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Virginia’s Very Own Ghost Town: Penniman

It was called Virginia’s own Ghost Town.

Penniman, Virginia, sat on the land now occupied by Cheatham Annex (near Williamsburg) and started - quite literally - as a Boom Town.

In late 1916, DuPont selected the site as their 37th munitions plant, probably because of its location:  It bordered the broad York River and it was safely away from population centers. When you’re manufacturing explosives and a mistake occurs, things go BOOM.  (Google “DuPont Munitions Plant Explosions” to find a dozen pre-WW1 examples.)

Penniman was named in honor of an American Chemist, Russell S. Penniman, who figured out how to build a better munition. Alfred Nobel’s original-recipe dynamite used nitroglycerine, but Penniman invented an ammonia-based dynamite, which was much safer than nitroglycerine.

According to an article that appeared in the Virginia Gazette, the wages paid at “DuPont Plant #37″ were so high that laborers poured in from all over the area.

“Local farmers found laborers almost impossible to hire, and certainly not at the old low wages. With thousands of men and women manufacturing shells at Penniman and living wherever they could, Williamsburg boomed. Rental space, whether for offices or for living, was impossible to find at any price. The mass exodus of workers was so great, area farmers were left wondering how they’d get their crops planted” (Meyers, Terry. “The Silence of the Graves.” Virginia Gazette June 3, 1998).

“In time,” writes Martha McCartney, author James City County; Keystone of the Commonwealth, “the [DuPont plant at Penniman] employed 10,000 people and the community bordering the plant had a population of 10,000 to 20,000″ (McCartney, Martha W.  James City County; Keystone of the Commonwealth. James City County, Virginia, Donning Company Publishing, 1997).

In August 1918, local papers reported that the United States Navy would take over the 12,500 acre facility. It would now be called, “The Naval Mine Depot.”  On  November 11th 1918, the “War to End All Wars” was over. It was President Woodrow Wilson who’d coined that phrase. Now that the earth had endured the last war that would ever be fought, it was time to dismantle Penniman.

But then something happened on the way to de-construction: The flu epidemic.

According to Meyers, the hospital at Penniman was overwhelmed with fatalities from Spanish Influenza, with bodies being shipped back to their waiting families in North Carolina, Texas, Tennessee and other southern states. Many Penniman employees had traversed great distances to find work at DuPont Plant #37, and when they died, DuPont paid a “death benefit” which helped with the costs of shipping the bodies back home, wherever that may be.  Meyers writes:

On October 12, the Daily Press reported that undertakers were being kept busy by the toll at Penniman: “the baggage cars are always full of caskets.” And on October 13 came a report that “a local [Williamsburg] undertaker had to requisition a truck to haul bodies from Penniman this morning…There is a scarcity of coffins here, the dealers having had in hand only a small stock prior to the grip epidemic  (Meyers, Terry. “The Silence of the Graves.” Virginia Gazette June 3, 1998).

By late 1920, the Spanish Flu had taken (by conservative estimates) more than 50 million lives. Penniman was now in the hands of the Navy. And it was time to get rid of the 250 houses that had been built at the DuPont Munitions Plant.

December 5, 1921, a little piece appeared in the Virginian Pilot, describing several houses being floated down to Tanner’s Creek (now the Lafayette River in Norfolk). It said the houses had been erected by the government near Yorktown. That’s not factually correct. It was DuPont that actually built these houses, just as they had done at other munitions plants in Old Hickory, TN and Hopewell, VA and Carney Point, NJ and Ramsay, MT.

The houses shown on the barges (pictures below) came from DuPont Plant #37 in Penniman, Virginia.

Now, after a great deal of research, we’ve learned that DuPont offered several models, and we’ve found these models at the DuPont cities listed in the prior paragraph. Most recently, we were able to get our hands on a picture of the houses - as they stood - in Penniman in the late 1910s. So now we have placed the houses at Penniman, and then floating on a barge, and then in place in four different Norfolk neighborhoods.

And it all started with DuPont Plant #37, site of Virginia’s very own Ghost Town.

And now for Rose’s wish list: I wish that we could find more/better photos of Penniman.

BTW, as of October 18, 2013, we’ve decided it’s time to write a book, so that others can enjoy this lost piece of history, too!

Update:  We found the Ethels!!!

To read part II of this story, click here.

To read part III, click here.

To read an update, click here (Oct 22,  2013).

To read more about Old Hickory, click here.

To read about the Sears Homes of Norfolk, click here.

Penniman was a massive operation in its brief time.

Penniman was a massive operation in its brief time. This photo is a piece of a panoramic photo from the Library of Congress and is the only known photo of Penniman, Virginia from its days as DuPont Plant #37. I'd love to find out more about the history and source of this photo.

Photo

Clustered together, near the banks of the York River, are the DuPont Houses built for the workers. This photo is a piece of a panoramic photo from the Library of Congress.

This is the last known surviving Dupont Design at Penniman (now Cheatham Annex). This was known as The Hopewell design, and there are several of these homes at the DuPont plant in Hopewell, Virginia.

