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


“The water emergency is real and potentially dangerous – but we can all live with it if we follow the sensible advice of the East Bay Municipal Utility District. A pamphlet was mailed to water users last week setting forth some of the things everyone can do to conserve water.

Experts say that the shortage is going to get worse before it gets better, so it’s well to develop water saving habits now. The City is working with your Homeowners’ Association to distribute plastic bottles for insertion in toilet tanks to displace flush water and flow-reducers for faucets and showerheads. They’ll be available as long as the supply lasts.”

A recent article from the Times or the Chronicle? Minutes from the latest City Council meeting, perhaps?

Not exactly. The above passage was taken from the very first City Newsletter, from March 1977. Everything old is new again, eh?

The severe drought was just one of the subjects covered in that very first newsletter, a simple double-sided sheet. Other matters of interest to the newly burgeoning city included:

Sales Tax – as a gesture of goodwill to the City, Pacific Refining turned over its 1% sales tax it collected for the fuel oil it produced at the plant — $500,000.

“The gesture was so unusual that it received widespread coverage in the press, wire services, radio and T.V. and was the subject of a segment on NBC’s ‘Today’ show on March 1.”

Cable TV – the City was in the process of accepting proposals to bring cable television to the community. The requirements – 20 channels, along with a public access station, to “make available to the viewer the broadest possible spectrum of available channels plus future capability for educational and informational programing by local groups.”

New School – the Richmond Unified School District announced plans to build a new elementary school, on Lupine near Violet. The City was also moving forward with plans to build a neighborhood park nearby. “Landscaping and turfing will be postponed, however, until the end of the water emergency.”

High Level Meetings – the City was planning a series of meetings with local and state officials to address issues of importance, including Highway 4 realignment, and doing something about “growth inhibiting regulations of State and Federal agencies which impair Hercules’ efforts to finance needed public improvements such as wastewater treatment and disposal.”

As an aside, so you can be a champion at the next trivia night, do you remember who our elected officials were?

County Supervisor: Nancy Fahden
State Assemblyman: John Knox
State Senator: John Nejedly
U.S. Representative: George Miller
U.S. Senators: S.I. Hayakawa and Alan Cranston

Speaking of elected officials, the first City Newsletter also reminded people to turn out for the upcoming election, and helpfully included where they could vote.

On Lotus Court. Yes, the young, bustling City of Hercules had all of one polling place.

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Herculean Days: Let’s go shopping

On September 3, 2013, in Newsletters, by Dean Brightman

Reprinted with permission from The Hercules Express.

An early edition of The Herculean summed up the state of retail shopping in the late 1970s quite succinctly:

“The City of Hercules receives the majority of its revenue from sales tax from the Pacific Refinery… As you are well aware, we have no other retail businesses in Hercules.”

This meant, of course, residents had to travel to Pinole, Rodeo, Richmond, or elsewhere to do any kind of shopping.  While Hilltop Mall and the recently completed Pinole Vista center offered plenty of options, the people of Hercules strongly desired some shopping choices of their own.

By the summer of 1980, plans were taking shape:

“Plans for the long awaited shopping center in Hercules are underway. Alpha Beta and Santa Anita Development Corporation plan to develop 25 acres of property on the north side of Sycamore Avenue nearest the freeway… After public hearings, design review and map approvals, the developers will begin construction — probably in the fall of 1980…  A tentative opening date is set for February or March, 1982.”

Another center was in its formative stages, as well:

“The Sycamore Place Shopping Center is a one acre site across the street from the Alpha Beta Center. Lafayette Savings & Loan, real estate, insurance and title company offices, an oriental food store, a beauty shop, Video Engineering, an optomitrist (sic), and a gynecologist are among the proposed tenants of the site… However, construction may begin this fall and be completed within six months.”

By October, the plans included a Longs Drugs, Alpha Beta, a hardware store/nursery complex, small shops owned by Hercules residents and restaurants.

Refugio Creek would be diverted to run parallel to the center, and jogging and bike paths would be constructed to connect with Refugio Valley Park.  Citizens were also invited to give the center a name.

