Construction Dominates Early Years of Largest Depot


On a Saturday afternoon in 1926, during a raging electrical storm, a fire broke out in a magazine at an ammunition depot in Lake Denmark, New Jersey. It set off a series of explosions which destroyed or badly damaged all buildings on the station. The explosions were followed by fires which raged for a week through smokeless powder magazines, shell houses, service buildings and woods.


 A Court of Inquiry was appointed on July 14, 1926 to investigate this, the Lake Denmark disaster. The efforts of their painstaking investigation led to the drastic revisions in the practices of ammunition storage, and led to the selection of Hawthorne as the site for a new, modern, inland ammunition depot. The Court of Inquiry recommended that this new ammunition Depot be estab­lished to serve the Pacific coast, be located within 1,000 miles of that coast, have a climate conducive to the storage of ammunition, and have capabilities to expand.


  The Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance and the Chief of the Bureau of Yards and Docks took these recommendations into consideration. A number of points in Nevada, Utah and California were originally considered.


  Admirals C. C. Bloch and L. E. Gregory made a personal inspection of the prospective sites in each state. It was finally limited down to three possibilities: Hawthorne or Flannigan Nevada (60 miles north of Reno), and Secret Valley in Eastern California.


  The Admirals made their joint recommendation to the Secretary of the Navy on Dec. 13, 1926 that Hawthorne be selected as the location for the Naval Ammunition Depot. The aggregated cost of such a project was estimated at $3,500,000.


  Senator John Miller of Mineral County, part owner of the Lucky Boy Mining Company, was instrumental in encouraging the Department of the Navy to select Hawthorne as the future site for such an ammunition depot.


  The new Depot was ideally located 320 miles from the Naval Weapons Station, Concord, a major out loading port, and 450 miles from the Naval Weapons Station, Seal Beach. The climate in Western Nevada was ideal for ammunition storage. The average humidity is about 27 percent, and there is less than 6 inches of rainfall per year.


  Under the first contract for construction work at Hawthorne only 17 buildings were erected in the magazine area. Twelve of these were magazines. There was one filing house, one final assembly building and one empty mine storage building. There were also two buildings for the storage of detonators.


  Construction was formally launched on July 24, 1928 when Governor Fred Balzar, and many other prominent Nevadans, assembled in Hawthorne with representatives of the Navy Department, Admirals Gregory and Leahy, and LCDR Cotter (the Public Works Officer-in-Charge of Construction). Ground was broken at a point on the northern edge of the town of Hawthorne, for the exact plans on the location of the new buildings were not yet ready.


The Depot was formally commissioned on Sept. 15, 1930, and 72 officers and enlisted personnel reported for duty on October 1 of that year. When the main gates opened for business 90 civilian employees joined the military personnel making a total work force of 162. The first shipment of high explosives arrived on Oct. 19, 1930.


 In December 1930, bids were received for the proposed Mine Filling Plant, with the exception of two buildings constructed under the original contract. Shortly after this, contracts were let totaling $333,000.


 In March 1931 the bids were received for Cat Creek Dam, a 50-million gallon capacity reservoir. The total cost of the original work at Cat Creek was $100,000. Water started collecting in the dam in March of 1932, and work was completed in April of that year.


  During 1934-35 there was a great deal of work done on the reservation by the Civilian Conservation Corps. This group of individuals' chief purpose at the Depot was to aid in the reforestation of Mt. Grant. But, they engaged in several other projects for the Depot. They completed most of the mountain roads on the Depot's property and built a second 50-million gallon reservoir, Rose Creek.


_Gradual expansion during the 1930's in terms of facilities and personnel was followed by a tremendous increase during World War II. In October 1940 the facilities at Hawthorne, where space was practically unlimited, were increased by the construction of 23 high explosive, 22 smokeless powder, 7 fixed-ammunition and 26 projectile storage magazines.


 At the same time the station was further improved by the building of 15 miles of railroad tracks within its boundaries. (The Depot now has over 200 miles of railroad tracks.) Nearly all of Hawthorne's wartime buildings were erected as permanent structures.


