Hercules Historical Society

by Steve Lawton, excerpted with permission from the Contra Costa County Historical Society Bulletin

An Oakland-based local newspaper columnist recently observed, on a field trip to the distant hamlets of Port Costa and Martinez, that the traces of industry and settlement along the Carquinez Straits tell stories of a 19th Century heyday, followed by decline and disappearance. Carol Jensen’s recent Arcadia book, “Maritime Contra Costa County”, tells the little-known story of dozens of industries along the northern Contra Costa waterfront that are found only in traces today. The first and largest such industry was the Hercules Powder Works. For nearly forty years, the Hercules Historical Society has worked to discover, collect and preserve the buildings, artifacts, documents, photos and oral histories of the Hercules Powder Works during its vital century as the mysterious dynamite factory, and afterward as a place to live.

Today’s City of Hercules occupies the entire factory site of the Hercules Powder Company, one of the most significant explosives and chemical factories in the West, and indeed the world. The men of the California Powder Works secured this land on San Pablo Bay, along the northern edge of Contra Costa, for the “Hercules Works” in 1878. They needed to relocate their production of dynamite, then the world’s new technology, away from growing San Francisco to open land on the Opposite Coast.

Dynamite was the first of the “high explosives”, invented beginning in the late 1860s, that literally powered the latter half of the Industrial Revolution. In the years before abundant petroleum, high explosives were the first magical source of chemical energy harnessed for work. California’s mines and railroads could not have been built without strong, efficient dynamite. The rough-and-ready chemical engineer who stole the dynamite formula for California Powder had earlier saved the Central Pacific Railroad a year’s effort blasting through the granite of the High Sierra – and so may have rescued it from financial disaster.

California Powder Works was the largest of dozens of California’s explosives firms, and by 1903 was effectively a monopoly in the West. In 1913, it was forcibly reorganized under one of the first antitrust actions brought by the Federal government. In 1918, the Hercules Works was among the largest in the world, with 3,000 workers and nine TNT lines producing seven million pounds per month, or one- third of all the TNT used by the United States in the Great War. The factory covered nine square miles of the Refugio Creek watershed, with two piers onto the San Pablo Bay and an extensive internal railroad system powered by compressed-air locomotives.

But from 1972, the plant site was transformed into a collection of residential subdivisions. Today, only twenty-seven buildings remain from the Works: twenty are restored as private dwellings, five are in restorable condition, and two have been savaged by neglect. Few of today’s residents know of their home turf as holding a National and even globally significant history, with stories to tell and lessons to learn.

In the late 1970s, local preservationists, including Dr. Joseph Mariotti of Pinole, formed the Hercules Area Restoration and Preservation Committee, Inc. In 1982, the Hercules Historical Society was formed by former City council-members Lynn Fissell (formerly Judnich) and John Cadigan. Since then, its membership has served to preserve and restore historical artifacts and documents about the City and its industrial past.

In 2013, the Society moved and consolidated its collection of Hercules Powder Works artifacts from scattered and unsecured sites to a leased building adjacent to City Hall. The Society holds monthly meetings, and mounts occasional displays in the City Library. Members seek out, collect and receive artifacts, documents and photographs pertaining to both the industrial years and the years of growing a residential city. With Jennifer Posedel of Rodeo, the Society published an Arcadia book in 2011. The Society works with private owners of the remaining unrestored historical buildings to secure their preservation and restoration.

The Society’s new, accessible headquarters space allows its members at last to organize, catalog, interpret and display its collection of assets. The Society has recently launched a social media presence, and aspires tell the obscure, fascinating story of how the explosives industry shaped the Bay Area, the West, and Contra Costa County.


The Bulletin also includes the following articles:


The Centennial of the First State Highway in Contra Costa County

by John Mercurio

April Board Meeting at ECCHS

by Donald Bastin

Opening Day of Brand New Exhibits at the Rosie Visitor Center, May 24, 2014.

by Donald Bastin


by Marjorie Newton

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