By April 1981, economic forces would have other things to say about retail development in Hercules.

“On February 24, City Manager Ralph Snyder informed the City Council that official state sources had notified the city that there would be a drastic reduction in the sales tax generated by the sale of fuel oil by Pacific Refinery.

Additionally, Mr. Snyder noted that the housing market had collapsed because of the astronomical interest rates for home mortgages.

These two factors, coupled with the impending fiscal crisis in California, have tremendous impact on the financial situation of Hercules. The City Council has begun evaluating its current economic status with the intent of establishing budgetary priorities for the coming fiscal year. Definitely, the situation spelled out by Mr. Snyder will have an impact on this process.

By the summer of 1982, frustrations with construction delays compelled the Mayor to address the community:

“The main delay of the shopping center has been economics. In order to make a shopping center profitable, the owners need a certain number of households in the community. Hercules promised to grow fast enough to provide these houses. However, the bottom dropped out on the housing….”

Due to the economic downturn, the owners of Creekside Shopping Center (a name had evidently been chosen during the delays) had to rethink everything from how to lease business space to renegotiating agreements on off-site improvements (road widening, traffic lights, etc).

Construction for the Creekside Center and Sycamore Place finally began in earnest in the summer of ’83, and Hercules’ first retail businesses were beginning to open by the following spring.

The first stores in Sycamore Place included Optometry and Dental offices, a travel agency, Asian food store, ice cream parlor, gift shop, beauty school, video rentals, and Sunflower Bakery, which is open to this day.

Round Table Pizza was one of the original Creekside Center tenants, along with Loards Ice Cream, a tennis shop, a flower and gift shop, and an appliance store.  Leases were in place for more medical practices, another travel agency, an additional video rental store, and a beauty shop.  By the fall of 1984, Thrifty’s drug store was still under construction, and there was talk of a Post Office opening by the end of the year.

On September 16, 1984, Hercules finally got its own grocery store as Lucky’s (they had since taken over many Northern California Alpha Beta locations) opened its doors.

Dean Brightman is a member of the Hercules Historical Society.

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Herculean Days: Adventures in Sewage

On June 25, 2013, in Newsletters, by Dean Brightman

Reprinted with permission from The Hercules Express.

In the late 1970s, city leaders in Hercules set themselves with a seemingly impossible task – to manage their explosive growth in the most environmentally responsible manner possible.  One of their biggest problems was how to deal with the wastewater produced from an ever-increasing population.

They set upon a grand experiment that was nothing short of revolutionary – the Solar Aquaculture Wastewater System.  And they were very proud of it, as detailed in the December 1979 Herculean:

“The system consists of a series of holding ponds through which the sewage flows.  In each pond bacteria, diatoms, snails, small fish, water hyacinths, and other plants which thrive on sewage feed on the effluent. The effluent moves from pond to pond becoming cleaner and cleaner. The water in the final pond will be clean enough to irrigate the City’s open spaces and to sell for industrial uses.”

Since this natural process would be too slow to be practical for a city of Hercules’ anticipated size, a large greenhouse would be built over the entire plant to speed up the procedure.  This greenhouse would keep the water at a high enough temperature to accelerate biological activity.

The City was even hoping to profit from the byproducts of this method, by harvesting the water hyacinths to use them as “feed for hogs, cattle and fish or placed in a compost pile and converted into a rich organic fertilizer. Thus, unlike conventional wastewater treatment plants, a product can be sold and bring in a separate income from the thriving vegetation grown in the pond.”

Construction began in March 1979, and the ribbon cutting took place appropriately enough on Earth Day, April 22, 1980.  From the June 1980 Herculean:

“Federal, state, county, and local officials attended an opening ceremony and plant tour.  Without exception, they were impressed with the work done by the City.  This pioneering project has also aroused interest from many groups including the United States Congress, Governor Brown’s office, the Environmental Protection Agency, and cities and counties across the nation.”

