Blast from the Past: Snapshot of a Company Town

"History" can mean different things at different times.

In doing research for this blog, I stumbled upon a recounting of history that has since become history itself. The information in this post is from "The Story of Richmond," written by Lee Fridell in 1954. It's a perfect illustration of how history isn't written in stone for eternity. It is dynamic and evolving, and continues to be reinterpreted as time passes.

Fridell points out how, since the Powder Works plant was so isolated out of necessity, the workers pushed for a recreation hall, which of course still stands. Right now it's idle, awaiting its next use. But in 1954, it "is used even today. It has two bowling alleys, two pool tables, and a snack bar. The workers still hold dances and other social events, and the yearly children's Christmas party is held there."

In light of today's discussions about the state of health care, the Powder Works treated its employees pretty well. "Today every employee receives free hospital and medical care if he is injured or ill, either on or off the job. Every employee receives full pay up to thirteen weeks if he has been injured or becomes ill on the job; and two-thirds pay if injured or ill off the job." The Powder Works was "one of the first companies in the West to have its own hospital and company doctor". It was still standing in 1954, but no longer in use.

Hercules was also at that time "the smallest incorporated town in California," with 343 residents living in 101 homes. The only home not owned by the Powder Works predated the company, and was owned by the Ellerhorst family. Other than company buildings, employees' homes, and a post office, there really wasn't much else to speak of. "Hercules is probably the only incorporated town in California which has no city hall, no fire or police station, no grocery or drug store, or no gas station."

City government reflected the size of the town. It had a city council, mayor, clerk, treasurer, and marshall, but no full-time employees. "The city clerk, who is the highest paid employee, receives $15 a month. The amount of money the treasurer receives is so small he sometimes does not even bother to collect it". The marshall didn't get a salary, just free phone service. Apparently there wasn't much for him to do, anyway. "His busiest time is Halloween, when he walks the streets to see that boys and girls do not indulge in too many pranks."

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Susan D.Keeffe June 15, 2011 at 03:05 PM
The bowling alleys are still there! The building was refurbished by the Hercules Historical Society which sponsored a fabulous Wine and cheese festival at Refugio Park to pay for it. Many long volunteer hours were spent fixing it up. For awhile the City used it. The Chelsea By the Bay HOA held meetings there. Individuals rented it for weddings and other parties. Now it sits, waiting for the Waterfront to bring it back.
Dean Brightman July 07, 2011 at 05:02 AM
I'd love to check it out sometime. I'll have to see if I can wrangle someone in the Society into giving me a tour.


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