Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Hopewell - Sin City of the South

The tiny colonial village of City Point (now Hopewell) is where General Ulysses S. Grant directed a 10-month siege of nearby Petersburg from the grounds of Appomattox Plantation (above), the ancestral home of the Eppes family.

But present day Hopewell was developed in 1914 by the DuPont Company (Wilmington, Delaware), attracted by its deep port and good railroad connections. Hopewell Farm, part of the Eppes plantation adjacent to the village of City Point (established 1613), was sold to the DuPonts in 1912 for industrial development. Because the Eppes family had come to America on a ship named Hopewell, they requested that the DuPonts name the 800 acre tract "Hopewell."

The company first built a dynamite factory and then switched to the manufacture of guncotton during World War I. An additional land purchase brought the total acreage to 2,400, and DuPont brought in a huge workforce (28,000 employees in 1914), presenting the company with an enormous challenge – how to train and house them.

The changes to the town were mind-boggling. From 1840-1912 the population of City Point remained stagnant at 300. Three years later there were 40,000 DuPont employees laboring in Hopewell. In a matter of just months DuPont cleared the corn fields and pine groves to create a city complete with paved streets, schools, libraries, social and hunt clubs, gymnasiums, churches and shops. The factories stood across the railroad tracks from the town proper, where the thousands of employees were housed in rows of wooden tenements (see photo below). Apartments were rented by shifts to accommodate the crush of factory workers. Hopewell became the largest supplier to Britain of guncotton, the ingredient necessary for smokeless gunpowder. A billion pounds of guncotton were produced during WWI. Hopewell was a dirty, grimy, foul-smelling place, since production required the use of sulfuric and nitric acids.

Because the town population was mostly men earning high wages while living apart from their wives and family, a rowdy street life developed. The town became known as “Sin City of the South.” Floating brothels moved up and down the James River, a saloon occupied every block, and shootings and murders were commonplace. Since there was no local police force, Hopewell was a haven for thieves, prostitutes, con-men and gamblers.

At lunchtime on December 9, 1915, a fire broke out in a Greek restaurant, and strong winds spread the flames all over the town. Within hours over 300 buildings were in ashes, but the foremen called the workers back to their stations for the 11:00 pm shift – the manufacturing plants had been spared. Miraculously, there was no loss of life, and within weeks DuPont had rebuilt the buildings lost to the fire.

By 1918, at the close of WWI, the guncotton plants were shut down, and Hopewell was all but a ghost town. Although DuPont’s development department began considering a postwar role for Hopewell as early as 1915, it was left abandoned at war’s end. However, the Tubize Corporation established a plant producing artificial silk at the old DuPont site in 1923, the same year that the city of Hopewell annexed the neighboring village of City Point. With the addition of a new Allied Chemical plant, Hopewell prospered afterward and became known as the "Wonder City." Dupont eventually returned to Hopewell, and the current plant manufactures Melinex® PET and Kaladex® PEN polyester films at what is the largest polyester film facility in the world.

Trivia: One of the residents who left Hopewell after the fire was William “Billy” Haines, who had run away from his home in Staunton at the age of 14. After working a manual labor job for DuPont, at the age of 15 (!) he operated a popular dance hall in Hopewell that was lost to the conflagration. He then went north to New York City, where he became a model. He entered his photograph in a “New Faces of 1922" contest and won a screen test, which took him to Hollywood, where he signed with MGM. He became one of the greatest silent film stars of the 1920s and early 30s, and was the top grossing male movie star of 1930. He was lifelong friends with Joan Crawford, a staunch Republican, and decorator and confidante to Ronald and Nancy Reagan.

The Beacon Theater (see photo of the elaborate brick work) opened in 1928 as the Art-Deco Broadway Theater and showcased silent films, including those of former resident William “Billy” Haines. Of special pride to locals was the $20,000 theatre organ in place at the time of its grand opening. Sadly, the Beacon closed its doors in 1981, but reopened as a special function venue in 2005. When funds are in place, a complete restoration as a functioning theater will take place.