This is the last known surviving "Dupont Design" at Penniman (later called, Naval Mine Depot, and now Cheatham Annex). This particular model was known as "The Hopewell" design, and there are several of these homes at the DuPont plant in Hopewell, Virginia. About 95 years ago, this acreage would have been filled with houses, built for the workers at the plant.

The views in Penniman (and the views from our last Penniman house) would have been spectacular. Just beyond this bit of brush is an expansive view of the York River.

The views in Penniman (and the views from our last Penniman house) would have been spectacular. Just beyond this bit of brush is an expansive view of the York River. If you were standing on the front porch of our Penniman house (shown above) this is what you'd see.

The

To my utter dismay and frustration, this is the only photo I've been able to find of Penniman, as it looked in the late 1910s. This photo appeared in The Richmond Times Leader on June 22, 1938, on an article they did on Penniman. On the forefront are three "Haskells," and behind them are two "Georgia" models.

The

Sometimes, zooming in really doesn't help a lot.

The Haskell

The Haskell was a DuPont design and there's an entire community of these DuPont houses in Old Hickory, Tennessee. Apparently, there were many of these houses in Penniman.

An article in the December 5, 1921 Virginian Pilot shows these two Haskells on a barge, being floated down Tanners Creek and into Norfolk.

An article in the December 5, 1921 Virginian Pilot shows these two Haskells on a barge, being floated down Tanner's Creek and into Norfolk.

The same article also showed two Cumberlands coming here from Penniman.

The same article also showed two "Cumberlands" coming here from Penniman. They're shown here on the barge, at the end of their long journey which began on the York River.

The

The accompanying text in the December 1921 article in the Virginia Pilot.

The Cumberland was another model that was moved from Penniman to Norfolk.

The Cumberland was another model that was moved from Penniman to Norfolk.

The Haskell arrived in Norfolk, and was planted on Major Avenue. In fact, its one of 50 houses from Penniman.

The Haskell arrived in Norfolk, and was planted on Major Avenue. In fact, it's one of 50 houses from Penniman. The vintage image (of a Haskell in Old Hickory) is on the left. The Penniman house (from DuPont Plant #37) is on the right.

There are two Cumberlands on Major Avenue, next to the Haskells.

There are two "Cumberlands" on Major Avenue, next to the Haskells. The Cumberland is also seen above on the barge, being floated down Tanner's Creek.

The third housing style we have from Penniman is The Georgia. This is a modest (but cute) Dutch Colonial. You can see these in the background of the grainy photo from the Richmond News Leader.

The third housing style we've found in Norfolk (from Penniman) is "The Georgia." This is a modest (but darling!) Dutch Colonial. You can see these houses in the background of the grainy photo from the Richmond News Leader.

And it started in Riverview.

And it started with these 16 matching bungalows in Riverview (Norfolk). For years, we'd heard that these matching houses came from The Jamestown Exposition (1907), but that is NOT true. In fact, these are "Dupont Houses" and they were originally built at Penniman, and shipped by barge to Norfolk when Penniman was shut down. Later, we learned that the name of this design is "The DuPont." How apropos!

The original news article from the 1938 Richmond News Leader.

The original news article from the 1938 Richmond News Leader.

To read more about the houses that came to Norfolk from Penniman, click here.

To learn about the murder of Addie Hoyt, click here.

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  1. Katie Otto
    January 31st, 2012 at 17:43 | #1

    What a fascinating story, Rose!! Thanks for your always wonderful and thorough research!

  2. Dorrie M
    June 24th, 2013 at 19:06 | #2

    We camped at Chatham Annex, right next to a grave site. The name is Irene Whitby 1862-1915.

    I asked about the history of the grave site. Was told it was from the time Dupont had a ammunition plant on that land.

    Here I was thinking it had something to do with a Civil War history. I found it interesting and did some searching on line.

    Like the post above stated; “A fascinating story”. Also explains the identical houses along Norfolk. Just wish I could find some information on Irene Whitby herself.

  3. Mark Hardin
    June 24th, 2013 at 23:27 | #3

    Dorrie,

    There is conflicting information out there about Irene Whitby. Irene was listed in the 1910 census.

    She was a black woman born in 1886 and would have been about 29 years old when she died. She was one of nine children.

    She was a day laborer and she lived on England street in Williamsburg. It is quite possible that she died of Spanish influenza. It was devastating to young people as it turned the immune system against its victims.

  4. June 25th, 2013 at 08:08 | #4

    Mark, thanks for adding this info and answering Dorrie’s question.

    Our generation really doesn’t have a full appreciation of what the Spanish Influenza did to our great-grandparent’s generation. My grandfather lost his twin sister and his mother to the flu, and in a family of five, that was wholly devastating - even in the framework of that time.

    And you’re right: It was the people in the “prime” of life that suffered most. The people aged 20-40 took the hardest hit, because the Spanish Flu turned their own immune system against them. The stronger the immune system, the more likely they would not survive the flu.

    When I was doing that research on Penniman, I learned that they closed down churches, schools, theaters and all public gatherings. Even funeral services became unlawful. The dead were buried unceremoniously and alone.

    And there in Penniman, the old newspaper accounts say that people were dying off so fast that they were “stacking the bodies like cord wood” and carrying them out in carts and trucks.

    The devastation wrought by the Spanish Flu was something we can hardly wrap our minds around today.

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