The DuPont Powder Mill in Fayette County, Pennsylvania represents a significant period of Pennsylvania’s industrial past that has not been greatly explored. Archaeological investigations of this site can provide valuable insight into the production of black powder in the region, which contributed to some of the most important industries in American history. The mill, now a series of dilapidated buildings and various structural remains, was owned by the largest black powder manufacturer in the country and operated from around the time of the Civil War to World War II. Historical and archaeological research at this site seeks to assess the spatial organization of the property, to develop a comprehensive historical narrative for the mill, and to better understand how the site fits into the larger historical context of the black powder industry in America.
Black powder is produced by combining charcoal, sulphur, and saltpeter at specific ratios in order to achieve a given strength. This process became highly structured during the 19th century, and began by individually refining the ingredients, then sending them through several treatment procedures before finally combining them into the powder. Black powder mills were not only designed to streamline this process, but to make the production of such a volatile substance as safely as possible. In order to achieve this, each step of the manufacturing process was separated into isolated structures that were spaced out at specific intervals from one another. Barriers were often built or ravines dug between each structure, and powder materials were transported from one building to the next on tramways that ran throughout the complex.
Further safety precautions were incorporated into the buildings themselves. Many structures at black powder mills were built with three heavy walls and one weak wall so that if an explosion were to occur, the blast would be channeled in a specific direction. Other buildings were comprised entirely of weak materials that could easily blow apart in order to minimize damage to other structures should the building explode. These standard modifications and regulated manufacturing methods were developed over the course of several centuries of black powder production, which reached its height during the 19th century.
Black powder production in the United States first began during the Revolutionary War, and production flourished by the early 1800s. This was fueled mainly by war and westward expansion, as gunpowder was required for both hunting and conflict. It was during this time that the DuPont Company was established, and quickly became the largest producer of black powder in the United States. The powder mill in Fayette County is located on a densely wooded mountainside and was operated by DuPont from the late 1800s until the 1940s. Few records have been found relating to the site, though a topographic map of the area from 1931 indicates the location of the mill, and a map of the mill from 1904 indicates the location of a number of structures on the property. Newspaper articles about the site from the early 20th century have also provided a glimpse into the dangers of black powder manufacturing and the complex relationship between the mill and local residents. An article from 1905 describes an explosion at the site that resulted in the deaths of 19 individuals. The article indicates that this was the third explosion at the mill, and that the surrounding communities were petitioning to have it removed.
The manufacture of black powder is an industry has contributed to the development of some of the most important industries in American history, such as coal mining, road building, and weapons manufacture. The period during which the DuPont Powder Mill operated was a time of great change and progress in the United States, and its growth and success over time can be directly linked to the events that increased the demand for the product it produced. The DuPont Powder Mill, as it exists today, is a large complex of ruins scattered across approximately 135 acres of land in Forbes State Forest. The buildings at the site are in various states of decay, with some standing structures, some collapsing, and others with only the foundation remaining.
This rapidly deteriorating site represents an important chapter of Pennsylvania’s industrial past. Further study and analysis of the DuPont Powder Mill site will be conducted as part of a thesis research project for completion of the MA in Applied Archaeology program at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. This project will aim to provide a better understanding of the history of the mill and of the black powder industry in the region.