The Hidden Danger in Our Midst

While the Montgomery United Wallpaper plant may have been intended for use as a wallpaper manufacturing facility, in 1943 the company began construction of several cement block structures that would house explosives.

Have you ever wondered what lay beyond that forbidding chain link fence at the end of South River Street? If you peer into the overgrown weeds and brush, you may be able to see a few members of the deer family that frequent the place, or maybe a coyote and his friends, but other than the wildlife that have taken refuge there, there isn’t much to see.

The big Fox River amusement park that occupied the lush, tree filled riverbank at the south end of River Street, closed in 1925. After it was torn down, the vacant property was sometimes used by the boy scouts, and more often by the hobos who took advantage of the artesian well and any shelter that remained after the park was dismantled. It sat idle all during the Depression years when any potential buyers seem to be waiting for the economy to improve. Then, in 1940 the United Wallpaper Factory bought it with plans to build a new facility there.

Then the country entered the Second World War. That changed everything.  Suddenly there was an urgent demand for factories to convert to military production, and the United Wallpaper Company, with main headquarters in York, PA, had acquired several new factories. They manufactured a high quality of wallpaper; and with a large skilled workforce, they were poised for conversion. To meet the demand several of their factories were dedicated exclusively to manufacturing bombs and flares.

Six weeks after Pearl Harbor United Wallpaper had a program underway. In the first mission over Tokyo, the incendiary bombs dropped were from the United Wallpaper plants.

So, while the Montgomery plant may have been intended for use as a wallpaper manufacturing facility, in 1943 the company began construction of several cement block structures that would house explosives.

The location was perfect for that purpose. It was isolated enough for security and secrecy, and also far enough from populated areas in case of fires or explosions. And equally important was the proximity of the railroad.

In bomb factories, cement petitions divided the cement bunkers where individuals worked alone. The various buildings were far enough apart to avoid a chain reaction in the event of a fire or explosion. Black powder storage was isolated far from the filling and mixing buildings. Handcarts were used to transport the components.

When the workers arrived at the plant they had to go through a checkpoint half way from the parking area to the plant, where they were searched. No matches or lighters were allowed inside the plant. They would again be searched as they were leaving.

Most town people were aware that the factory produced flares that would light up airfields and battlefields throughout the world, but few were aware of the great danger in that process.

Three workers had been burned to death on the third shift at a United Wallpaper Factory in Clearing, IL, while loading the first fire charge in the M-50 bombs. Clearing is on the south side of Chicago where many large industries are located. The probable cause was friction. At this location many fires, explosions, and accidents were reported. All in all, 2,289,492 bombs were loaded at United Wallpaper Factories. Accidents and fires were common.

The main output from the Montgomery factory were white silk parachutes with flares attached. It is uncertain whether bombs were loaded here, as they were in other United Wallpaper factories, because of the strict secrecy surrounding these plants. In fact, flares and bombs were assembled in stages, so individual employees were knowledgeable about their own jobs only. No civilian employees were informed about the total bomb manufacturing process.

Other nearby towns where explosives were loaded were Elgin and St. Charles. I doubt if any of us would have been sleeping very well if we knew what was going on just a few blocks away. It was still quite rare to hear those big propeller engines roaring overhead, without thinking of how easily a bomb could drop from the sky.

After the war workers dismantled the equipment and destroyed the explosives.  In 1945, three workers were killed on the last day of cleanup. While disposing black powder, a spark ignited, (probably caused by friction) and there was a fatal explosion.

When the plant reverted to wallpaper manufacture they brought in busloads of workers from Joliet every day. They hired several local girls to work in the offices, and among them were high school seniors who worked an after-school shift as part of a work-study program. Ira Combs, who lived in Martin’s subdivision, supervised the group. A few of the young girls who worked there were: Phyllis Cooney, Mildred Greenman, Delores Hughes, Barbara Ingraham, and Barbara Mosley. They would take the bus after classes at West High in Aurora. They worked an afternoon shift staffing the office.

For many years Montgomery had wonderful bus service. The buses ran every hour down Main Street where they crossed over to River Street south to the factory at the end of the street. Then they turned and went back to Aurora via Main Street. Factory workers and high school students filed the buses, especially during the war years.

After the wallpaper plant closed down, the site was sold to Western Electric and then to Lucent Technologies. When these factories closed the buildings were torn down and site remediation began. Heavy trucks trekked up and down River Street hauling the soil away to be treated, and bring it back again. The site is still being monitored regularly and occasionally workmen can be seen using long probes to test the soil at the lower depths. Once all contamination is gone, it will become a beautiful riverfront property once again.


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