We visited Hercules, CA, last week to catch up with an old friend. Lunch with a view of San Pablo Bay was great. The East Bay suburb’s past as a major producer of black powder, dynamite and all things explosive was fascinating.
We drive past Hercules on I-80 at least once a month but never stop. We finally dropped in last Friday to enjoy lunch with our friend Lois, who had flown in from Los Angeles to visit family. Lois and Dan were colleagues at UCLA Health Sciences 20 years ago.
When a lengthy rental car line delayed her arrival at the restaurant, we decided to check out the Promenade neighborhood. We particularly enjoyed the neat stoops and broad porches that accent the classic urban architectural styling. No snout houses here. The garages are out back along landscaped alleys. The front yards are framed with picket fences and flowering shrubs. Easy access to the Bay Trail also caught our eye.
Yet, we wondered about the row of boarded up buildings along the waterfront. And what was with the names of Powder Keg Pub and Dynamite Pets in the tiny business district? We sensed a theme. So while Lois performed the Herculean task of battling traffic on her drive from the airport, we quizzed the neighbors and googled around a bit.
Turns out the cozy suburban enclave of 25,000 has an explosive past:
An Explosive History Lesson
According to online accounts, California Powder Works moved its black powder production from Golden Gate Park to the shore of San Pablo Bay in 1881. The growing city of San Francisco had determined that a public park was not compatible with manufacturing black powder. (Go figure.) The company town of Hercules incorporated in 1900, taking the name of the firm’s signature brand of dynamite – Hercules Powder.
Seven major explosions rocked the powder works in its first quarter century on the waterfront. Chinese immigrants who lived in triple-bunked barracks and often handled the most dangerous jobs accounted for 88 of 106 fatalities, according to one account. Accounts and tallies vary.
Production and product lines morphed in the ensuing decades. More deadly explosions occurred. Then, in 1964, the company switched from manufacturing explosives to fertilizer. And the plant closed for good in the late 1970s amid an economic downturn and labor strife. In its place, a suburb bloomed.
Today, a handful of historic homes – most moved from their original sites – dot the waterfront neighborhood. One houses Leila by the Bay, where we enjoyed lunch. Several management homes plus an inn and the company’s headquarters stand boarded up and in disrepair along Railroad Avenue. New development is under way on the opposite side of Hercules Point.
Meanwhile, we thoroughly enjoyed catching up with Lois over a leisurely lunch on the restaurant patio. The afternoon was warm, the bay breeze was light, and the company was perfect.
Come again soon, Lois!