The Red Scare (?) at the Picric Acid Plant, 1918

So, I’ve done some historical work on the Little Rock Picric Acid Plant. This was a major munitions factory that stood where the Interstate 440 and Bankhead Drive now meet. During World War I, it made a high explosive called picric acid (bet you didn’t guess that), which was used in American shells sent to Europe.

Some months back, I found a listing in the National Archives online catalogs for two records groups relating to the facility. This was a potential boon, since I’ve been using primarily newspaper accounts up to this point. I requested copies, and hoped that they contained at least some photographs or drawing of the facility, which I haven’t found to date. I was, frankly, surprised by what popped up.

The documents are actually from the office of the Director of Military Intelligence, Brigadier General Marlborough Churchill. They allege that the International Workers of the World were active and “influential” around Little Rock, and may be implicated in two deaths at the Little Rock Picric Acid Plant.

Whoa. That’s an entirely different aspect of the plant than has popped up in the papers…

We’ve known from newspaper accounts that a worker died during construction. This man, W.E. Woodard of Faulkner County, apparently fell to his death from the roof of one of the buildings. The NARA documents give more of the circumstances about the death. Apparently, on the night of June 3, 1918, about 10:35, Woodard and some others were working on one of the buildings when a channel iron slipped its guide rope and struck Woodard in the head, knocking him from the building. He fell 35 feet and landed on an I-beam, breaking both legs and causing massive internal injuries. One hour later (why did they wait an hour?), someone called for emergency services, but Woodard passed away soon thereafter.

Apparently, one of the foremen thought that this was no accident. He reported it to Churchill’s office, believing that International Workers of the World saboteurs had infiltrated the plant and were causing accidents. Woodard’s death was one, but apparently someone shut off the water supply to the fire extinguishers at around the same time. This foreman blamed the IWW.

Ultimately, the Military Intelligence officers sent to investigate decided that both incidents were accidental, not sabotage. Still, the hasty response to purported infiltration bespeaks the importance of military production at the time and the fear of anti-war IWW agitation present in Arkansas.

Carl Drexler
Magnolia, Arkansas

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