 During this time frame, the Depot's mission was expanded beyond various types of ammunition, such as rockets, mines, depth charges, torpedoes, to include cast loading facilities. At the end of wartime expansion, magazines, storehouses, production and other buildings covered over 80 square miles.


 Hawthorne's semi-isolation location caused numerous obstacles during the early construction years of the Depot. Efficient construction labor was scarce, and material deliveries were uncertain.


 The one branch-line railroad serving the station was overtaxed by the freighting of both construction and ammunition materials. Moreover, long-distance truck hauling was handicapped by the conditions of mountain driving.


 As practically no accommodations for construction laborers were available in the territory, except the limited facilities of an old CCC Camp, seven 100-man barracks had to be built to augment those facilities. A housing program for civilian personnel was also untaken, which ultimately provided 1225 permanent units and 300 trailers in a community called Babbitt.


   The Depot's operations have since been expanded to include extensive ammunition renovation and demilitarization. The proof and testing of rockets and other types of ammunition have also been added.

  On 1 October 1977, the Ammunition Depot in Hawthorne, Nevada ended its 47 year allegiance to the U.S. Navy officially and became the Hawthorne Army Ammunition Plant. Along with NAD Hawthorne the Navy's Ammunition Depot in McAlester, Okla., also became an Army installation. This changeover was the result of a Secretary of Defense directive that ordered the consolidation of all conventional ammunition under the direct control of a Single Manager - which the Army was designated.

  Since December 1, 1980 the Army Ammunition Plant has been operated by civilian company Government Owned-Contract Operated (GOCO) facility with a much smaller work force under Army supervision. Bombs are no longer are built on the base. The only military presence at the base is an Army lieutenant colonel, along with Marine, Army, and Navy that periodically train in the desert.


[DD-01] NAD Hawthorne - The date is unknown, however, part of
 the Navy Complex is shown in the lower left of the picture.


All of the Navy complex that was constructed during the WWII period has been completely removed. The only remaining evidence that there was such a complex is some of the concrete foundations. This complex had included messing facilities, theater, laundry, office spaces, etc.  The inside gym and swimming pool was located on the main base where it still remains. As the first sailors to report to Hawthorne in December 1950, they lived and messed with the Marines. About April or May the Navy crew of MN and TM started refurbishing one of the old barracks and the grounds. After the first barracks was suitable for living we moved to "Navy Side"  but always used the Marine Mess. For the breakfast and dinner meals we were required to form up and march to the mess. This was because we had to pass through the Main Gate.  I remember that the Marine CO had a lot to do with the way we went through the Main Gate. Later, other structures were refurbished to accommodate personnel office, training and another barracks. The dispensary located on Main Side had always been manned by doctors, nurses and corpsman for support of the depot.  These pictures depict the type of structures and approximate size of the complex.



[DD-02] Row upon row of storage buildings, which add up to more than two million square feet of space, make up the majority of the Hawthorne Army Ammunition Plant's 250 square miles of land, upon which NUWES' Detachment is a tenant. These particular buildings, which are maintained by NUWES, are framed by Nevada's Wassuc Mountains.



[DD-03] Mk 6 mines fill Mine Assembly Building 104-6



[DD-04] Mk 16 mines are also worked on in Mine Assembly Building 104-6



[DD-05] In the 104 area Mine shop, Supervisor Ben Busby, holds a K-4 Firing Mechanism.




Officer's Quarters ca late 1930's-early 1940's

Photo courtesy of Virginia Usnick <vusnick@unlv.nevada.edu>


Hawthorne Ammunition Depot celebrates 82nd birthday

By Heidi Bunch
Special to the Lahontan-Valley News - Tuesday, October 2, 2012

U.S. Navy archives This was the mine assembly building at the Navy Ammunition Depot (now Hawthorne Army Depot).


Two weeks ago marked the 82nd anniversary of the opening of the Hawthorne Ammunition Depot.

It is fitting at this time that we reflect on a bit of history pertaining to the Depot that has been part of the lives of many Hawthorne and central Nevada residents — including workers from Fallon — for many years.

The Depot, which employs witnessed the good and bad times that the base saw from World War II through the present time.

