Digging into the history of DuPont

Traveling on I-5 between Tacoma and Olympia is the newer development called Northwest Landing. This group of homes was featured in Sunset and other magazines for its building style aimed at promoting family and community.

There are front porches to sit on in the evenings. The garages are in the back, not between the neighbors. The homes are built around a central park-like area for children to play together. As we've driven by the last few years, we've watched more and more homes and now shops being constructed.

I've always wondered why the address of Northwest Landing is DuPont. Did the name have anything to do with the duPont Company? It was time to explore another piece of history here across our state.

The story begins with the Hudson's Bay Company establishing Fort Nisqually in 1832. The Bay's chief trader, Archibald McDonald, built a storehouse for blankets, seeds, and potatoes at the place where the Sequalitchew Creek emptied into the Puget Sound. The trading post soon became more important for its agriculture, providing food for the traders that came through the Nisqually Valley.

In 1839 the Nisqually Methodist Episcopal Mission was established near the fort. This was the first American settlement in present-day Washington and boasts the first school teacher, the first wedding of U.S. citizens who had the first baby here, and,in 1841, the first Fourth of July celebration west of the Missouri River.

After the British left the Northwest a quiet farming community continued to grow. In 1843 the second fort was built on a flatter agricultural area and in 1852 a schoolhouse was built, which became Pierce County School District #7.

In 1906 the E. I. duPont de Nemours Company purchased both fort sites and nearly five squares of land to build the first industrial plant in the Northwest. It would manufacture black powder and high explosives for the construction of the Panama Canal. Besides digging canals, the explosives would be used to blast roadways and mines.

Operations at the plant began in 1909. Because the duPont Co. wanted to attract good workers, it constructed solidly built homes for them to rent. These were complete with electricity and indoor plumbing, neither so common at the time. Families came to stay as the rent was very reasonable ($1 per month at first), and the homes were modern and comfortable.

The duPont workers soon built a church and by 1909 had their own newspaper and post office. The town grew to almost 100 homes and several businesses. The approximately 400 people who lived there also built parks and formed a baseball team. One person was quoted in the newspaper as saying this might be a company town, but we feel more like a family. The Depression years hit the company hard, but the low home rents continued and the people took care of each other.

By 1910 the duPont Co. had built a wharf for the natural deep water port and a narrowgauge railroad from within the factory to the wharf. The drop in elevation from the plant to the Puget Sound was 300 feet, so it was much safer to transfer the loads of 50 pound wooden boxes containing high explosives by rail. The roads of the time were too bumpy and sometimes very muddy for trucks or horse-drawn carts.

The plant and its fleet of narrow gauge locomotives connected with both railroad and waterways to supply explosives for huge construction projects, such as Grand Coulee Dam and the Alcan Highway. During WWI the duPonts built a separate building to make nitrostarch for hand grenades. During WWII they supplied much of the explosives to our troops fighting in the Pacific. They also shipped their product to Hanford for use in the Manhattan Project.

In 1934 duPont gave Fort Nisqually to Pt. Defiance Park in Tacoma, where it was reconstructed and opened to visitors. After WWII there was more foreign competition in the manufacture of explosives. Then the company went into research and development of new fibers and fabrics. In 1951 it sold the homes to the residents and the town incorporated with a population of about 600. Because the homes were well-built and had been rentals for so many years, they were virtually the same as 40 years earlier. The whole area was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The duPont factory closed in 1976. It sold its 2,300 acres with the railroad to Weyerhauser, which later donated the narrow gauge train, rail, and ties to the City of DuPont, which is working to restore them.

In 1989 planners wanted a new "company" town that fostered the same sense of community that residents of the old town had experienced and treasured. So we see Northwest Landing beside the freeway, but the real story is hidden behind it. It's another fascinating particle of history that can be found all around us.

Jerri Honeyford, wife of Sen. Jim Honeyford (R-Sunnyside), provides her Across our State column as a way to keep local residents informed on what is currently happening in Olympia.


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