McGregor: Before SpaceX, facility produced bombs and lots of them

A test firing of a SpaceX Merlin engine. (SpaceX photo/file)
A test firing of a SpaceX Merlin engine. (SpaceX photo/file)(KWTX)
Published: Jun. 23, 2017 at 5:43 PM CDT
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Today it’s home to a rocket testing facility, but as World War II raged in Europe and the Pacific, the small McLennan County farming community of McGregor played a major part in the Allied war effort as workers there built about one quarter of the bombs dropped during the conflict.

Then through the years different companies and agencies used the same land, and sometimes even the same buildings, to make and test everything from furniture and kitchenware to rocket motors that can carry a human to Mars.

It all began after Pearl Harbor when U.S. industrial production went on a fast track to support the war effort overseas and many cities and towns in Central Texas went all out to support the cause, but none had the impact of the material that came out of McGregor, where they made bombs.

The Bluebonnet Ordnance Plant was the first of four such facilities built nationwide starting in 1942, and the first to supply ordnance to the battlefield.

The military commander on site is credited with naming the plant after the Texas state flower.

Since McGregor’s birth in 1879 when two railroads, the Santa Fe and the Belt, intersected their rail lines here on the Texas prairie, the small town was a farming community, but it provided a natural point for a railway stop and a place for the steam trains to refill with water.

The town was named for pioneer Texas physician Dr. Gregor Carmichael McGregor, who provided railroad right-of-way across his land and who later became a prominent Waco businessman.

Fertile, black soil and abundant rainfall yielded wheat, oats, corn, and cotton and range grass provided an ample food supply for herds of cattle.

From a population of about 800 in the late 1800s the town grew in to just more than 2,000 by 1920, but then when World War II broke out, the needs of the country brought radical change to this little farming community.

Tom Kirk never worked at the Bluebonnet plant, but he worked at one of its successors and has extensively studied the history of the plant.

While most around here know him as a former Ford dealer, the native Texan, born in Cuero, was educated at Texas A&M where he earned a degree in engineering.

After a stint in the U.S. Air Force, he went to work designing rocket systems and in 1960 wound up at Rocketdyne, in McGregor.

“I was interested in the old Bluebonnet plant and over the years I knew lots of old timers who worked out there,” Kirk said.

“People around here were patriotic back then.”

The federal government in 1942 contracted with National Gypsum Company, of Buffalo, N.Y., which would both build and operate the bomb plant, under U.S. Army Ordnance Department supervision.

Work began at the 18,000-acre site, west of McGregor, immediately and bombs were rolling out the door by that October.

Production lines at Bluebonnet built three types of bombs; general purpose, semi-armor piercing, and fragmentation bombs, the heaviest more than a ton.

Later a fourth production line was added that built only 500 pound bombs.

In the early days the ammonium nitrate explosive was made at Bluebonnet, too.

The bomb-filling process was simple, but involved lots of steps, and some of them were incredibly dangerous.

Bomb casings, the steel, outer bodies that held the explosives, arrived from the factories on train cars and went first to the paint room where Bluebonnet engineers had designed an automatic painting machine that did the dirty work.

After drying the painted casings went to the nose-pour building where workers on the initial bomb line filled the noses of the bomb casing with explosives.

In the next step, screening, workers used large wire screens to sift explosive components to ensure they didn’t contain impurities or lumps.

In the melt-pour building, TNT, ammonium nitrate and a filler were melted together into an explosive slurry that was poured into the casings, which then were routed to a short storage building for cooling.

The last step was the tail-pour building where workers loaded even more explosives into the bomb’s tail section, which then were attached to the casings and the device was complete.

The finished bombs were loaded back onto train boxcars and shipped out.

McGregor’s population was only about 2,000 at the beginning of the war, but that expanded rapidly when Bluebonnet began hiring and the workforce at the ordnance plant eventually grew to about 5,000 and the town exploded to 6,000 residents.

There were so many jobs available and people who wanted them that a special employment office opened in Waco to help supply workers.

Kirk said a very large number of workers were woman because “they were good paying jobs and all the men were gone, anyway.”

Bluebonnet grew into a town within a city, with its own housing, stores, a transit system, a newspaper, its own hospital, police and fire departments and recreational activities for employees.

Production of explosives ceased on Aug. 14, 1945.

After the war ended production at part of the plant turned to home furnishings as private industry began contracting to use the huge buildings on the site.

“On 30 November 1945, the last cafeterias and dormitories at Bluebonnet were closed, and the plant was turned over to the Army Ordnance Department for post-war disposition,” a paper entitled From Bombs to Rockets at McGregor, Texas, written by Thomas L. Moore and Hugh J. McSpadden for presentation at a defense symposium, said.

