Hopewell, Virginia 1915
In 1912 the E.I DuPont de Nemours Company purchased land near City Point, Virginia for the purpose of building a factory to make dynamite, later expanding their holdings to manufacture guncotton. Guncotton is highly explosive and dangerous to store, but is a far more efficient means than black powder for propelling shells from large guns. The nearby town of Hopewell Virginia became a boom town as the result of the DuPont facilities.
By 1915 the town was peopled by more than 25,000 and the guncotton plant was the largest such facility in the world. That same year a sudden, massive fire destroyed the town, consuming more than 300 homes and other buildings. The DuPont facilities emerged unscathed from the catastrophe, but recurrent explosions and other accidents at DuPont factories around the nation created the suspicion that the company was the target of a sabotage campaign.
In December 1915 authorities in New Jersey arrested Jacob Swoboda, a former employee of the DuPont Company who told investigators that he was a French citizen. The same investigators later unearthed evidence that he was in fact German. Swoboda had left the DuPont Company in the wake of increased security precautions being put in place, rendering him of interest due to his possessing an extensive record of arrests and imprisonment.
Searches of his apartment uncovered a large stash of guncotton, dynamite, black powder, and nitroglycerin. An extensive correspondence in both French and German was also discovered and although investigators believed the papers to contain coded messages they were unable to decipher the code.
Swoboda claimed that he was in possession of the explosive materials as part of his personal investigation into unsafe working conditions within DuPont’s plants, and the authorities were unable to uncover any evidence to refute his assertions. Another man suspected of being a German spy and known to be an acquaintance of Swoboda’s was arrested in the aftermath of the Hopwell fire, but beyond their knowing each other investigators were unable to establish a connection between the two.
Swoboda was released when it was learned that he had served with US Volunteers during the Spanish-American War, probably under the alias Louis Hartman, and vanished from history. The cause and extent of the Hopewell fire was never fully explained.