Indian Head History
The Powder Factory at Indian Head, Maryland, brought about significant interest for all the farmers in Charles County. Many of these men heard their fathers talk of establishing a powder mill in Port Tobacco. In 1776, the talk of revolution was gaining momentum. John Hanson, Jr., and Walter Hanson, Jr. began erecting a powder factory at Port Tobacco. These young men would manufacture enough powder to supply the Maryland Militia as long as the war continued. They picked what they thought was an ideal location where a stream emptied into Clark’s Branch on Port Tobacco’s outskirts. The plant was to have been a good location for their Powder Plant.
The building would be located between the main road from Port Tobacco and the bridges on Zekiah Swamp. Human resources and lack of building materials made construction a long and challenging job. The refining building was almost finished, but in 1789, the need for all available human resources brought everything to a halt, with everything ready. The fighting became so intense men were needed on the front line. Thus, the plant was closed.
After the revolution, the demand for gun powder in Charles County was easily met by other manufacturers. With this earlier failure still prominent in local history, Lt. Joseph Strauss moved cautiously with the new plant’s construction. The Naval Surface Warfare Center, Indian Head Division (NSWC) has the longest-running history of any Naval ordnance facility in the United States. The Navy has conducted munitions-related activities on the property continuously since 1890. These activities have evolved from the historical testing of guns, gunpowder, and other explosives to current activities in the manufacture and testing of fuels and propulsion systems for missiles and other weapons. Established in 1890 as the Naval Proving Ground, it became the Naval Powder Factory in 1932, the Naval Propellant Plant in 1958, the Naval Ordnance Station in 1966 Indian Head Division, Naval Surface Warfare Center in 1992.
The name changes have accompanied changes in the station’s mission as it transitions from a proving ground/production facility to an engineering and technical center.
In September 1890, the Bureau of Ordnance ordered young ENS Robert Brooke Dashiell to Indian Head to oversee the new Naval Proving Ground opening. His mission was to get the proving ground into operation as soon as possible to proceed with the testing of guns and armor, shells, and mounts for the rapidly expanding fleet. Ensign Dashiell set out to build his model proving ground,” hiring 40 men to begin construction on a swampy parcel of land where the Mattawoman Creek flowed into the Potomac. These first Indian Head employees were Charles County farmers who gladly welcomed the opportunity for after-harvest work.
After draining the valley, the proving ground began proof testing all guns turned out at the Navy Yard and tested the Navy Department’s powder. By early 1891 a steady flow of equipment and gun barrels arrived at the Indian Head Proving Ground. As the months passed, more accomplishments unfolded under Ensign Dashiell’s supervision, including the construction of valley firing positions, semi-underground shelters called gun-proofs, magazines, and instrument houses.
Three days after the Battle of Manila Bay in 1898, which revealed a lack of an adequate supply of smokeless powder for the new rapid-fire guns, Congress passed a bill authorizing the Navy to proceed with the construction of a powder factory at Indian Head, devoted to smokeless powder production. Two years later, on June 16, 1900, Indian Head celebrated the factory’s opening marked by its first lot of Indian Head smokeless powder, lot #148.
As the Indian Head and Powder Factory town flourished, Europe brewed the war, facilitating full production of smokeless powder at the factory if the United States entered the conflict. As more and more powder stockpiled at Indian Head, a marine unit arrived to protect the supplies, replacing the one strand of barbed wire that once marked the proving ground’s boundary with a high fence and gate.
As the proving ground began to test larger guns, a piece of acreage known as Mason’s Enlargement was procured as a matter of precaution – and with an eye toward World War I wartime expansion. Stump Neck was a remote point with only a path connecting the area to the main road as it came to be known.
By 1913, the original mission of Indian Head evolved one step farther. Work gradually moved away from the simple proving of guns and armor to include standardization of shells and powder. In 1915 an ammonium picrate plant was opened, and the facility continued to expand the chemical research program, both routine and experimental, set up at Indian Head. When the United States entered World War I in 1917, the Naval Powder Factory was a smokeless powder producer for the Navy. Marbury and Pisgah’s residents could now arrive to work more quickly with the construction of a footbridge over the Mattawoman Creek, further linking the local community to Indian Head.
