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Anti-Asian racism stains legacy of Bay Area dynamite plants in 19th century

Today’s ultra-heated political rhetoric, particularly regarding the coronavirus pandemic, has resulted in increasingly overt expressions of racism, and outright physical violence, toward the Bay Area’s Asian American community in the last two years.

While the recent increase in these attacks has been making headlines, a more insidious form of anti-Asian prejudice has been embedded in the fabric of Bay Area political and economic systems since the 19th century. As the new state of California became industrialized in the late 1800s, factories depended on Chinese laborers – who often lived in subpar housing – to do the most dangerous jobs. To the white men in power, their lives were considered disposable.

Hercules, today an East Bay suburb of about 25,000 people on the shores of San Pablo Bay, was no exception.

Hercules was the definition of a company town, consisting almost exclusively of California Powder Works employees and their families. It remained so for nearly a century, with a population barely above 300 until suburban development began in earnest in the 1970s.

The California Powder Works began in 1861 as a mill north of Santa Cruz. Its location along the San Lorenzo River provided sufficient water power for milling the raw materials (sulfur, charcoal and potassium nitrate, or saltpeter) used to produce black powder, the earliest form of chemical explosive, used for gunpowder as well as mining, quarrying and road-building.

With the advent of dynamite, a more powerful explosive made from nitroglycerine, in the late 1860s, the Powder Works established a dynamite plant in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in 1869. Dynamite produced here was called Hercules Powder (a jab at their rival, Giant Powder Company – Hercules was known in Greek mythology as a slayer of giants).

Dynamite production is a highly dangerous process, as working with nitroglycerin is highly susceptible to explosions. As San Francisco’s expanding population encroached on the plant, a more remote location out of harm’s way was needed.

The shoreline across the bay in Contra Costa (or “Opposite Coast”) County was the logical choice, because of its distance from population centers and excellent access to the bay’s shipping lanes. The new plant was up and running by 1882, and the small village where the employees lived was eventually named after the Powder Works’ primary product, Hercules.

The Powder Works employed Chinese labor from its very beginnings in Santa Cruz, and the anti-Asian attitudes of the time followed the plant to Hercules – from the jobs they were given, to their living facilities, to the local news accounts of their deaths from the plant’s many explosions.

The exclusively white male management of the plant relegated their Chinese employees to the plant’s most dangerous jobs, the same type of discrimination tragically echoed decades later in nearby Port Chicago during World War II. A horrific explosion killed 320 naval workers, about two-thirds of them Black, who were almost solely given the extremely dangerous detail of loading live ammunition onto ships.

In the early days of the Powder Works, Chinese workers made up more than 80% of the total workforce. They were most typically employed in the mixing house, with the extremely hazardous task of mixing highly unstable nitroglycerin with inert materials to make dynamite powder. They, of course, suffered the vast majority of the casualties when accidents occurred.

Between 1882 and 1908, there were seven major explosions at the plant. Of the 106 documented fatalities from these explosions, 88 were Chinese.

Local newspaper accounts of these explosions provide a vivid window into the extreme prejudice toward the Chinese community. Most typically, while white victims were individually identified, Chinese fatalities were referred to in group terms.

From the New York Times, Oct. 2, 1883:

The immediate cause will probably never be known, as all those engaged in the room, comprising 40 Chinamen and one white overseer, were blown to atoms … The only white man killed was the overseer of the mixing-room.”

From the San Francisco Call, Jan. 9, 1891:

CJ Campbell seriously burned on upper half of body; in critical condition … Fred Larsen burned on hands, face and head … 2 Chinese in building that exploded, only skull of one found.”

From the San Francisco Call, March 29, 1892:

The four workmen in immediate charge, namely, Foreman James Taylor, John Delesse, Peter McClellan and Thomas Acton, escaped unhurt, as did a gang of forty Chinese employed at the works.”

From the Oakland Tribune, May 21, 1895:

FIFTEEN DEAD. Five are White Men, and the Rest Chinese.”

In this article, White fatalities were identified in the second paragraph, and although the Chinese workers were individually listed much further down in the piece, they were referred to as the “Unfortunate Mongolians.”

In the Sept. 1, 1896, edition of the Oakland Tribune, among the stacked headlines:

Fritz, Barcia, McNulty and Crater Are the Names of the Dead White Men.

THE REST WERE CHINESE.”

via BCN

Twelve were killed in this explosion.

Segregation was evident outside of the plant as well. Plant management lived in large homes on “the hill,” while white workers lived downslope in modest Queen Anne-style homes in “the village.” Both areas were somewhat distant from the main manufacturing facilities and at least partially protected from possible explosions.

Chinese workers, however, lived in barracks only yards from the plant’s main gate. These long wooden dorms, housing only men, were known by the other workers as “China Camp.”

When a clubhouse was constructed for the workers’ recreation, Chinese workers (as well as women) were excluded from using the facilities and from any social activities.

As time passed and anti-Asian resentment became more and more prevalent, the percentage of Powder Works’ employees of Chinese descent steadily fell until 1913, when the last of the Chinese workers left the plant, and their living quarters were dismantled.

The specific reasons for their ultimate departure are unclear, but a confluence of events around that time provides possible explanations.

The Alien Land Law was passed in California in 1913, prohibiting people of Asian heritage from owning land. Although it was targeted specifically at Japanese farmers, it was no doubt used as a pretext to further discriminate against anyone of Asian descent.

Also, due to anti-trust rulings, the DuPont Corporation, who owned the plant, was forced to break into several companies. The newly reformed Hercules Powder Works came into existence in 1913. At the same time, possibly because of the reorganization, the Powder Works closed their original Santa Cruz black powder plant and relocated many employees to Hercules. This influx of new workers, along with the company restructuring, may have played into the decision to dismiss any remaining Chinese workers at the plant.

But their legacy has not been forgotten.

In 2008, a plaque was dedicated in a local park in front of a memorial tree:

This gingko tree is dedicated in recognition of the contributions by the Chinese laborers who toiled in anonymity at the Hercules Powder Works factory.”


Dean Brightman is a freelance writer based in Hercules. Aside from volunteering for the Hercules Historical Society, he waxes poetic on the virtues of craft beer at his blog, thebeerverse.com.

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