|Damascus Sulfur Dyes Plant. March 1981 Photo by G. Lewis Morgan, Plant Manager
|THE BEAVER CHEMICAL WORKS (Early History of Damascus Plant)
By Austin T. Hyde, November 30, 1936
Note from ColorantsHistory.Org: Austin T. Hyde became Plant Manager in 1932, succeeding Dr. Glen M. Smyth. Mr. Hyde was Plant Manager until his retirement in
1950. He wrote a personal history of the plant and surrounding area which is reproduced below without editing:
"One of the many chemical and dyestuff plants which were started during the World War was located in Kingsport, Tennessee. The company laid out a very
ambitious development program and was fairly successful during the war in manufacturing a number of important dyestuffs of various sorts and developing some
others. Its financial condition was less satisfactory, management was changed several times and, at the close of the war, it was evident that it could not continue in
operation. Among the personnel who realized this situation were Mr. E. H. Bart, Mr. A. J. Buchanan, Mr. John L. Crist, and Dr. G. M. Smyth. The two latter gentlemen
pooled their knowledge and experience and decided to start a dyestuff plant of their own.
They were, of course, familiar with the country surrounding Kingsport and finally settled upon Damascus, Virginia, about 60 miles distant, as a suitable location for
their plant. There was an unusually pure supply of water to be obtained from Beaver Dam Creek, which ran through the town. Labor was plentiful and supplies of
alkalies, acids, and coal, were all available within a radius of less than a hundred miles. Markets for their sulfur dyes were developing in the south, and altogether the
location was ideal. After a little development work the company was incorporated under the name of the Beaver Chemical Company, taking its name from the creek
on which the plant was to be located. Financial assistance was obtained partly from local sources, and partly from a group of successful New England capitalists,
who were affiliated with the local tan bark extract plant.
The first dye manufactured on a commercial scale was Sulfur Navy Blue, which was started in 1918. This proved to be an unusually good product, particularly on
account of its level dyeing properties, and a steady market was soon established. Development work was also finished on an Alizarine process, so that it was
possible to design and erect a shop for its production in 1921. After the usual trouble experienced in starting a new process, commercial production was begun and
proved highly successful. Several other Alizarine products were investigated, but the only one which was finally manufactured was Alizarine Red.
A disastrous fire completely destroyed the Navy Blue Shop in 1923, but it was immediately rebuilt with an improved design, and production was resumed in three
Other sulfur dyes followed as rapidly as they could be developed until all commercial shades, except the blacks, were being produced in a new building erected in
1924. The blacks were not attempted as the market was already over-supplied. Competition was keen, and the margin of profit small. Up to the time of the
depression in 1929, business had developed in a satisfactory and profitable manner. The dyes were equal and, in some cases, superior to anything on the market;
and were sold, not only in the United States, but exported as well, especially to Japan and India.
Calco had, of course, known Beaver by reputation and was anxious to add a qroup of sulfur colors to its own line of dyes. The outlook at the beginning of the
depression was so dubious that the Beaver Company was open to negotiations with a possible purchaser. The usual result followed, and final arrangements were
made for transfer to Calco in December 1929. Within the next four months, Mr. Crist was transferred to Charlotte as Southern Sales Manager for Calco, and Dr.
Smyth was left in charge of manufacturing at Damascus. This arrangement continued until March 1932, when Mr. A . T. Hyde was installed as manager and Dr.
Smyth was transferred to Bound Brook for further development work on sulfur colors and vats, in which he was much interested and on which he had already done
considerable work. At the time Mr. Hyde was sent down, it was expected that the processes would be transferred to Bound Brook within the year, but the continued
depression and purchases and installation of other processes at Bound Brook interfered with the plans. For the next two years, the plant ran continuously day and
night, seven days a week, at nearly full capacity. Transfer to Bound Brook was still planned, but the exact date remained uncertain.
Damascus is so beautifully situated and conditions are in such contrast to Bound Brook that a description is well worthwhile. The town itself is situated at an
elevation of nearly 2,000 ft. in the heart of the Blue Ridge mountains in the southwest corner of Virginia, almost on the Tennessee line. It lies between the Holston
Mountain and Iron Mountain ranges in a small flat valley at the junction of the Laurel and Beaver Dam Creeks. After meeting, these waters form the South Branch of
the Holston River, which with its other branches in turn joins the Tennessee River at Knoxville, Tennessee. It is, therefore, on Mississippi waters, and is definitely
linked with the South.
