MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (WBOY) — If you’ve lived in Morgantown for any amount of time or even just driven on Don Knotts Boulevard, you’ve probably seen the smokestacks across the river and wondered what they used to be. The answer is probably a lot more interesting than you expected.
These smokestacks are the remains of a small part of the Morgantown Ordnance Works—a chemical plant that was funded and operated by the federal government in the early 1940s—that was of critical importance to U.S. nuclear research during World War II.
The plant’s eventual purpose became the creation of “heavy water” for the P-9 Project, a science project with the intent of creating and researching the uses of heavy water.
What’s so special about heavy water?
On June 18, 1942, the Manhattan Project—a top-secret project to beat the Germans in a race to build the world’s first atomic bomb—was officially established. A handful of nuclear fuel options were researched for use in an atomic bomb; Uranium-235 was used in the Little Boy atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, and plutonium was used in the Fat Man bomb dropped on Nagasaki.
Plutonium is not found naturally like uranium, it is a byproduct of nuclear reactors. Nuclear reactors need a moderator to maintain their reactions, and heavy water is a very good moderator. The problem with heavy water is that it was very hard to obtain in the large quantities needed by the Manhattan Project, and was also very expensive to make.
The P-9 Project
Three different American facilities were chosen to be part of the P-9 project in order to increase production and decrease the cost of heavy water: The Alabama Ordnance Works near Sylacauga, the Wabash River Ordnance Works near Newport, Indiana, and the Morgantown Ordnance Works in West Virginia. According to the Atomic Heritage Foundation, these facilities had to be administrated by Manhattan Project staff, and it was more than likely that workers did not know the ultimate purpose of the chemicals they were making.
By the end of 1943, the necessary equipment was installed at the ordnance plants and they could begin manufacturing heavy water for use in nuclear reactors. The heavy water was then shipped to Morgantown for the final step in the process, making it the most important out of the three facilities.
On May 15, 1944, heavy water finished in Morgantown would be used in the world’s first heavy water reactor, Chicago Pile-3.
The Morgantown Ordnance Works
Although the attached building was recently torn down, the smokestacks still stand. According to West Virginia History OnView, a WVU repository for historical images, the smokestacks in these pictures were part of a gas holder and boiler house.
Andrew Linderman, a WVU library staff member who researched the Morgantown Ordnance Works, said the works began construction on November 30, 1940; it took 1,300 workers and one year to finish.
Before it was used to make heavy water for the P-9 Project, the facility was used to make chemicals like ammonia which were used in munitions and explosives for the war. According to the Morgantown History Museum, the facility employed as many as 1,400 people at its peak, making it one of the largest single employers in the area.
“It actually created a sort of housing crisis,” Linderman said. “They’ll build 97 homes over in Suncrest behind Krepps Park, where we think of now as modern-day Suncrest, just to house all the people that work at the plant.”
Linderman said that based on newspapers of the time, the estimated payroll for the plant was around $15 million. “It was a huge influx of cash. That’s in the 1940s. So that’s an astronomical amount of money.”
However, the plant did not last far beyond the end of World War II, and the Morgantown Ordnance Works was shut down in the summer of 1945. According to Linderman, the property would later be bought by industrialist J. W. Ruby in 1962, who transformed it into the Morgantown Industrial Park. In 2023, the smokestacks property is being remediated by the EPA after it was used as a disposal site for contaminated materials. A 2021 review of the site by the EPA can be found here, and it is due for another review in 2026.