The Chequamegon Bay area of northwestern Wisconsin has been the keeper of a secret over the better part of the past century. Behind stone and iron gates and high fences along Highway 13, that well-kept secret was the Barksdale Works, an explosive plant owned and operated by DuPont and created to serve the wartime and industrial needs of the United States.
During the first decade of the 1900s, the DuPont corporation purchased nearly two thousand acres south of the industrial town of Washburn, Wisconsin. Originally, this was the largest dynamite plant in the mid-United States. The Barksdale Works was situated almost midway between Ashland and Washburn, Wisconsin. The plant itself was located less than half a mile from Lake Superior, surrounded by a high fence and barbed wire perimeter.
Washburn became a boom town by the start of World War I, with over 9,000 residents, two-thirds of which were employed at Barksdale. The plant became a major contributor to the town of Washburn. Dupont built schools and a community center, maintained roads and supported the community.
During the 1920's and 1930's, the plant became engaged in the rather dangerous business of making and testing newer and more powerful explosives, including TNT. During the era when Barksdale changed its emphasis to military manufacture, employees were selected from among the indigenous population of the area. It has been suggested that DuPont and the government found the Chequamegon Bay area ideal for military explosives work because of its low population density and considerable distance from population centers, both of which would make detection of foreign espionage efforts much easier.
In its early days, the plant had been primarily responsible for making dynamite that could be utilized for blasting in iron mines on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and in northern Minnesota. But the Barksdale Works was also rapidly becoming the primary manufacturing source of TNT in the United States at the time, so industrial applications gave way to military purposes as World War II approached. And, as is usual with explosive manufacture, there were accidents.
In 1920, about 30,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate caught fire and burned at the plant. Fortunately, there was no explosion. Another explosion in 1928 killed two men, but did only minor damage to the plant. Then, in 1952, near the end of the Korean War, the Barksdale Works' luck ran out. Eight men were killed in two massive explosions at the plant on October 15, 1952, fifty-five years ago. The explosive force broke many windows in nearby Ashland, Wisconsin, seven miles away.
During the late 1950's and into the 1960's, the plant was converted to other uses, including efforts to perfect the manufacture of clad or "sandwich" coins. The early sandwich coin blanks were created by using explosives to blast layers of metal together. Once produced, the layered blanks were shipped to the U. S. Mint for striking.
The Barksdale Works was quietly closed in 1971. Curiously, very little information about the plant is available on the Web or in books. Apparently, DuPont and the United States Government worked hand in hand to make certain that the public would learn very little about activities that went on at Barksdale.
There are still a few men in the Chequamegon Bay area who worked at the plant during its heyday. If you are fortunate enough to know one of these Barksdale veterans and you bring up the subject of the plant, you may get a rare glimpse of the colorful past surrounding the Barksdale Works.