After 1921 Indian Head was no longer designated as the “Naval Proving Ground” but referred to as the “Naval Powder Factory.” The facility had shifted from a naval gun proving ground to a chemical factory, research laboratory, and Explosive D factory, employing a talented civilian workforce. With 10,000 people working at the Powder Factory each day, the facility was teeming with employees inside and outside its gates.
In the late 1920s, men on the powder factory workers experienced two consecutive reductions in salary, and then word came down from the Bureau of Ordnance to “cut down the force.” As employees packed up their families, the factory workforce dwindled to less than 500. Bare windows took the place of bright curtains, and silence fell upon the small town as weeds sprung up around deserted homes and playgrounds.
It was assistance from President Roosevelt, who visited Indian Head during his time as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, that kept Indian Head going during the lean years. In 1933 the Navy Department allotted the Powder Factory $71,000 for the production of smokeless powder. Meanwhile, the 325th Company of the Civilian Conservation Corps, a New Deal program, opened a work camp in Indian Head, creating additional jobs. The Corps worked to improve the roads, plant new trees, and beautify the station. In 1938 and 1939, powder production was up to three million pounds per year, with increases planned in the event of war. A new Explosive D Plant and Extrusion Plant was built as Indian Head prepared for battle during this time.
The World War II years brought rapid growth to the Indian Head Naval Powder Factory, which was considered one of the leading war-supply stations. After the war had broken out in Europe, but before the United States entered the war, 62 uniformed personnel and 794 civilians were employed at the Naval Powder Factory. To accommodate workers during the war, the Navy constructed additional housing in the area now known as the Village Green and also built the Potomac Heights and Woodland Village neighborhoods. Construction of the Indian Head Highway was initiated during the war, and the Navy provided bus service between Washington and Indian Head.
During World War II, the Navy facility produced flashless powder and pellets, and research was conducted in rocketry and the development of air-to-ground anti-tank weapons. In cooperation with researchers at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif., Indian Head put into operation an extrusion plant for pressing ballistite powder into rocket “grains” while continuing to produce smokeless powder and Explosive D. The expansion into production of extruded grains would reshape the destiny and mission of the facility.
By 1945, Indian Head numbered 5,217 civilians and military personnel, making smokeless powder and testing rocket fuel, and experimenting with mines and other ordnance. During the period 1946 through 1949, the station’s commanding officers worked with civilian researchers and with the Bureau of Ordnance to get the official mission of the Indian Head Powder Factory modified to reflect its new strengths.
Although the Powder Factory had taken on a research and development emphasis, the larger-scale employment at Indian Head depended on production facilities. With the decline in smokeless powder consumption and employees’ layoff in the postwar months, Congress members and senators from Maryland soon came to the facility’s defense. Shortly after these political pressures, the Bureau agreed to establish a set of pilot plants at Indian Head, which would have the capacity to produce experimental new propellants for naval research use. By the summer of 1947, the Bureau of Ordnance agreed to a plan to construct four pilot plants at Indian Head to include a nitroglycerin pilot plant; a plant to produce varied nitrogen-content nitrocellulose; a plant for mixing and rolling experimental lots of solvent and solventless propellant; and the fourth plant for experimental production of cast propulsion units. Over the next six years, Indian Head gradually built up its “pilot plant” capacity, building on experimental propellants’ strength. Coming at a time of crisis, the pilot plants began to reshape the mission of Indian Head as its redefinition slowly emerged.
In 1950, the Korean conflict provided the impetus for the factory’s stepped-up explosive and propellant production. During the Korean war, the plant built four new production facilities, the worker population increased, and additional employee housing was built. Employment grew from 1,590 in 1950 to 3,044 employees in 1953. And by 1954, the Biazzi nitroglycerin plant (patterned after a Swiss design), a nitro-guanidine, and cordite N plants were in full operation.
With Indian Head carrying the name Powder Factory, CAPT Francis SCANLAND, Commanding Officer in 1952, argued that the term “powder factory” itself “implied a plant to primarily engage in the manufacture of gun powder.” While the facility’s name had been correct in the 1940s, he stressed, “it is no longer correct and becoming more and more incorrect.” He recommended the name be changed to the Naval Propellant Development Station, pushed for a research and development and pilot plant focus, and continued housing of the Explosive Ordnance Disposal School, established at Stump Neck in 1946.
