Construction at military camps and bases had languished after the American doughboys came home from France and the world war, a victim of the distaste for armed conflict left by 116,000 dead and 200,000 wounded. It was a distaste that would eventually harden into isolationism, and the deteriorating facilities distressed the professional officers who oversaw them. By the time work relief was institutionalized under the WPA, the armed services were poised to take advantage of what for them was cut-rate labor, since they paid only a sponsor’s share of the costs, and prohibitions against using relief funds for munitions or matériel did not apply to construction at military bases or other installations.
From the moment the first $4 billion work relief appropriation was announced in 1935, the army’s Quartermaster Corps went after a share of the money. By June 20 of that year, even before a single WPA worker was on the job, the corps had been allotted $1,215,772 for work on military posts across the country. In July, following up that early success, the quartermasters came back with a request for almost $20 million for work at facilities in fourteen states ranging from California to New York and Maine to Georgia. On July 12, two days after this request landed at the Division of Applications and Information, the War Department applied for almost $23 million more in WPA work. Most of it was for construction and repair at army installations, but the navy’s Bureau of Yards and Docks had also seen the potential and $676,400 of the request was for improving docking and other facilities. On July 20, the Quartermaster Corps was back again with another $24 million request for sixty-five projects scattered across several states. One of the largest of these requests was for $1,476,364 for “new buildings and other improvements” at New Jersey’s Picatinny Arsenal.
Even the most ardent isolationists could not have argued that it was against the nation’s interests for the WPA to work at the Picatinny Arsenal, a venerable piece of America’s military history. Morris County, New Jersey, had been America’s ammunition factory since the Revolutionary War, when Swiss ironmaster John Jacob Faesch supplied cannon, shot, and iron tools to George Washington’s Continental Army from his Middle Forge, using a workforce of 250 Hessian prisoners. In 1880, the War Department bought the property on Lake Picatinny where the Middle Forge had been, and established the Dover Powder Depot for the storage of gunpowder used in making ammunition. The name was soon changed to Picatinny Powder Depot, and in 1907 it was changed again, to the Picatinny Arsenal. It became the first powder-manufacturing facility for the U.S. Army.
As the world war approached, the army expanded the arsenal and its activities there quickly. Within the gates that hung from cannon barrel gateposts, officers studied the science of weaponry and researched and developed new forms of ammunition. Handsome officers’ homes of stucco and blue puddingstone were erected facing a parade ground; new magazines and warehouses were built of brick and tile. America’s entry into the world war brought further expansion. The arsenal added testing and control laboratories and started experimental programs in artillery design and development. Fuse experiments began in 1921. In the years that preceded the depression, the army settled on Picatinny as its main artillery supply facility and increased its capacity to manufacture and load munitions. The number of buildings grew to over 900, many of them linked by a narrow-gauge railroad on which fireless locomotives moved artillery shells from manufacturing to storage or to outside standard rail and road links that would carry them to units at other bases. On adjacent land that had been deeded by the army to the U.S. Navy in 1891, the navy stored shells, high explosives, and smokeless and black powder in forty-four of its own magazines. The navy’s ordnance was reserved for defending New York Harbor, just forty-five miles away to the southeast.
On the hot afternoon of July 10, 1926, thunderheads roiled the sky over northern New Jersey. Lightning ripped the clouds and thunder crackled like gunfire. One thunderclap shook the earth and brought people out into the streets of nearby Morristown. Before long, smoke rising over Picatinny Lake revealed that the thunderclap had actually been a massive explosion, caused by a lightning bolt that struck a naval magazine holding 670,000 pounds of high explosives. The detonation set off a chain of further explosions. The next magazine to erupt contained 1.6 million pounds of TNT. When it went up, it leveled the navy’s storage depot and destroyed much of the arsenal. Shock waves rocketed out from the site and ricocheted among the hills. They blasted the walls and roofs of arsenal buildings from their frames and left skeletons of twisted metal, and blew away rail cars, leaving nothing but the wheels. Nineteen people died in the explosions and fires that followed, and forty more were wounded. In Mount Hope, Hibernia, and Rockaway, as far as a mile away, shells rained down and citizens ran for their lives. None of the shells exploded, but the shock waves flung cars and trucks around like toys, uprooted trees, and shattered plate glass windows.
When the smoke finally cleared, the Picatinny reservation looked like one of the blasted European battlefields of the Great War. The swath of devastation was a mile wide. Telephone and electrical wires hung limp and tangled from their listing poles. Steel railroad tracks were warped and useless. Huge craters marked the sites of the initial explosions, which had generated heat so great that it melted bricks and turned their sand content to glass. Hundreds of military and civilian workers, their barracks and homes destroyed, took refuge at hotels and the National Guard Armory in Morristown, where residents rushed donations of food, clothing, mattresses, and cots. Secretary of War Dwight F. Davis and three army generals who toured the smoldering ruins the next day were forced to take shelter from still-exploding shells.