Mountains a thousand to two thousand feet high above the town surround it on all sides. These mountains are steep and rugged, and very irregular. Some of them
are well wooded with second growth pine and hard woods such as maple, beech and oak. Some of the slopes have been cleared for planting little patches of corn or
potatoes. Some of these patches are so steep that it seems impossible that any vegetable could hold its own in such a place. The local saying is that the only way to
plant a slope like this is to load a shotgun with corn and shoot it up into place! This is more nearly the truth than might be imagined.
The country is particularly beautiful in the early spring and late fall. In the spring there are whole mountain slopes purple with Red Bud, or Judas tree, as it is known
in the North. Rhododendron and Mountain Laurel thickets are in full bloom along the valley roads and an occasional flaming scarlet Azalea, like those that are on sale
in the florists shops in the North at several dollars a piece - only much larger - adds its spot of color. Then there are the beautiful white blossoms of the Magnolia
trees and the greenish tinged Tulip tree blossoms, of almost equal size. It is a sight well worth seeing.
The fall colors are equally beautiful and fully equal to the best northern displays. The reds and yellows and browns of the hard woods and fields combine with the
green of the pines and hemlocks to make a magnificent display. Along about the time the trees begin to turn, chinquapins begin to ripen and later come the black
walnuts. Grey squirrels are busy and the natives gather the walnuts to be cracked open by all hands during the winter and nut meats to be sold or exchanged for
groceries at unbelievably low prices.
White Top Mountain, which has recently become quite famous among those who are interested in preserving the original mountain music and dance, is located
about fifteen miles from Damascus. Every August for the last few years a group of well-known men and women who are interested in this subject has gathered with
the native musicians to make a record of the old folk songs, ballads and dances which are in great danger of being lost. Some of them date back to the earliest
colonial days and even to the old English originals. Many have now been collected and form a valuable record of the earliest American Folk Music.
The mountain itself is the highest in Virginia, some 5,600 feet above sea level and is only surpassed east of the Rockies in height by the highest of the peaks in the
Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee. The western side of the mountain has never been covered with trees, but only a special hardy light green grass, which gives
the peak its name. The view from the top is magnificent, embracing all important mountains within a radius of 75 miles, verifiable sea of hills and valleys. On a clear
day, hills 1n five states are visible. The Tennessee-North Carolina-Virginia corner is about five miles from the top.
This section of Virginia was hardly explored by white man before 1750. There were a few hardy pioneers who had penetrated the country on the Indian trails, but the
Indians - as a rule - were unfriendly and had caused serious trouble to the prospective settlers. The country was a vast wilderness, with bear, deer, wolves, and
smaller game in full possession. It was so rugged and difficult to penetrate, with its forests, thickets of rhododendron and tortuous valleys that few men had visited
its depths. Daniel Boone, on one of his early trips to Kentucky in 1760, is known to have passed near or through the town site; but he had such serious difficulties with
wolves in what is now Abingdon, 12 miles from Damascus, that he was hard pressed to continue on his way. The wolf-den is still shown.
While a grant was given by a certain Col. Thomas Walker to establish the Settlement of Abingdon in 1750, there seems to have been no permanent settlers in
Damascus until 1821, when Henry Mock built a cabin and became the first permanent resident. He married three times and had 32 children, many of whose
descendants are now living in the vicinity. He died in 1892, at the ripe age of 96.
Other settlers followed slowly and a hamlet known as Mock’s Mill was finally established. In 1886, a General Imboden, who was promoting a railroad through from
Abingdon into Tennessee and North Carolina, bought the town site and laid out an ambitious program of development. Besides the forests, there were considerable
quantities of iron ore which he hoped to develop. The name of the town was changed to Damascus at his request, as he felt that the location was very similar to that
of the Biblical Damascus.
All development was stopped by the panic of ‘93 and things remained at a standstill until 1901, when a railroad was pushed through. Meanwhile, various progressive
lumbering concerns had discovered that there was much valuable timber in the surrounding country and a regular boom started with logging railroads extending in
all directions with Damascus as a center. Sawmills were erected, and a large plant for making concentrated tanning extracts from the hemlock and chestnut -
which were then growing in abundance - was erected.