Following the congressional hearings in 1958, considering the Naval Powder Factory’s future when smokeless powder production had ended, the Indian Head’s mission became more apparent. Building on work done at the facility’s Patterson Pilot Plant during the 1940s, the factory would now produce missile fuel for the long-range Polaris missile and smaller rockets. Later, propellants for emergency ejection mechanisms. With participation in the Polaris program at Indian Head, 23 new buildings began construction in 1959 to support the workload. Reflecting its unique mission and direction, the Naval Powder Factory shed its former name and officially became the Naval Propellant Plant on August 14, 1958.
During the 1950s, the Navy began to phase out housing for civilians instead of making necessary repairs. In the late 1950s, the housing that surrounded the Village Green was demolished, with the last civilian occupants moving out in 1965.
The Navy completed Twenty-three new buildings in 1960 for the manufacture of propellant for Polaris Missiles. Highlighting the year 1962 was the pilot-scale manufacture of the X-248 third stage motor for the Scout missile, followed by the Indian Head’s development of Otto Fuel II for high-speed torpedoes 1963, retooling the Biazzi Plant for its production. Additional growth came from the increase in weapons during the Vietnam conflict, specifically from 1965 through 1969.
Reflecting the diversification from propellants into related fields of chemistry, engineering, and production contract management, the Naval Propellant Plant again changed its name, becoming the Naval Ordnance Station in 1966. The mid to late-1960s was characterized by the production of such products as the plastic explosive C-3 in 1965, an updated Zuni rocket in 1966, Polaris (A2 and A3) casting powder from 1961 through 1967, Poseidon casting powder (C-3) in 1967, and composite propellant and PBX explosive processing.
Through the late 1970s, the tempo of production increased, and the volume of business expanded. With the national mood turning in a more pro-business direction, the Navy-owned facilities at Indian Head in the early 1980s had found several niches in the propellant market. In addition to providing engineering services to translate a laboratory process into a production process for the private sector and providing a national “back up” resource in the case of emergency, full-scale production at Indian Head would concentrate on several methods/products too unprofitable, too dangerous, or too difficult for the private sector to manufacture.
Continuing a trend that began during the 1970s, NOS increased the proportion of engineering and administrative roles overproduction. Recognizing the station’s achievement, NAVSEA reconstituted several previously acquired agency roles as official “centers of excellence” for the Navy. This meant that the Navy would not duplicate the effort elsewhere and treat the facility as the primary collection of experts in a particular area. NOS acquired the “center of excellence” designation by mid-1989 for six technologies, grown out of an established track record. These were: guns, rockets, missiles; energetic chemicals; ordnance devices (CAD/PAD); missile weapon simulators; explosive process development engineering; and explosive safety, occupational safety and health, and environmental protection.
By 1989, the Naval Ordnance Station served as a Navy resource and provided innovative work on the next decade’s systems. Special teams were assembled to work on critical issues such as the investigation into the gun turret explosion aboard the USS IOWA on April 25, 1989, and projects for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and other agencies.
The world watched the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1988 and 1989, democratic reforms in Eastern Europe, the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, and heard terms such as “glasnost” and “perestroika,” all suggesting that relations with the Soviet Union would improve. Facing new budgetary cuts, just as it had experienced in the 1920s and 1940s, Indian Head once again looked toward becoming a “lean and mean” facility.
Indian Head Division’s importance to the DoD is more significant than ever. Private companies in energetics are getting out of the business, and more are expected to follow as the volume of work goes down. There is no commercial market for their products, their large, expensive facilities are idled, and the cost of environmental compliance is skyrocketing (DuPont being one example). The Navy has been planning for this and has taken actions to consolidate energetics work at Indian Head. The Navy’s explosives research and undersea warhead development work (about 300 workers) has been transferred from NSWC White Oak Maryland to Indian Head by BRAC 93. The explosive loading facilities at Naval Weapons Station Yorktown have begun to be shut down with the work transferred to Indian Head.