The DuPont Historical Museum: A Dynamic Destination
The Puget Sound area is an integral part of Washington’s history, which became a territory in 1853 and a state in ’89. Among the highlights of the area is the DuPont Historical Museum, in the eponymous town once known for manufacturing explosives. What really strikes visitors to the museum is the astounding list of celebrated premieres in its exhibits and exhibits. Among other milestones, the area was home to both the first European trading post on Puget Sound (Fort Nisqually, dating from 1833) and the first American settlement in what would become Washington (Mission Nisqually, active 1840–1842); was the home port of the first steamship to ply the Pacific Northwest coast (Beaver, launched in 1835); recorded the region’s first land route (1834); hosted the first known Independence Day celebration (1841) north of the Columbia River; and was the first named place in the Oregon Territory (organized in 1848). In 1906, the chemical company DuPont purchased land at the Fort Nisqually site to build the first industrial plant in the Pacific Northwest. Completed in 1909, the DuPont Powder Works paved the way for building roads, canals, railroads, mining and other applications around the world, and continued to manufacture explosives until 1975 .
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The museum building, which dates to 1917, was originally a butcher’s shop and later served as DuPont’s first town hall. In 1977, city officials designated the building as a museum to display company artifacts and photographs. Today, with the continued support of the city, the DuPont Historical Society, and volunteers, the museum has grown to showcase regional human history.
The first room tells the story of the Nisqually, a Coast Salish people who have lived in the Nisqually River delta for approximately five millennia. In 1855, the territorial authorities confined them to a reservation further inland along the river. Related artifacts on display include baskets and tools made and used by the Nisqually and other Salish bands.
In 1833, the British company Hudson’s Bay Co. (HBC) established Fort Nisqually, a trading post along the strait, to facilitate the exchange of European goods for beaver and other furs. A decade later, HBC built a larger fort a mile inland along Sequalitchew Creek. Until then Beaver, a large side-wheel steamer commanded by company man William Henry McNeill, had arrived in the strait to service the fort. In 1840, HBC started the subsidiary Puget Sound Agricultural Co., whose workforce was centered in the fort and supplied wool, beef, cheese, and other products to regional and international markets. Among the artifacts in the museum’s collection are handmade tools, vintage firearms, blankets and trade beads.
The Americans quickly made their presence known. In the spring of 1841, a large-scale expedition led by United States Navy Lieutenant Charles Wilkes surveyed Puget Sound, stopping long enough to mark the 4th of July. In 1846, the signatories ratified the Oregon Treaty, officially recognizing all lands south of the 49th parallel of the United States. HBC continued to operate its fort until the Americans bought it out in 1869. Edward Huggins, who ran Fort Nisqually when it closed the following year, soon became an American citizen and filed a claim to 1,000 acres , including the fort grounds. Huggins cultivated the plot until 1906, when he sold it to DuPont.
DuPont also built a wharf near the mouth of the creek from which to ship dynamite for major industrial projects such as the Panama Canal and the Grand Coulee Dam. Narrow-gauge trains transported supplies and products to and from the factory
Founded in 1802 in Wilmington, Del., EI DuPont de Nemours & Co., the then largest supplier of gunpowder to the U.S. Army, purchased 3,600 acres of land from Huggins and neighboring farmers to establish a presence on the west coast. To house the workers, the company first built temporary tar paper houses on the site of the fort. The company town grew among them, and by 1917 had more than 100 family homes, a hotel for single employees, a post office, a company clubhouse, an infirmary, a school, church, newspaper and shops, including the aforementioned butcher’s shop. DuPont also built a wharf near the mouth of the creek from which to ship dynamite for major industrial projects such as the Panama Canal and the Grand Coulee Dam. Narrow-gauge trains transported supplies and products to and from the factory.
The company town remained exclusive to employees until 1951, when DuPont sold the homes, allowing residents to incorporate as an official town. The museum’s second room recreates a typical kitchen from one of the staff houses, many of which are still standing. Exhibits in the third room cover the company town’s era and include an exhibit reminiscent of local and previous high schools in District No. 7, which dates back to 1860. Another exhibit covers the 1976 purchase of the land of the company by the Weyerhaeuser Co., which intended to build a deep-water port from which to export timber. When those plans failed, he reallocated the land to create the planned community of Northwest Landing. In 1987, the historical society successfully lobbied to have the remaining buildings of the company town, known as DuPont Village, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Recent additions to the museum include a replica of a 1906 tar paper cabin, a mural of a 1910 company house, and a wooden porch and pillars reflecting a current house in Northwest Landing. Under a protective canopy behind the museum building rests Washington State’s last intact “dynamite train.” Built in 1941, the 12-ton narrow-gauge Plymouth engine pulled its explosive-packed cars…very gently – from factory to dock, supplying American forces throughout the Pacific during World War II.
this article first appeared in wild west magazine
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