The town grew rapidly until the later 20’s. By that time the forests had been almost completely denuded, the chestnut blight had struck, and one after another the
industries were closed down. From 1929 to 1935, Beaver was the only industry of any size which was on its feet, and the townspeople were in desperate straits.
Fortunately, a furniture factory employing over 200 men at times was started in 1936. A small knitting mill for men’s socks, employing about 50 men, was also put
into operation, so that the town was gradually working out of the depression.
Within the last few years the United States government has established a large forest reserve, extending through Damascus and known until recently as the Unaka
National Forest. This will preserve what forests are left, and prevent the natives from clearing “new ground” on the side of the mountains. This done by cleaning and
burning stumps and then planting. The soil is exhausted in about three years, and then erodes rapidly so that vegetation can no longer support itself. This is one of
the same conditions which the TVA is attempting to cure in the Tennessee Valley.
Farther west, a C.C.C. Camp was established in 1932, and the boys have done a wonderful job in cleaning the forest reserve of dead timber, building roads for fire
protection, etc.; these roads have made considerably more sections accessible. Some of them are real feats of engineering and are very spectacular as they wind
up the sides of the mountain with steep valleys several hundreds of feet deep on one side and equally sharp banks on the other. Hairpin turns are frequent, and it is
no place for a timid driver.
The climate in this section is delightful. While the summer days are hot, the nights are usually cooled by the breezes drifting down the valleys. The winters are
generally mild, with little snow and temperatures seldom below zero. Spring planting begins the middle of March, and there are seldom any severe frosts before the
middle of October. For those who enjoy a hill country, Damascus is a delightful place to live."
Later History of Damascus Plant
By: Robert J. Baptista, April 26, 1989
Note from ColorantsHistory.Org: Dr. Robert J. Baptista worked for Bayer Corporation and its predecessor Mobay Chemical Corporation during the 1972-2000 period.
In 1981, while Plant Manager of the Bayonne, New Jersey dyestuff plants, he had the assignment of integrating the newly acquired Damascus plant into the Dyes
Division of Mobay. During 1981-1986 he had overall manufacturing responsibility for Damascus and G. Lewis Morgan, Plant Manager of Damascus, reported to him.
He wrote a personal history of the Damascus plant, based on his own experiences and information from G. Lewis Morgan, which is reproduced below without editing:
"Mobay Chemical Corporation purchased the Damascus, Virginia plant from American Cyanamid in early 1981. American Cyanamid was exiting the dye
business, and had recently shut-down its major dye producing buildings in Bound Brook, New Jersey. The Dyes and Pigments Division of Mobay had a problem with
disposing of large quantities of dinitrophenol, a by-product from the production of Resolin Blue FBL at the Bushy Park, South Carolina plant. The Damascus plant was
purchased in order to safely convert the dinitrophenol into sulfur black liquid for sale to the textile industry. A secondary objective was to expand the Dyes
Department’s product line with a range of liquid sulfur dyes.
The Damascus plant was located on a 55-acre tract within the corporate limits of Damascus, Virginia. The property fronted on Beaver Dam Creek for a distance of
one mile, with property width varying up to a maximum of 875 feet. All manufacturing facilities were located on a 5-acre plot at the north end of the property.
There were four manufacturing buildings, an office and laboratory building, a maintenance building, a warehouse, boiler room, locker room, six storage buildings, and
seven fire hose houses. Approximate dimensions of the major buildings were:
Bordeaux Shop 50’ x 195’
Drying and Blending Shop 80’ x 80’
Blue Shop 60’ x 120’
Alizarine Shop 60’ x 145’
Warehouse 60’ x 145’
Office and Laboratory 50’ x 50’
Large Storage Shed 40’ x 80’
Construction was a mixture of cinder-block and corrugated metal. With the exception of the Drying and Blending Shop, all of the above listed buildings had a second
story. A plentiful supply of electricity was available from the Appalachian Power Company. Drinking water came from a public supply, while process water was
drawn from the Beaver Dam Creek. The creek flow had a low to high monthly average of 30 - 140 million gallons per day of high quality process water. Plant effluent
was divided into two parts. Organic wastes were equalized in a lagoon and pumped to the Damascus Sewer Treatment Plant. Thiosulfate wastes were chemically
treated before release to the stream, in accordance with a NPDES permit.