Hopes were high for this revolution in waste water.  However, it would eventually come to pass that the revolution would simply go to waste, as it were.

After an initial test run showed promise, once the plant began operating at its designed capacity, the effluent simply would not meet acceptable environmental standards to be certified for use by the state.

An EPA report issued in late 1983 detailed some of the plants structural deficiencies – the ponds were too shallow, the pond-lining material was susceptible to cracking, and back-up power sources were needed to ensure consistent operations and temperature.

After two years of operation, and faced with the option of significant further investment to correct the plant’s operational deficiencies, the City Council voted to shut down operations.  The City’s waste water would continue to be processed by the plant run jointly with Pinole, as it is to this day.

There was one byproduct of the Aquaculture system that would prove very beneficial to Hercules, culturally if nothing else.  One of the delegates present for the plant’s dedication were representatives from the city of Tsushima, Japan.  Not too long after, Tsushima would become Hercules’ sister city, which it has been for more than 30 years.

Dean Brightman is a member of the Hercules Historical Society.

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Grappling With History

On May 22, 2013, in Newsletters, by Dean Brightman

Dean Brightman takes a look back at Hercules’ industrial and suburban past.

Reprinted with permission from The Hercules Express.

With Hercules’ industrial past disappearing, the April 1979 edition of the newly-named Herculean (formerly the City Newsletter) detailed the developing suburb’s early attempts at documenting and preserving its history as a company town.

During those early days, Hercules could very broadly be divided into three districts, the “Powder Works” plant itself on the waterfront along today’s Bayfront Boulevard and Sandering Drive, “The Hill,” a ridge where the Powder Works’ administrative and social buildings were located, including the still-standing Clubhouse and Administration buildings, roughly the area between the Powder Keg and the former Sala restaurants.

The“Village,” was where most of the company housing stood, including the current Historic District homes, and the areas around Santa Fe and Fawcett, and Hercules Avenue and Peace Road.

The City Council once entertained the possibility of purchasing the area of the Hill as part of a waterfront park. But, since Valley Nitrogen still owned it and was interested only in selling the entire plant property, they were not yet able to move forward. The Council also looked at preserving the surviving company housing.

Architectural historian Sally Woodbridge was hired to make a survey of the old houses. Woodbridge felt that there were twenty houses that were structurally secure enough to be renovated.

However, due in large part to the efforts of HERC (Hercules Environmental Resources Council) and Dr. Joseph Mariotti of the Pinole Historical Society, the area was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in March 1979. This meant “that the Council would have to re-examine its position on the area.”

At subsequent meetings, the Council reiterated their interest in preserving the historic area. They also expressed a strong desire to keep the land in Hercules under the control of the City with as little State and Federal interference as possible.

They instructed City staff to explore in detail a municipal historic district such as the Council had proposed before, and to suggest “ordinances that would govern this area without the need of State and Federal guidelines and mandates.”

While considering the past, Council was also looking for volunteers to serve on several committees to help shape the future of the growing city. The Hercules “Tomorrow Committee” would review “land use, housing mix, commercial and industrial development, annexation policies, traffic impacts, and social impacts of rapid growth.” The Open Space Maintenance Committee “would discuss the proper use of public open space, alternative means of maintenance, maintenance costs, and related topics.”

The Sister City Committee had an interesting backstory. “Since the Pacific Refinery in Hercules was the first refinery in this country to receive crude oil from the Peoples’ Republic of China, some overtures were made to the Chinese government regarding a possible Sister City in that country. The committee would “explore this as well as connections with cities in other countries.”

To get a snapshot of how the rapidly growing city was changing, Hercules conducted a special census in early 1979. The comparisons are telling:

1979 2010
Population 3900 24,060
Median Age 27 39
Median Income $26,000 $94,653
White 47% 22%
Filipino 21% 25%
African American 10% 18.9%
Chinese 8.4% 8.4%
Hispanic 4.9% 14.6%
2010 figures obtained from the U.S. Census (http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/06000.html).


