Abridged History of the Scranton Army Ammunition Plant

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Abridged History of the Scranton Army Ammunition Plant

2017-09-20 14:59

This guest blog post is written by Sam Bocetta. Sam is currently working on his first book, and more information can be found at his homepage, www.Sam.Bocetta.com.

An aerial view of hte Scranton Army Ammunition plant, showing a number of rectangular buildings and a large parking lot. Image from Army.mil and reproduced under Creative Commons 2.0.


Part 1 – The Early Years (1908-2006)

The history of the City of Scranton is normally written with a heavy emphasis on the city’s associations with coal mining and the railroad. These two aspects of the city are certainly important, but what is often forgotten is that they also facilitated the development of many other industries in the region. With easy and cheap access to both energy and transport, from the 1850s onward Scranton became home to a wide variety of different factories. Today, most of these factories stand as empty, mute reminders of an industrial past that has sadly disappeared. One exception, however, is the Scranton Army Ammunition Plant (SCAAP). This venerable old factory is still active, and is today one of the most advanced munitions factories in the world.

The story of the SCAAP is a complex one, not least because the site’s ongoing use as a military installation means that direct access to it is limited, and even many historical documents are still classified. Still, what we do know about the history of the plant makes fascinating reading.

It might surprise you to learn that the SCAAP was never designed as a munitions factory. Instead, it started life as a locomotive repair facility. The association of Scranton with the railroad starts way back in 1853, with the incorporation of the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad, which gradually built many lines in and around New York. Scranton, being reasonably central in the expanding network, was chosen as the site for the new Delaware Lackawanna & Western Railroad steam locomotive shops.

The construction of this factory began in 1908, and it was originally designed as a steam locomotive erection and repair facility. The subsequent century of development at the site has made the original buildings somewhat difficult to see. However, an archaeological survey conducted in 1984 suggested that much of the original plant is still extant at the site, albeit buried underneath more modern buildings. The survey found that:

‘1) the present-day surface may include mid-to-late nineteenth century archaeological cultural remnants of railroad-related industrial development which preceded the extant structures used by SCAAP, and 2) the original land surface, approximately 40 ft. below a fill deposit which comprises the current land surface. At least 16 structures stood on the original land surface as did several city streets. Remnants of these nineteenth century cultural resources may be present beneath the fill.’

Intriguingly, this same report also noted that there might still be prehistoric remains of pre-Colombian peoples underneath this same fill. It might be, therefore, that the history of the SCAAP goes even further back. However, a lack of direct evidence means that this must remain speculative.

From historical documents, however, we are able to tentatively reconstruct what the SCAAP looked like during its earlier incarnation. It seems that the locomotive shop consisted of four major buildings, constructed between 1907 and 1909. Each housed a different process in the construction and repair of steam locomotives, and at the time the plant was built it was regarded as one of the most advanced facilities of its type in the world.

Though the heart of the plant was to be found in these four buildings, the scale of the operations carried out also required a whole host of subsidiary structures. When the site was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1990, a thorough survey was conducted as to the remaining structures at the site, and this remains our best source of information as to the historical riches still to be found there.

Between 1899 and 1939, both the plant itself and the surrounding area became an important site for the manufacture and repair of steam trains. In addition the the Scranton facility itself, a number of other companies set up shop in the neighbourhood. Today, these are protected as part of the “Steamtown Historic District”, which includes some 16 ex-industrial buildings. Of these, four lie inside the Scranton plant:

  • Pattern Shop/Office Building (1907–1909)
  • Foundry/Forge Shop (1907–1909)
  • Blacksmith Shop/Heat Treat Building (1907–1909)
  • Machine and Erecting Shop/Production Shop (1907–1909)

These buildings are still visible from aerial photographs, though sadly access to them is limited by the ongoing use of the factory.

The peak of railroad activity at the Scranton site came in the 1930s, and after this date activity at the site started to decline. The railroad company abandoned the property in the late 1940s, after the growing efficiency of diesel locomotives made steam locomotives obsolete. The factory was condemned in 1951, and through these proceedings the Army acquired the property. The Korean war was then at its peak, and it was felt that extra ammunition manufacturing facilities were required.

The site was therefore converted into a munitions factory, and in 1953 the Scranton Army Ammunition Plant (SCAAP) was established. Initially, U.S. Hoffman Machinery were the operating contractor for the plant, but in 1963 a prolonged labor union strike led the government to terminate this contract with U.S. Hoffman. Subsequently, the contract was awarded to the Chamberlain Manufacturing Corporation, and they remained the contractor right up until 2006.

Over this period, the site underwent much development. Following the conversion work undertaken in 1951-53, the plant underwent further modernization in 1970-75. It was during these works that many of the buildings still visible today were constructed, and a video of the production line from the 1980s already shows a modern, advanced munitions plant. As the capacity of the plant expanded, new rail lines were built to move finished munitions and raw materials, and today the SCAAP is simply huge, spanning 15.3 acres, with seven buildings and a storage capacity of 509,000 square feet.



