Sometimes called the Memphis, or Millington, Ordnance Plant, this huge explosives manufactory had its origin in 1940, when the Anglo-French Purchasing Board formed the Tennessee Powder Company to produce munitions for the Allied war effort. After the French surrendered, the British assumed control and contracted with E. I. DuPont de Nemours Company to manage the construction and operation of the facility. The six-thousand-acre site north of Memphis met the plant's needs for land, labor, bulk transportation links, and access to an ample supply of cotton linters, which were chemically treated to produce “smokeless powder” (actually a high-explosive cake, or “guncotton”) for small arms and artillery, as well as TNT.
The installation required its own power plant, a separate spur from the main Illinois Central Railway line, and new artesian wells that pumped enough water (22 million gallons per day) to supply the city of Memphis. U.S. Highway 51 was enlarged to a “four-lane super roadway” from Memphis to the Tipton County line to accommodate the workers' automobiles. Though some workers commuted by public bus, the complex was a forerunner of the automobile culture that burgeoned after the war.
Construction began in June 1940 and proceeded on a round-the-clock schedule with a peak workforce of over nine thousand black and white workers. In early 1941 the plant operated with fifteen hundred employees and shipped its first lots of explosive. It set a world safety record by operating for 2 million (later 3.6 million) work hours without a major injury. From November 1940 to May 1943 the plant maintained continuous night and day operations for 871 days (except Christmas Day 1942).
In May 1941 the U.S. government acquired the plant and later changed the name from Tennessee Powder Works to Chickasaw Ordnance Works before enlargement of the facility began. DuPont continued to manage the plant for the U.S. Army; it received the first Army-Navy “E” award given to a war plant in the Southeast, and received Es for four successive six-month periods. By October 1944 the plant employed more than eight thousand women and received an Army Ordnance safety award. Its overall accident rate remained less than half that of all other such plants.
Ironically, after more than $50 million in American and foreign investment, the award-winning plant was deemed too dangerous for conversion to civilian uses after the army deactivated it in mid-1946 and carefully dismantled it.
Robert A. Sigas, Cotton Row to Beale Street: A Business History of Memphis (1979)