What’s in a Name: The Definition of a ‘Boom’ Town

Aug 16, 2019

There’s a town in Kanawha County, West Virginia where some locals say living there is a "blast."

As part of our occasional series, "What’s in a Name," we take a look at the history and folklore of the names of Appalachian places. The town in question, Nitro, West Virginia, grew out of the explosives industry and was home to a factory that helped supply the U.S. Army with gun powder during World War I. Ken Thompson volunteers at the World War I museum in the city of Nitro.

According to Thompson, Nitro was established in 1917 by the federal government to manufacture nitrocellulose, a highly flammable compound formed by bringing cellulose from trees or plants into contact with it to nitric acid. It is also known as “guncotton,” because of its explosive characteristics.

“It was to support the war effort for WWI," he explained. "A lot of people were under the impression it was nitroglycerin. It was not. It was nitrocellulose. That was added to the other components to make the gunpowder smokeless."

Area S Bungalow Section. August 19, 1918.
Credit Historical Photos Courtesy of the Nitro Convention and Visitors Bureau.

It took the federal government about 11 months to build the town from 1917 to 1918, and approximately 100,000 people representing 41 nations participated.

Nitro's construction coincided with one of the coldest winters in recorded history, Thompson said.

One of the town's builders would go on to become famous: Clark Gable.

“His dad told him 'son go get a job,'" Thompson said. "Well, he was one of those 100,000 came through Nitro. He worked as an electrician helping to build some of the Nitro bungalows."

You can learn more about the town and the former manufacturing facilities there — as well as see artifacts from WWI on display at the museum.