“An inter-government agency transfer of the plant from the War Department to the War Assets Administration occurred on 16 April 1946.

“Following its closure, portions of the plant were converted to peacetime uses, including stove and furniture manufacturing, and some of the land was sold to individuals.

Kirk along with a couple of partners, leased one of the abandoned buildings and set up a custom van modification shop that took stock passenger vans from manufacturers and modified them with upgraded interiors and large picture windows.

“The largest portion, 17,483 acres, was conveyed to Texas A&M University to establish an experimental farm and research center initially named the Bluebonnet Farm,” the paper said.

In the end the ordnance plant produced 13,539,345 bombs and artillery shells in roughly three years, along with 46.307 tons of ammonium nitrate and 215,402 pounds of Tetryl pellets for explosives, which equates to 12,364 pieces-per-day.

Then in 1952 the Phillips Petroleum Company began using the facility to build ammonium nitrate composite solid rocket propellants and aircraft jet-assist takeoff (JATO) rocket units for the Air Force.

Over successive years contractors included Phillips Petroleum Company (1952-58), then Astrodyne Incorporated (1958-59), Rocketdyne (1959-78), and Hercules Incorporated (1978-1995).

“I enjoyed working at Rocketdyne, it was fun and challenging,” Kirk said.

The McGregor plant expanded and, using its signature Flexadyne series of propellants, manufactured rocket motors for air-launched missile systems including the Sparrow, Shrike, AIM-9C/D Sidewinder, and Phoenix.

By the 1980s, Hercules scientists had developed the capability to produce reduced smoke propellants for AMRAAM, HARM, AIM-9L/M Sidewinder, the Rolling Airframe Missile (RAM) and the AGM-130 rocket motor, as well as advanced techniques for manufacturing precision metal parts and rocket motor cases.

Hercules announced in June 1995 it would suspend operations at the McGregor plant and move the remaining operation to Allegany Ballistics Laboratory in Rocket Center, W. Va.

Alliant Techsystems, which had purchased Hercules’ aerospace business in March 1995, completed the move in 1996.

It took an act of Congress, literally, to pave the way for the next step, all of which started with a clean-up effort to mediate the effects of a compound called ammonium perchlorate, a by-product of testing rocket motors, that had contaminated acres of land and had leeched into area waterways.

The effort required extensive investigation of 9,600 acres on site and 22,000 acres off site, a report issued to Congress about the clean-up said.

Then U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, and Sens. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, and Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, spearheaded the effort in congress.

Since 1999, 3,500 of 9,600 acres had been transferred to the City of McGregor.

And along came Elon Musk.

SpaceX bought a portion of land on the Rocketdyne site from Beal Aerospace, which went out of business.

Within a couple of years SpaceX had re-constructed rocket testing platforms and increased the number of useable sites to seven stands.

From the company’s website: “SpaceX has two rocket test facilities for vertical takeoff, vertical landing (VTVL) rockets: the SpaceX Rocket Development and Test Facility in McGregor, Texas and a leased test facility at Spaceport America in southern New Mexico.

“All SpaceX rocket engines are tested on rocket test stands, and low-altitude VTVL flight testing of the Falcon 9 Grasshopper v1.0 test vehicle are done at McGregor.

“High-altitude, high-velocity flight testing of Grasshopper v1.1 are planned to be done at Spaceport America.

“In addition to atmospheric flight testing, and rocket engine testing, the McGregor facility is also used for post-flight disassembly and defueling of the Dragon spacecraft following orbital missions.

“Both flight test facilities are principally involved in developing and testing various elements of the SpaceX reusable launch system development program, with a goal to making future SpaceX launch systems fully and rapidly reusable,” the website says.

Kirk says re-usability is key at SpaceX.

“They have a plan to re-use everything,” Kirk said.

“They re-use rocket motors, casings and the rockets themselves, which nobody else is doing,” Kirk said.

Some nearby residents don’t appreciate the SpaceX facility because when they’re testing motors, it’s extremely loud.

But SpaceX has an agreement with the City of McGregor that limits tie times of day the facility can test.

“It was the same way back in the Bluebonnet days,” Kirk said.

“When the government came in and bought 18,000 acres of farmland, they told those old farmers that after the war they could buy their land back,” Kirk said.

“Of course, that didn’t happen and there are people around here today still bitter about it.”

But from the beginning, all of the residents that called the old Bluebonnet plant home were “good neighbors,” Kirk said.

When he starts talking about the space travel company, his eyes light up and he starts talking like he has maroon blood in his veins as he thinks back to his engineering background.

“They’re doing great things out here in McGregor, Texas, like nowhere else in the world,” he said.