Operated from 1934 to 1946 at Kure Beach, under a partnership of the Dow Chemical Co. and the Ethyl Corp., the massive factory complex extracted the chemical element bromine from ocean water. At its height, the plant employed 250 workers with a $500,000 anuual payroll, making it “an integral part of life in the city,” according to a 1940 pamphlet about Wilmington, published by the Atlantic Coast Line railroad.
Plans for the project were announced on Aug. 9, 1933, hailed as the area’s largest commercial development since the shipyard constructions of World War I. Ethyl and Dow invested some $3.5 million to build the facility, employing some 1,500 construction workers, a boon to the local economy in the depths of the Depression.
Although bromine had a number of industrial uses at the time, including photography, its primary use was in the synthesizing of “Ethyl” a “no-knock” compound used in gasoline and aviation fuel.
The property occupied some 90 acres near Kure Beach. (Builders made use of a Civil War defensive trench, dug in 1865.) Construction required laying more than 3.5 million bricks and 38 miles of electrical wiring. The plant used so much electricity — up to 30 million kilowatt-hours per year — that the tiny Tidewater Power Co. had to link up with the Carolina Power & Light lines in Bladen County. (This move eventually led to Tidewater’s merger with CP&L, a forerunner of Progress Energy.) By local standards, the plant was enormous; some of its buildings stood four stories tall.
The plant began operation in January 1934. Seawater was pumped through a 200-foot intake pipe into a settling basin, 112 feet long, 76 feet wide and 12 feet deep. (A natural “Carolina bay” located at the site proved ideal for this purpose.) Then the water passed through a series of treatment chambers. In the first, a 10 percent sulphuric acid solution was added. (Workers recalled how the mixture gave off a yellow glow.) Next. chlorine was blown through the water by enormous fans in “blowing-out” towers, 40 feet high and hundreds of feet wide. The water was then poured down from the towers in a “fan-shaped shower,” sprayed with air, then sprayed with a soda-ash solution, precipitating a bromine solution which was then pumped off into the ethylene dibromide building. Treated water was then released into the Cape Fear River.
It took roughly 7.5 tons of ocean water to produce 1 pound of bromine. At peak production, during wartime, the plant could process 30 million gallons of seawater a day, yielding 16,000 pounds of ethylene dibromide, the key ingredient in Ethyl.
At the time, the plant drew considerable public interest. Scientific American profiled the facility in its June 1934 issue. Modern Mechanix, also in June 1934, speculated whether the plant could also extract gold from seawater. (The process was theoretically possible, but was never tried at Kure Beach.)
The plant became a focus of local legend on the morning of July 25, 1943, when — according to rumor — a German U-boat surfaced nearby and fired artillery shells at the plant. (Some sources claim five rounds.) None of the shells hit, and the U-boat, if it existed, soon disappeared.
No reliable eyewitness reports of the attack have been found, however, and several people question whether it happened at all. David Carnell, a retired chemical engineer who became the Ethyl-Dow plant’s unofficial historian, has found German documents citing that all German submarines had been ordered from U.S. coastal waters at the time of the attack, and that all German subs were to have had their deck guns removed by July 1943. Many residents, however, recall that something set off a local panic on the night of July 24-25, 1943, and witnesses confirm that the Ethyl-Dow plant shut down from 1 to 3 a.m. on July 25.
Demand for Ethyl plummeted in peacetime, and the companies decided to consolidate operations at a facility on the Texas Gulf coast. The Kure Beach plant was shut down in 1946, and parts were scaveneged by other local businesses. The last traces of the oceanside intake channels were obliterated by Hurricanes Fran and Floyd in the 1990s. Some concrete building foundations and tank beds, however, remain on federal property on the river side of the old facility. These are not open to the public.
Date posted: April 10, 2009