April 20, 1942 was the deadline for many western McCracken County families to vacate their homes and properties in order to make way for the soon-to-be-formed Kentucky Ordnance Works trinitrotoluene (TNT) production facility. Today, 75 years later, we remember those families, the plant, and the effects that are still visible.
The announcement of the plant was made in the Paducah Sun-Democrat. February 27, 1942, with headlines reading, “$30,000,000 Arms Plant to be Built in M’Cracken County. Barkley Says.” The article went on to note that the exact location was a secret. It wasn’t until early April that residents of West McCracken County found out the exact location. Some 250 families would be affected. Seen here is a copy of a Notice to Vacate issued on April 3, 1942.
The April 5th edition of the Sun-Democrat revealed that, “The 16,100-acre site is bounded on the south by the Woodville road, on the west by the New Liberty church road, on the north by the Ohio River, and on the east by the back-lines of farms fronting the Metropolis Lake road. The eastern boundary is irregular, ranging from a quarter-mile to three quarters of a mile west of the Metropolis Lake road.” The residents were given until April 20 to leave their homes. The article indicates that a suit under the War Purposes Act, had been filed in Federal Court giving the government the right to require the residents to evacuate.
According to “The Coming of the Plant,” by Linda Thompson Hawn that appeared in McCracken County, Kentucky History (Turner Publishing, 1988), many of the families had lived and farmed on the land for years. Not having a great amount of time to move, families left behind some items. “In actual land acquisition, a list of everything on the farmland had to be made: the number of acres devoted to each crop, the number of rows of strawberries and raspberries and acreage in orchards and timber. Everything was appraised separately, most people felt that they were not given a fair price for their land and were unhappy that the appraisers were from Tennessee.” She goes on to note that, “The government tore down some of the houses and sold what they could not use as salvage. Other houses were sold intact and were moved to new locations.”
Construction began immediately and the plant would open for operation by the end of the year. The plant was run by the Atlas Powder Company and, according to the US Army Cop of Engineers, produced some 196,490 tons of TNT during its operations from December of 1942 through August of 1945.
Hawn also writes that the plant had had a cafeteria, water and sewer system, steam plant, railroad line, hospital, laundry, and box factory. Legend tells the KOW was the largest of its kind in the world. As one can imagine, the process for making TNT was pretty extensive and called for buildings on stilts with lead floors, the mixing of acid and toluene gas. After production, the TNT was boxed and sent to storage in magazines. These buildings, also called igloos, were built with four foot thick concrete walls which were tapered to 18 inches at the top with a bolted on wood roof. This was in hopes to direct any accidental explosions upward instead of toward the other machines.
As a longtime resident of Heath, I have heard many stories of the plant. My grandfather, Wilford Cathey worked at the KOW site. As a child, I was told that he was turned away from the draft due to the amount of gunpowder in his bloodstream, as if he would have exploded if shot. While in high school, a number of my fellow students told of a map that they found at the library which marked a number of tanks that were buried near the KOW site. They took to shovels, and while they never discovered any tanks, they did get a nice case of poison ivy. These “tanks” that they were searching for were actually storage tanks and not military tanks like they had conjured. Folklore or truth, tales like this have long shrouded the plant’s history.
Today, the majority of the structures and facility are gone. A large portion of the original acreage is now home to what is left of the uranium enrichment plant that was built in the early ‘50s. Many of the families who had to move resettled around the boundaries of the plant property. They and their ancestors still live there today.