cost of natural gas, a vital part of fertilizer production, had
skyrocketed with inflation.
The infamous drought of 1977 also
added validity to the idea of closing the plant, because the farmers had no
need to fertilize their crops if they could not irrigate. Immediately after
shutdown in November of 1977, the plant was offered for sale. It remained
idle until 1979, when it was purchased by a group of investors called
Hercules Properties, Ltd.
After Hercules, Inc. ceased dynamite
production in the 60's, the Company realized that it no longer needed the
large parcels of surrounding land which had served as a buffer zone. They
decided to create a new city on the land outside the plant. The City
Council developed a General Plan to form a new city. After two years of
working with consultants and holding numerous public meetings, the General
plan for a city of 22,000 residents by the year 2000 was adopted by the
Hercules, Inc. had originally intended
to develop the land rather than sell it to other developers. After a close
examination of the immensity of the project, they decided that their lack of
experience in the development field would make the project undesirable.
They began selling the land to other developers. In 1974, Centex Homes of
California, Inc., purchased the first section of land, a large residential
area near the north-eastern boundary of the City.
The Centex purchase was a gamble. No
one was sure that people would be willing to move to this part of the East
Bay. Most new housing was being constructed in Central Contra Costa County
and Alameda County. The work that went into the General Plan paid off.
People lined up to buy the new Centex homes finished in 1975. New residents
were attracted to the rural feeling of open space and to affordable houses.
Hercules was a booming town once again.