The production equipment was powered by overhead belt drives, driven by steam engines dating back to the 1800’s. Replacement bearings were still forged in the
maintenance shop. The coal fired autoclaves used to manufacture Alizarine were probably the oldest equipment of this type still in use in the United States.
This plant was staffed with twenty-three people, nine of whom were salaried employees. The fourteen hourly employees were represented by the United Steel
Workers Union. Labor relations were good and there were no strikes during the period of Mobay ownership. G. Lewis Morgan was the Plant Manager, who formerly
worked in American Cyanamid’s Bound Brook, New Jersey dye plant.
The product line consisted of:
Product Color Index Number
Verosul Black 5GCF Solution Sulfur Black 1
Verosul Navy Blue 2GSCF Solution Sulfur Blue 7
Verosul Brilliant Blue 5GCF Solution Sulfur Blue 13
Verosul Gray CGCF Solution Mixture
Verosulfide RA Liquid Sodium Hydrosulfide
Ceres Blue N, ZV Solvent Blue 14, 59
Alizarine Red Powder, Paste Mordant Red 11
The sales in 1985 were 4,475 M lbs., representing $2,725M. The sulfur dye sales reflected a 10% market share. Efforts to increase the market share were not
successful due to the strength of Sodyeco (now owned by Sandoz), which held a 90% market share of sulfur dyes. The decision was also made to relocate
production of Resolin Blue FBL to Bayer, which meant that the by-product dinitrophenol was no longer available. A buyer could not be found for the sulfur dye
business, and the Damascus plant was demolished in the fall of 1986. Production of Ceres Blue N and ZV was shifted to the Bushy Park, South Carolina plant. G.
Lewis Morgan retired, Curtis Lange, Dye Tester, transferred to the Rock Hill, South Carolina laboratory, and Robert Anderson, Maintenance Foreman, transferred to
the Bushy Park plant. A 100-year old steam engine, formerly used to power the Damascus production equipment, was set-up on the grounds at the Bushy Park plant
as a historical device.
The Damascus plant site is currently undergoing environmental investigation in conjunction with American Cyanamid.
Note from ColorantsHistory.Org: The site was remediated in accordance with EPA regulations. Bayer gifted the site to the Town of Damascus in 1998.
In 1918, John L. Crist and Dr. Glen M. Smyth, chemists skilled in dyes manufacturing, had resigned from the financially troubled Federal Dyestuff and Chemical
Corporation in Kingsport to establish the Beaver Chemical Company. Glen Miller Smyth was born in 1889 in Horton, Kansas. He graduated from Leland Stanford
University in 1913 and then studied at Charlottenburg University in Germany. He was awarded a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1916. The Calco Chemical Division
of American Cyanamid acquired Beaver Chemical in 1930, when about 50 men were working at the Damasucs plant. In 1932 Dr. Smyth transferred to the Bound
Brook, New Jersey plant of Calco Chemical. He was Technical Consultant for the company when he died in 1947.
John Letcher Crist (1890-1961) received a B.S. degree in chemistry in 1912 from Washington and Lee University in Virginia. He left his position as Calco's Sales
Manager, Southern Region in 1933. He then formed the Southern Chemical Company at Charlotte with Arthur Buchanan, Vice President and Leland G. Atkins, Plant
Manager. This company would later become known as Southern Dyestuffs and then Sodyeco, the largest sulfur dyes producer in the U.S. Crist was awarded an
honorary degree, Doctor of Commercial Science, by Washington and Lee University on June 5, 1959.
Click Photos to Enlarge
Damascus, Virginia 1915
|Beaver Dam Creek
Supplied Water to Plant
|Damascus Railroad Station
|E.F. Akers, Plant Manager
|John L. Crist-1957
Photo: American Dyestuff Reporter
|Beaver Chemical Works
|Beaver Chemical Company Invoice for
Sulfur Blue B.C. Extra Conc, 1922
Image Courtesy of eBay Seller bluemonday2. Click to Enlarge
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|Dr. Glen Miller Smyth-1926.
Photo Courtesy of Glen Miller Smyth
|Beaver Chemical Works, Damascus, VA. 1920
Photo Courtesy of Glen Miller Smyth
|Laboratory 1920. Left: Dr. Glen M. Smyth. Right: John L. Crist
Photo Courtesy of Glen Miller Smyth