The following bit of history was taken from the NAD Rocket issue of Sept. 12, 1952 (when they were celebrating their 22nd birthday of the depot):

Commander Bernard Takes Over Station for Bureau of Ordnance

On Monday, Sept. 15, 1930, at 2:30 p.m., Cmdr. Richard F. Bernard, United States Navy, formally took over the command of the Naval Ammunition Depot, Hawthorne, which has been under active construction during the past 21 months.

The officers attached to the station in service uniforms with side arms together with the enlisted personnel mustered at the entrance to the Administration building. Lt. Cmdr. C. H. Cotter (CEC) USN, Officer in Charge of Construction, raised the national emblem and formally turned the station over to the commanding officer. Cmdr. Bernard read his orders from the Bureau of Navigation, detaching him from the command of the U.S.S. Gold Star on Asiatic duty and directing him to proceed to Hawthorne, Nev., and assume duty at the U.S. Naval Ammunition Depot as Inspector of Ordnance in Charge.

When the commanding officer concluded reading his orders, he expressed great satisfaction over his assignment and stated that he was impressed with the many natural advantages of location selected for the depot with its protective barrier of majestic mountains to the west, the beautiful lake to the north, the especially suitable terrain and the favorable climactic conditions.

He was particularly pleased with the orderly and safe layout of the depot and the substantial character of the various structures and observed the work had been most carefully planned and executed, even to the extent of providing splendid recreational facilities for the contentment, health and comfort of officers, enlisted personnel and civilians to be attached to the station.

In closing his remarks, Cmdr. Bernard complimented the Officer in Charge of Construction and force under his direction on the progress of the work and paid a fine tribute to the various contractors on the high quality of their workmanship. Many civilian employees of the depot and contractors were present at the ceremony.

The people of Hawthorne extend a cordial welcome to Cmdr. Bernard and the officers under his command and feel assured that his administration of Uncle Sam's newest and most modern storage plant for high explosives will bring great credit to him and great satisfaction to the people of the State.

A brief review of the history and facts relating to the selection of the present site have been taken from a most interesting booklet compiled by Commander Cotter. A short sketch of the same is give herewith:

The fatal explosion of the Naval Ammunition depot at Lake Denmark, N.J., on the afternoon of July 10, 1926, took 19 lives and caused the destruction of between $40 million and $50 million worth of government property. The accident was the cause of an extended inquiry into the ammunition storage conditions of both the Army and Navy with the result of the decision of establishing two modern storage plants for the Navy, one on the Atlantic seaboard and the other at a point of easy access to the Pacific Coast. They would be still situated where it would be immune from attack from hostile air craft in time of war.

The location at Hawthorne on the southern end of Walker Lake was finally selected after careful consideration of several other sites, and an executive order withdrawing from entry and setting aside for the use of the navy some 211 square miles of land, made possible the construction of the local depot with ample room for expansion for generations to come.

There remains considerable work at the depot yet. Many additions are to be made in the industrial area. The mine filling plant has yet to be constructed although storage facilities are practically complete. There are two detonator houses and 84 powder magazines. Within the next few days all work will have been finished on these, and shipment of ammunition will commence about November 1.

Hawthorne itself was established as a railroad town in the early 1880s. Its existence and the railroad's depended on the mining activities that were then an extensive operation. Shortly before the turn of the century, the mining communities began to assume the appearance of embryo ghost towns as the payloads decreased.

The Hawthorne Ammunition Depot is located in a 327-square mile tract of which about 140-square miles prove useful for the Navy's purpose. The depot almost completely covers the floor of a gently sloping desert formed by brackish Walker Lake to the north, the rugged hills of the Gillis and Excelsior ranges to the south and east and the great Wassuk range on the west.

Of the principal peaks in this latter range, Mt. Grant forms the central figure, rising 11,303 feet above sea level and almost 7,000 feet above Hawthorne, county seat for Mineral County, occupies a quarter section in almost the geographical center of the Depot.

Thanks to Phil Beckwith for this article.






[Photos courtesy of Don DeCrona except as noted]



Derick S. Hartshorn - ©2009-present
Last Modified: