More on the La Grande Nitrogen Plant

Nitrogen Plant and Chimney-free homes at LaGrande (ca. 1912)
Nitrogen Plant and Chimney-free homes at LaGrande (ca. 1912)

For you science buffs, Donald Johnstone has provided two articles on the La Grande Nitrogen plant. Beware, you need to understand a bit about chemistry to fully appreciate the articles.

• The first, printed in 1930, ran in Industrial and Engineering Chemistry on the La Grande Nitrogen plant.

* The second ran in May, 1920 in The Quarterly  Journal of Economics. It’s entitled Nigtrogen: its Fixation, its Uses in Peace and War.

For us that aren’t quite as science oriented. Here’s a litte on the plant in layman’s terms.

1916 was an eventful year. Besides WWI being in full swing, the light switch was invented, Woodrow Wilson signed legislation to create the National Park Service, and the American Nitrogen Productions Company began producing sodium nitrate pellets at its nitrogen plant in La Grande.

Sodium nitrate — for those like myself who don’t know what it’s used for — is an ingredient in potassium nitrate, fertilizers and . . . explosives. In fact, during the war, nitrogen was one of the prime components of TNT and other high explosives, and the U.S. government built 10 plants to supply nitrogen for bombs.

In Donald Johnstone’s book, Upper Nisqually Valley, he says that the product was also known as saltpeter. “The La Grande plant was the first commercially viable plant in the country.”

The process, which produced synthetic ammonia, was developed by Germans immediately after the state of WWI. Ironically, if the process hadn’t been developed, some historians believe Germany would have run out of munitions in 1916, ending the war.

Jobs for the Locals
The plant was built near the new, state-of-the-art City of Tacoma dam in La Grande, so electricity was plentiful. The nearby houses were considered the first all-electric homes in the world and known as “the town without a chimney.”

While the plant was in operation, many in Eatonville knew the products coming out of the plant were used to create explosives — versus fertilizer. For example, there were no schools built anywhere near the large facility. And Martha Parrish — a very young girl at the time — recalls her father working there during the war at the plant that made “ammunition”.

Martha also remembers the plant being torn down in 1927. There is little remaining of the plant except for a few pictures like these. In one you can see the bags of pellets ready to be taken to market by rail. The other shows the chimney-free homes nearby.

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