A line of water towers stood like soldiers, saluting us as our car whizzed past…
Swap the Jeep for a 21-speed, strap on your helmet and hit the long and dusty road, spanning the distance between hills and history.
Never mind the endless rows of ruination—those gutted factories, stilted offices and gaping subterranean bunkers don’t mark a forgotten war zone—at least not on this side of the ocean. You’re in the middle of United States and its globally-feared war machine: Kansas.
This is Sunflower Ordnance Works, a name that might ring a bell with those who’ve read my earlier writing about a certain sister plant: Gopher Ordnance Works, or both of these factories’ prototype, INAAP. Gopher Ordnance (as mentioned in its own article) was a childhood haunt of mine, where I spend my after-school afternoons hiking through acres of ammunition plant ruins… so, of course, I cannot help but compare every following ammunition factory against the Minnesotan powder plant.
The difference between these two military installations, though, is acute. Gopher was never fully operational, and was largely disassembled and demolished before producing significant quantities of powder, whereas Sunflower was not only operational, but under constant expansion throughout its history.
One thing does unite these two super-factories, though, and that’s their huge scale—hence the need for bikes to truly cover ground, all 11,000 acres of it.
Sunflower Ordnance Works was established in 1941 and would eventually become, for a time, the world’s largest gunpowder and propellant plant, eventually totaling 2,296 buildings, 71 miles of railroad and 124 miles of roads. Half of the buildings were scrapped for their lumber in recent years, while others were simply razed. Sadly, only one building seems to have escaped the wrecking balls and bulldozers, one of the power plants.
Naturally, that’s what I wanted to see most…
Unloading the bikes onto the dirt roads, near the roofless concrete shells of former acid reclamation shacks, the anticipation set in. Granted, this old facility had not fared much better than the 98% razed Gopher Works, but it was new to me, and its biggest building, the power station, was not far away, judging from its smokestacks. We were peddling as fast as we could, it still seemed so distant, but soon enough we threw down our aluminum kickstands and pulled on the warped wooden door letting the smell of abandonment roll out. This was going to be fun.
As the country sent more soldiers overseas to fight for our national security, war effort at home had to keep up. Sunflower was a significant source of ammunition for not only World War II, but also the Korean and Vietnam wars. To get a better perspective on the history and its resting place, I headed to the roof.
An SFAAP float used for a Topeka, KS parade. Kansas Historical Society ( FK2.D4 .3 Ma.Sun *25) http://www.kansasmemory.org/item/210947
Drivers for the Hercules Powder Company. Kansas Historical Society ( FK2.D4 .3 Ma.Sun *2) http://www.kansasmemory.org/item/210946
SFAAP, May 26, 1945. Henry L. Murth Kansas Historical Society ( FK2.D4 .3 Ma.Sun *2) www.kansasmemory.org/item/222033
SFAAP, December 26, 1945 Henry L. Murth Kansas Historical Society ( FK2.D4 .3 Ma.Sun *1) www.kansasmemory.org/item/221964
With the sun in my eyes, I could still pick out the row of water towers that have become iconic for the plant, near the guard shack where the Sunflower sign is still installed. It no longer says “Sunflower Ordnance Works,” but instead, “Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant,” a name adopted in 1963. The roads leading from the main gate turned into a grid down and around the countryside beyond, encompassing the ghosts of buildings that have been demolished.
Strategic trenches and hills also divided the former production lines in the hopes of limiting any catastrophic chain reaction explosions.
I had my fill of the view, beautiful as the day was, and hiked back through the damp darkness of the interior, dodging pipes and valves all the way to my bike. That day I pedaled past more places than I can fully describe: offices on stilts, mysterious tunnels with the ominous ‘XXX’ explosive marking painted over their entrances, a decaying proving ground along a lonesome stretch of road.
The time had come for my adventure to end as it had for Sunflower in 1998, and on that note, like when a friend goes home at the end of the evening, Sunflower and I called it a day.
There are many places that I’ve documented whose national historical significance is questioned—Sunflower Ordnance Works is not one of those places.
Sunflower’s ruins, vast as they are, symbolize the massive domestic war effort in World War II.
In the steam plant, steam pipes bundled in canvas and asbestos criss-cross the walls.
The two exhaust vents coming out from the boilers en route to the stacks. Plywood marks where where catwalks were removed to extract equipment.
Kansas is known for tornados. Think ‘Wizard of Oz’. That, considered with the fact that the workers were surrounded by bombs and bomb making materials called for lots of earthen shelters, just in case.
I think that this building was a garage, but I’m not really sure. It doesn’t show up on my maps of the property.
Our bikes outside of the SFAAP power plant.
Ammunition had to be tested on site before shipment. That was done here. These heavy concrete bunkers deflected rounds harmlessly into the earth.
This building cleaned the barrels that transported ingredients through the plant.
Parts lockers on the top floor of the power plant.
SFAAP’s iconic smokestacks. You’d notice if you drove past this on the highway.
There are many skeletal remains of buildings that were burned to destroy the pollutants inside. It’s not an uncommon step in a cleanup.
This is the former air compressor house–one of them, at least–which turned steam power into air power to drive machinery across the production line.
The building collapsed except for the back room. The slats of the roof cast lines of light across the floor.
In an era where smoking was ubiquitous and sexy, smoking stations had to be a part of the job, even at an explosives factory.
A control panel that was mothballed, anticipating a time when the plant may be reactivated.
The many levels of catwalks make for a place where you can look from the ground floor to the roof, about 4 stories up.
This panorama from the rood of the power station gives a sense of the scale of SFAAP.
Because of the dangers of storing the materials to make explosives as well as the explosives themselves, there were earthen bunkers all across the plant like this.
Before each warhead was crated, it was inspected.
The sun was setting outside, highlighting the textures and lines that made the form of the power plant take a fourth dimension–time.
Snow weight collapsed this warhead assembly building. Now its warped roof looks like a wave.
"Hercules drivers, De Soto, Kansas." film strip, http://www.kansasmemory.org/item/210946.
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, "Public Health Assessment." Last modified Mar 4, 2002. Accessed May 11, 2012. http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/hac/pha/pha.asp?docid=1215&pg=1
EPA, "NPL Site Narrative for Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant." Last modified Feb 13, 1995. Accessed May 11, 2012. http://www.epa.gov/superfund/sites/npl/nar1451.htm.
Tilder, Lisa, and Beth Blostein. Design Ecologies: Sustainable Potentials in Architecture. Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, 2009. http://books.google.com/books?id=hI_ilw1zQGEC (accessed May 11, 2012).
USAEC, "Installation Action Plan." Last modified 2007. Accessed May 11, 2012. https://aero.apgea.army.mil/pIAP-Doc/sunfloweraap/sunfloweraap.html.