History of the Powder Hole

The Powder Hole was an explosive powder manufacturing facility from 1855 until 1914. During this time, it produced a large portion of powder used in the Pennsylvania anthracite coal region. It was built by William Silvers in 1856 at the lower end of the Big Wapwallopen Creek in Luzerne County. Although the area was not easily accessible, the Powder Hole site was chosen because of the availability of waterpower. Shortly after finishing the construction of the mill, Silvers sold a portion of the mill to G.P. Parrish. The Parrish, Silver & Company powder works operated from 1856 until 1859.

During this time period, E.I. DuPont de Nemours and Company, located near the Brandywine Creek in Delaware, also made powder and was expanding its production. By the mid 1850’s, DuPont had become the largest producer of powder. DuPont realized that it was important to have mills near the anthracite coal region in Northeastern Pennsylvania and was searching for a location for its first branch. Later, in 1857, the grandson of E.I. DuPont, Lammot DuPont, developed a new formula for blasting powder. It was named "B" blasting powder and was adequate for use in mining and other operations. The new powder increased the sales of powder by E.I. DuPont and pushed the company to acquire more powder mills to be able to meet the increased demand. The new blasting powder performed very well in field test experiments and was considered far superior than previous mixtures because of its lower cost of production. The new mixture replaced the potassium nitrate with sodium nitrate and by parts was 72% sodium nitrate, 16% charcoal, and 12% sulfur. Potassium nitrate had to be shipped in from India and hence was very expensive to import. However, sodium nitrate was shipped in from Peru and supplies were ample.

In 1859, The Parrish, Silver Mill on  Big Wapwallopen Creek flooded causing a large amount of damage. There was also a large explosion in the same year that caused significant damage to the mills. Because of these financial difficulties, The Parrish, Silver Company went bankrupt and lost the mill. E.I. DuPont bought the mill for $35,000 at a sheriff’s sale. This became the first DuPont mill in operation outside of the Brandywine plant. Lammot DuPont took control of the mill and by the time the mill was back in full swing, it was producing 100 kegs each day.

During the time of the Powder Hole operation, there were several explosions, fires and floods, which damaged buildings, roads, dams and flumes. However, each time it was possible company to rebuild the damaged structures.

The finished powder and raw materials were shipped both by railroad and canal. The North Branch Canal was used to ship goods from 1859 until 1880 since railroads were much more dangerous due to possible sparking from the steam locomotives. Later, the railroad became a much cheaper means of transportation despite safety issues. For shipment on the railroad, DuPont was required to provide special rail cars to transport the powder. The cars carrying powder were attached at the end of the train, with empty freight cars located in between the powder car and the locomotive.

It was not just the shipping of powder that was a dangerous process. The Powder Hole workers faced danger on a daily basis. Explosions occurred often in the mills, and were sometimes deadly. In order to minimize explosions, several precautions were taken. All tools used in the facility were made of wood to avoid sparking and horses were fitted with special rubber-like "gutta-percha" soles that were placed over their horseshoes. The mills were designed and built so that one "weak" wall would take the entire load of the force if an explosion occurred. Many times after an explosion, it was possible for workers to reassemble the fallen wall after all the dust had settled and resume work that same day.

The Powder Hole flourished for over fifty years, producing much of the explosives needed for mining the anthracite coal region of Pennsylvania. Due to an increase in the railroad shipping costs of powder, the Wapwallopen Mills were shut down in 1912 and the machinery was moved to Moosic, Pennsylvania. The move was also initiated by a desire by DuPont to consolidate their operations. The Moosic plant remained in operation until the past decade, producing blasting and sporting powder. The Wapwallopen region still contains many of the foundations from the Powder Hole plant.