Congress speedily appropriated $2.3 million to rebuild the arsenal complex in the wake of the disaster. But in the deceptive peace that followed the Treaty of Versailles, there was little sense of urgency, and the work was far from complete when the crash of October 1929 ended the boom times. Given the depression and the country’s turn inward to concentrate on its own problems, the restoration work lagged further. Much of the vast complex remained in disrepair. The lack of storage facilities left the army storing high-caliber artillery shells by standing them on end in open fields, row upon row, without protection from the weather. Still, by 1935 and the advent of the WPA, Picatinny remained the army’s primary ammunition research station and was at the forefront of explosives research. Dr. George C. Hale, working there, patented the powerful explosive Haleite in 1935 and developed a processing method for armor-piercing cyclonite. The physical plant, however, continued to be a shabby vestige of the arsenal of the early 1920s.
But just as Robert Moses’s corps of engineers and architects had at the ready blueprints that brought an outsized share of WPA funds to New York City, when the time came the army’s artillery command had well-developed plans in hand for rehabilitation of the complex. Two years earlier, in 1933, FERA workers operating under the first emergency relief appropriation had surveyed the arsenal’s grounds and buildings to assess its physical and engineering needs, from building reconstruction to water, sewer, and flood control improvements. The survey information went into plans drawn by the Corps of Engineers, and those plans, in turn, sped through the Division of Applications and Information and the Committee on Allotments and won Roosevelt’s swift approval. On September 19, 1935, even as Harry Hopkins was still trying to clear the bottlenecks that were keeping funds away from some other projects of the new WPA, the agency went to work on Picatinny’s resurrection.
Every part of the arsenal complex, which now covered 1,842 acres, fell under the rehabilitation plans. A workforce of a thousand men descended on the Morris County site, skilled workers and laborers alike.
The first goal was to reconstruct the magazines. There were at least sixty-five of these powder, ammunition, and explosives storage buildings at the arsenal, ranging in size from 30 by 30 feet to 30 by 150 feet. Although their walls had been rebuilt following the 1926 explosion, floors and roofs were crumbling; some had been replaced with nothing more than tar paper and corrugated metal after the explosion. WPA crews ripped up rotting wooden floors and poured new ones of concrete, installed new wooden roof trusses and reinforced ones that could be saved, and tore off old roofs and replaced them, all in all providing almost 160,000 square feet of rebuilt storage space.
Security was also tightened. WPA workers used discarded rails from the arsenal’s outdated railway system as fence posts, set them in concrete, and erected a six-mile perimeter of climb-proof fence.
The spring floods of 1936 set back plans to upgrade the rail system of narrow-and standard-gauge track when the waters washed the roadbeds out from under long stretches of track, leaving tracks and ties suspended, but by the time the work was finished crews had renewed eighteen miles of existing lines and added some two and a half miles of new construction. The rail cars that moved over the arsenal’s lines were also refurbished in a WPA shop where boxcars and flatcars were stripped down to their wheels and given new frames, floors, sides, and roofs.
By the summer of 1937, with as many as 1,300 men working at times of peak WPA employment, the restoration and upgrading of the complex was largely complete. Ten miles of new paved roads wove through the site. There were seven new or rebuilt road and railway bridges. New sewer and water lines ran underground, and the sewage treatment plant had been rebuilt using up-to-date equipment. Steam lines had been rerouted and rehung, wrapped in waterproofing, and painted. A number of new buildings had risen on the campus, including a greenhouse, quarters for company and non-commissioned officers, a variety of storage buildings, a pyrotechnic factory for the production of signal and night-lighting flares, a rock-crushing plant, and a building used for cleaning shells. The experimental fuse plant, where bomb detonation fuses were developed and produced, was almost doubled in size with the addition of a new second floor. When more than a hundred small buildings, some used for hazardous explosives loading processes, were included, the arsenal had a total of 530 new and reconstructed buildings set amid new landscaping.
When Roosevelt made his quarantine speech that fall, New Jersey’s Picatinny Arsenal was ready to resume its role as ammunition maker to the United States military. Except for small-arms and machine gun bullets, the plant was capable of making every type of ammunition from .30 caliber to sixteen-inch shells. These last, used in the turret guns of battleships, contained 800 pounds of powder poured by hand into eight-foot bags.
Nevertheless, with America still locked in its oasis of neutrality, the arsenal worked almost like a craft shop, as if it were making fireworks for the Fourth of July. It was not yet urgent to keep the military’s weapons loaded. The arsenal produced only 600 bomb fuses in 1938, and all of them were painstakingly handmade.