Part 2: Scranton Today (2006-Present)

My own memories of the Scranton Army Ammunition Plant (SCAAP) begin in the 1970s. My mother’s family were from Scranton, and on visits back to see my Grandparents I would marvel at the scale of the factory that dominated the town. In those days, as a child, I found the plant both a source of wonder and of fear – there was something inhuman, perhaps dangerous, in the looming concrete buildings.

This is a feeling that persists to this day, despite my advanced years and extensive reading about the plant. To read about the plant today is to be confronted with mind-boggling statistics about the capabilities of the weapons made there, and the sheer number of munitions that are produced every year.

In my earlier article, I described the history of the SCAAP until 2006 – its early years as a steam locomotive plant, and then its conversion into a weapons factory in 1951-53. In 2006, the previous operator of the SCAAP, the Chamberlain Manufacturing Corporation, lost their government contract. I have tried, believe me, to find out why, but these proceedings, in my experience, are always shrouded in layers of corporate and military secrecy. Unfortunately, therefore, I cannot tell you why the contract passed to General Dynamics in 2006, but it did.

General Dynamics have been the contractor in charge of Scranton since then. The company is huge, being most well known for making advanced missiles and aircraft systems. What is less well known is that they also continue to produce artillery and small-arms ammunition. Though less flashy than fighter jets, this production makes up the core of their business, with a lot of their profit generated from sales of top-of-the-line ammunition that is used both by the US military and higher end civilian small arms like the AR-15.

It is this kind of production that the SCAAP excels in. However, though the plant continues to develop, it has not had an easy ride in the modern era. in April 2013, the future of the facility looked questionable, when General Dynamics filed a potential layoff notice for 191 employees. The jobs provided by the plant are generally highly-skilled, and therefore high-paying, and its potential closure caused much worry in Scranton and the surrounding region. However, a resolution was eventually found, and that same year General Dynamics renewed their contract for three years. The Army then committed $45 million for new equipment at the plant.

It seems this money is now coming through, and is being used to further develop the technical capabilities of the facility. It has been reported that during the past ten years “over $30,000,000 has been invested in the SCAAP to address problems with the ageing infrastructure and to improve manufacturing capabilities”. These projects have included the upgrade of existing manufacturing equipment, including computerized controls; the installation of new manufacturing and testing capabilities; and automation equipment to increase manufacturing flexibility.

Today, therefore, the SCAAP is perhaps the most advanced munitions factory in the US. Indeed, some of the machinery at the plant is found nowhere else, such as the specially manufactured long stroke and nosing forge presses, and these make SCAAP the only active manufacturing plant able to produce certain types of ammunition. In particular, the SCAAP is the only maker of the SADARM (Search And Destroy ARMament) shell body, an advanced munition that utilizes laser-guided sub munitions.

Notwithstanding the production of high-tech munitions, the bread and butter of the plant is the production of various types of artillery shell – the 105mm and 155mm-diameter projectile bodies, including the M795, 120mm family of projectiles, M107, M804, M485, MK64-2, and the M110. The number of these shells produced every year at the SCAAP is a little hard to pin down because of the commercially sensitive nature of this data, but it is clear that it is staggering. In 2001, the latest year for which I can find data, 139,000 155mm HE M107 shells, and 78,000 120mm HE shells were produced at the factory, and I can only guess that these numbers have increased since. The factory goes through 500,000 gallons ofl water a day, and General Dynamics report that it has produced and delivered more than 23 million projectile metal parts and components over the years. In fact, the SCAAP dwarfs many other factories in the US – its production capacity is approximately ten times that of any commercial facility, and represents approximately 80% of the total existing North American capacity.

The pre-eminence of the site today is undoubtedly a product of its unique history. Built at a time when large, self-contained sites could be bought in the centre of reasonably large cities like Scranton, it’s difficult to believe that a plant the size of the SCAAP could be built today. Its sheer size means that the end-to-end production of munitions is possible, which makes it invaluable for the Army. In addition, its proximity to the large railroad network that spans the north-east, which of course was the original purpose of the building, means that finished munitions and raw materials can be moved around easily.

The SCAAP’s unique history – first as a locomotive yard, and then as a munitions factory – means that it remains one of our industrial treasures, as interesting for history buffs as it is indispensable for the military. This was recognised by General Dennis Via, visiting the site in 2014, when he noted that:

“Scranton is a unique, one-of-kind installation that has proven its valued position many times over to the Department of Defense and the Army … SCAAP has produced ammunition-related components that have proved invaluable to the joint services and our war fighters for more than 60 years.”

The General is right to stress the uniqueness of the plant, of course. As we’ve seen, the SCAAP is not only one of the biggest munitions plants in the US today, it is also one of the most advanced. This is perhaps surprising for a facility with such a long and varied history: the original architects of the Delaware Lackawanna & Western Railroad steam locomotive shops could hardly have imagined what their buildings would eventually become.

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