While Hercules has always been a diverse city, it has become even more so over time. Though, it is apparently always been a bedroom community as well.  According to the 1979 study, “over 75% of the families in the City have two wage earners, which is why the City seems so empty during the day.”

Finally, to celebrate this diversity, the City announced a new Cultural Festival. “Filipino, Japanese, Hawaiian, Caucasian and other groups will be providing food, crafts and entertainment for the whole family… The citizens of Hercules represent many cultures from around the world. This festival is a chance for everyone to share their culture and learn about their neighbor’s way of life.”

Dean Brightman is a member of the Hercules Historical Society.

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Herculean Days

On April 21, 2013, in Newsletters, by Dean Brightman

Dean Brightman takes a look back at Hercules’ industrial and suburban past.

Reprinted with permission from The Hercules Express.

A copy of the "City Newsletter" dated 1978.

A copy of the “City Newsletter” dated 1978.

Hercules in the late 1970’s was a city in transition.  Its company town days were over.  The former Powder Works plant, which had long since converted to producing fertilizer, shut down for good in late 1977. Housing developments in the Refugio Valley were already springing up, and the City was beginning its evolution into Suburbia.

In October 1978, the newly created “City Newsletter” chronicled many of the changes taking place in Hercules. The three-month-old Police Department was already having a positive influence in the community.

“Before July 1 when the Hercules Police force became active, there were 18 to 30 burglaries a month. Since July 1, there has been one burglary and three attempts. A great record.”

A new Cadet program was about to start, and the City’s first traffic officer (Tom Muehliesen, or “Tom Traffic”) was just hitting the streets.

A brand new bus service, WestCAT, was now serving the City, and included special routes for students to Pinole Valley High and Juan Crespi Junior High. Fares were 35 cents for adults, 25 cents for kids, and 10 cents for Seniors.

Cable TV had finally arrived. For only $7.95 per month, you could receive all 19 channels., and Home Box Office was only an extra $9.95. Oh, what a dizzying time that must have been.

Although the dynamite plant was gone, it was not forgotten. The City celebrated the opening of Woodfield Park, its first official park, with “Hercules Blast Off Day.” The festivities included a softball tournament, tennis clinics, numerous games including tug of war and sack races, a barbeque, and a movie screening.

The December City Newsletter brought news of several new neighborhoods:

“Country Run townhouses located on Refugio Valley Road will have a total of 264 units when it is completed in about two years. Between 75 and 100 units of the first track have been sold now… Centex Homes of California is the builder.

“Laderas Estates at the end of Redwood off Refugio Valley Road is also built by Centex. This development will have approximately 300 single family homes… Some of the homes will be on sale in December but the new model homes will not be opened until February.

“Sunstream Hones built by Suburban Realty offers five models priced from $68,000 to $85,000. Three, four and five bedroom homes can be purchased… When the project is completed in about three years, there will be 633 single family homes in this area west Refugio Valley Road.”

By this time the City had formed a Homeowner’s Mediation Service to arbitrate disputes between new homeowners and developers. With the new service, the homeowner and the developer would split the mediator’s fee and agree to whatever solution was proposed once an investigation was completed.

Lest the realities of the world outside Hercules escape notice, the Newsletter also included Mayor Ronald Ardissone’s statement regarding recent tragedies involving several local politicians:

“The tragic deaths of Congressman Leo Ryan, Mayor George Moscone, and Supervisor Harvey Milk seem to make reality an unreachable plateau. Let us not forget the recent deaths of hundreds of nameless, faceless victims in Jonestown, Guyana.

“All these lives were ended violently by the demonized, fully calculating acts of others. Let’s hope that society will not again condone such violent acts as we have witnessed these past weeks.”

Finally, there was the matter of the Newsletter’s rather stodgy name: “City Newsletter is simply not a very exciting name for this publication. In one of the first newsletters published over a year ago an appeal was made for a name for the newsletter… With the large number of new residents who have moved into Hercules recently, it was decided to ask once again for suggestions.”

The task would ultimately prove to be a Herculean one.

Dean Brightman is a member of the Hercules Historical Society.

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