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

Instant Neighborhood – Just Add History

On January 23, 2014, in Newsletters, Places, by Dean Brightman

Reprinted with permission from The Hercules Express.

Ever wander down to the historic homes district near the waterfront, and wonder just how was it that an entire neighborhood from the Powder Works days was able to survive intact?

Turns out, that’s not exactly how it happened.

Turn-of-the-20th-Century Hercules was a true company town, right down the workers’ homes, which were built by the company.  At its height, Hercules totaled up to 100 residences, duplexes, and dormitories.  As they became vacant and were deemed no longer necessary due to fluctuations in the workforce, they were demolished.

By the early 1980s, an inventory of the remaining homes determined 20 were in restorable condition.  However, due to decades of piecemeal demolition, the existing neighborhoods were little more than a patchwork of homes and vacant lots.

House on Wheels

Historic homes relocated in Hercules, CA

The City then made the unprecedented decision of centralizing them into one coherent historic district.  The December 1981 Herculean detailed plans for the “new” community:

“The developer has plans to make the streetscape similar to that of the turn of the century when the homes were built.  Upon approval of the Hercules Municipal Historic District Board (the City Council members), the developers will paint the homes to reflect their design.  The colors will be muted and an overall color scheme will be used for the whole area.  Doors, windows and decorative touches will be accented with colors complementing the main body of the houses. The interiors will reflect the era of the homes.”

Even details such as streetlights and correct types of pickets for the fences were researched to ensure correct period detail was captured.

Of the 20 homes in today’s community, only seven are on their original foundations.  Professional building movers moved the other thirteen, weighing approximately 30 tons each, into their current positions.  New foundations were built, and restoration work began.

The vast majority of the cottages, built generally between the 1890s and the 1910s, are in the simple, understated Colonial Revival style featuring symmetrical designs and evenly spaced windows.  Only three Queen Anne-style homes remain, with more ornate detailing and steeply sloped rooflines.

Each home was kept as close to its original design as possible.  Kitchens were updated to adapt to more modern uses.  Back walls were expanded and rear decks built to add a bit more living area.  They were ready for lease by 1984, and residents could purchase them beginning in 1989.

The result of all the painstaking research, relocation, and restoration speaks for itself.  The beautifully preserved district is a time capsule.  If you wander around long enough, you can almost hear the plant whistle announcing the beginning of the next shift.

The Company Town Of Hercules

On September 5, 2011, in Places, by admin

By Jennifer Posedel

The Gothic-revival home for the assistant superintendent was later converted into the Bachelor's Club

Since it commenced operations in 1881, the principal activity at the Hercules powder works was the manufacture of dynamite and later black powder and TNT. The location was chosen for its isolation from population centers and its access to rail and water transportation. Nearby Pinole and Rodeo were then sparsely settled agricultural areas. Providing residences for workers at the Hercules plant became a practical necessity.

Chinese workers, who made up the largest part of the Hercules workforce in the 19th century, lived in rough, wooden buildings at the waterfront. These men worked through a labor contractor who also charged the men a fee for lodging and meals. This arrangement continued until 1914, when the waterfront camp was dismantled. Many of the other plant workers lodged at the plant boarding house or one at Pinole.

White Columns was built in 1899 for the plant superintendent.

In the late 1890s, a large home called White Columns was built for the superintendent, as well as 12 cottages for workers and their families. The company-owned village eventually grew to some 100 houses and duplexes. Workers were charged a nominal rent and paid no property taxes.

The demand for housing rose and fell according to the level of production orders, but never was the need so great as during spring 1918.

The hundreds of workers then hired to build the TNT plant were advised to bring a blanket.

During the build-up related to World War I, additional houses and temporary dormitories were added to the housing stock to accommodate workers. Also, a residential hotel was built to house some 45 to 50 men.

Courtesy of Ashland Inc. (successor to Hercules Incorporated)

During World War I, these dormitories housed four men to a unit.

Hercules had the largest population of the company towns in the East Bay. A guide to 1930s California listed its population at 392, while the company town at Oleum was estimated at 217 persons, Selby had 141 residents, and Giant had a population of only 90. Although it had no retail district, Hercules did have a clubhouse, and like the other nearby company towns, it had its own post office and rail depot. At Selby, the American Smelting and Refining Company owned two hotels plus 52 houses at the adjacent village of Tormey where there was a small school. Those employee-rented homes are now gone and the industrial site is paved with a thick layer of asphalt. Oleum, the town at the Union Oil Company refinery between Crockett and Rodeo, once had hotel for men and a few homes for managers, some of which have been relocated to Rodeo. The village of Giant at Point Pinole, owned by a commercial rival to Hercules, had a school, Craftsman-style bungalows, and boarding houses for workers. Most of the surviving buildings in Giant village were torn down in the 1960s.

Courtesy of Ashland Inc. (successor to Hercules Incorporated)

Workmen's cottages on Pinole Street were among the first company-owned residences built at Hercules.

Hercules has undergone many changes. White Columns was dismantled in the aftermath of a huge December 1944 explosion that damaged it and other homes in the Hercules village and shattered windows in nearby towns. All of the dormitories are gone, as well as the hotel. In the 1970s, during the last years of plant operation, many houses were torn down as they became vacant and fell into disrepair. However, remnants of the company-owned village survive. Several historic dwellings, which have not been rehabilitated, await their next use. These include two former management homes and Quinan Inn, originally a residence for technical employees (now known as the Masonic Hall). A restaurant currently operates in a former company-owned home at 1991 Railroad Avenue that dates from 1917. Today, visitors to Hercules can also see 20 restored workmen’s homes on Bay and Pinole streets. These architecturally and historically significant buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

More about the first 100 years of the town of Hercules can be found in the recently published history Hercules, which features 219 images of the plant and residential village. It can be purchased on this website at the Book Information Page.

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On March 22, 2011, in Artifacts, by admin

This artifact, owned by the Hercules Historical Society, is a 22 x 35 decal of the Hercules Powder Co logo framed and mounted on plywood.
It is currently on loan to Sala Restaurant in Hercules.

Hercules Powder Company

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