Tar Paper Town: the origins of DuPont

In 1906, a small bustling community of about 50 tar paper-covered buildings sprang up near Sequalitchew Creek in Pierce County. This temporary development housed the families of the workers who were building a new explosives factory. From this simple beginning would spring modernity City of DuPont.

The DuPont Company was founded nearly a century earlier in Delaware by a refugee from the French Revolution. The business flourished and expanded across the country at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. With its construction and booming industries, the Pacific Northwest seemed like the next logical place for business growth.

DuPont Company officials chose the area near Sequalitchew Creek in Pierce County with easy access to Puget Sound and major rail networks. This area was home to a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post, Fort Nisqually. After it closed in 1870, the area was cultivated by former employee Edward Huggins and others. By 1906 he was getting older and ready to retire. He sold his land to the DuPont Company and moved to Tacoma.

The DuPont Village was built to permanently house workers and their families. This photo shows Avenue Louviers. The village district is now listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Photo courtesy of DuPont Historical Museum

Construction of the explosives plant began in 1906. It took hundreds of workers to build the plant. Many of the workers were recruited locally and were single. They were lodged in a tarmac guesthouse. In 1906 the newspapers were full of advertisements for construction workers for “Huggins Crossing”. The following year the community was called DuPont, after the name of the company. It was the only DuPont factory named for the company itself.

Many other workers, however, were skilled workers transferred from Company factories across the country. The married men soon sent for their families. These families lived in houses covered with tar paper. The small temporary buildings were inexpensive to build, although far from comfortable. Newspapers and blankets decorated the walls and provided some insulation. The tar paper helped keep the rain out.

The tar paper village, later known as the “old town,” quickly grew into a whole community. It was home to a diverse group, many of whose workers were immigrants from Scandinavia, the UK, Germany and Italy. The former Huggins’ house (Fort Nisqually Factor’s House) has been transformed into a community center. Club meetings, church services, Sunday schools and events were held there. This included the community’s first marriage between the boarding house matron and one of the construction workers.

John and Margaret Bergstrom gather outside their Old Town home with their children Ida, Bill, Dave, Axel, Inor, Minnie and Ellen (Mary is not pictured). Swedish immigrants, John was transferred from the DuPont Company factory in Barksdale, Wisconsin. Photo courtesy of DuPont Historical Museum

The Olympia Daily Recorder described an upcoming community celebration of Independence Day at DuPont in 1907. Joking that “the day will be as loud as the factory goal suggests”, ball game, races and a ball were planned.

Many children called “Old Town” their home. School District # 7 built a thirty by sixty foot tar paper school for them. The building was divided in two by a cretonne curtain. This school will be replaced in 1911 by a simple wooden building in what is now Barksdale station. A federal-style brick school would be built next door in 1917. This building remained, with extensions, the DuPont School for decades. It was demolished in 1989.

Work on the plant, however, stalled. A nationwide financial panic halted construction in October 1907, and construction could not resume until the following summer. Local newspapers noted that many families were forced to move when construction ceased. DuPont Powder Works finally began production in September 1909.

The DuPont Historical Museum exhibits a partially recreated tar paper house. Photo courtesy of DuPont Historical Museum

After production started, the company began to build a new permanent community, one and a half kilometers from the factory gates. “The Village” was a planned community and a true corporate city. The DuPont Company owned the land and buildings, leasing them to their occupants. The town’s three shops, a meat market and two general stores, were managed independently (the meat market now houses the DuPont Historical Museum). The town also had a volunteer fire department, clubhouse, and church (now DuPont Community Presbyterian Church). Many workers spent their entire careers at the factory and stayed there after retirement.

Fifty-eight houses were built in 1909/1910, and the village continued to expand throughout the next decade until it included a hundred houses. In 1917, six houses were even moved from the land condemned to Camp Lewis (today JBLM). With the exception of the large houses of the factory manager and the deputy manager, the workers’ houses were almost identical, although varying according to the number of rooms. The roads (originally dirt) were named for the company’s factories across the country. For example, Barksdale Avenue, the main street in the village, owes its name to the factory in Wisconsin from which many original workers came.

A temporary school was built to educate the many children of the new community. Photo courtesy of DuPont Historical Museum

The single workers lived in the 41-room DuPont hotel, located on Barksdale Avenue between Hopewell and Penniman streets. In the mid-1920s, 125 men boarded the hotel. It was demolished in 1930.

Even though commuting became more popular, most workers continued to live at DuPont. The community was very close-knit and everyone who lived there was connected to the business. In 1951, the company sold the houses to its occupants and the community incorporated.

Further changes would come in 1976 when the company closed the DuPont plant due to changes in the market. During its decades of operation, it produced over a billion pounds of explosives. The company’s land was sold to
Weyerhaeuser, which ultimately developed Northwest Landing, a commercial and residential development that more than doubled the size of DuPont. The community has come a long way from a collection of simple buildings clustered around the historic Fort Nisqually site of 1843.

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