The "Outside Men" at CPW Hercules

Chinese Workers at Explosives Factory
by Jennifer Posedel

Chinese laborers formed the core of the workforce in the plant’s early years (86% in 1883).  They were hired through employment brokers named Hong Quong and Wong Po, referred to as Chinese bosses.   There are no official company records of their employment, but news accounts say that as many as 375 worked at Hercules at any one time.  

The Chinese workers performed the dangerous work on the nitroglycerine line, and many died in the frequent explosions of the 1880s and 1890s.  The San Francisco Call reported that 60 died in the first 14 years of plant operation, although the number could never be verified because of the lack of records.  The worst explosion occurred in 1883 when the New York Times reported that 40 Chinese and their white overseer were “blown to atoms.”  

The 1900 U.S. Census lists 149 Chinese laborers at the plant, 74 of whom were married.  All had been in the United States for an average of more than 20 years.  (Previous experience probably included mining and railroad construction, but I do not have specific references to that.)  Thirteen were born in California; 14 spoke English; and two worked as cooks at the camp.  At that time, Henry McCullough was the Caucasian foreman of the outside men at the powder works.  The Chinese men paid the boss for room and board at two rustic buildings located at a waterfront camp. There was also a large population working at the Giant plant at Pt. Pinole, as well as a shrimp camp there which in 1896 was said to supply three-fourths of the shrimp consumed in San Francisco.  In the early 1900s, the powder company at Hercules rented its tidelands to a clam digger named Sing who lived in a shack at the foot of Tennant Avenue.  Plant supervisor McBryde defended Sing’s exclusive right to the area and had any poachers arrested.

In 1910, among the 27 Chinese then living at the “Wing Tong camp,” several were employed in the company boarding house as waiter, laundry man, kitchen helper, and cook.  Two worked as cooks in the clubhouse and one cooked for a private family.  At that time, they lived in the Wing Tong camp according to the U.S. Census.  The Chinese camp existed through the Dupont era, but in 1914 the workers departed and the boarding house and kitchen  were demolished.