The Hercules Company explosives plant in Kenville, NJ, covered more than 1,200 acres and was a great place for local residents to find jobs during the Great Depression. But it was also a dangerous place to work. Accidents at the plant were common. In March 1934, 4 workers were killed in a packing house explosion so strong that it reportedly broke every pane of window in the neighboring town. Five months later, another blast killed 2 and seriously injured 3. But the worst was yet to come.
In fall 1940, with the U.S. preparing for war, the Hercules plant was operating at close to full capacity. At 1:30 in the afternoon of September 12, the plant was rocked by a series of explosions detonated by over 297,000 pounds of gunpowder. The blasts and subsequent fires leveled 20 buildings. Some claim that the blasts were felt as far away as Poughkeepsie in upstate New York.
The victims were rushed to nearby Dover Hospital. There wasn’t enough room for them all. So, many of the victims were laid out on the Hospital’s front lawn. To make up for the lack of nurses, the Hospital brought in local students and the Boy Scouts. Workers spent days combing through the wreckage searching for bodies and survivors. The final toll: 51 dead and more than 200 seriously injured or burned.
Although Nazi sabotage was suspected, the precise cause of the explosions was never determined. Hercules re-opened in April 1941 and became a major producer of munitions during the Second World War. The plant later added rocket fuel to its repertoire and was thus able to remain in business during the Cold War and beyond.
Unfortunately, the Hercules plant also continued to experience explosions—although nothing like on the scale of September 1940. Even so, through the 1950s and 1960s, more than a dozen Hercules workers lost their lives in explosions. A 1989 explosion injured 20 and a 1994 blast sent 4 more workers to the hospital. The plant finally closed its doors in 1996.