Ninety years ago this week, Governor Fred B. Balzar turned the first shovelful of earth to break ground for the Hawthorne Munitions Depot.
Born out of tragedy, the depot was created after an accident at the Lake Denmark Naval Ammunition Depot in New Jersey which killed 21 people and injured 53.
The 1928 ground breaking ceremony would draw people from all over Mineral and Lyon counties. Anyone with a vehicle was asked to line the highway “by 12:30…on this side of the lake in order to give a royal reception to the visitors on arrival.”
The royal reception would include: Rear Admiral L.E. Gregory, chief of the bureau of yards and docks; Rear Admiral W.D. Leahy, chief of the bureau of ordnance and Lieut. Com. C.H. Cotter, who will be in charge of construction of the depot. Governor Balzar headed the Nevada delegation which included: State Senator J.H. Miller of Mineral County; Assemblyman C.C. Boak of Nye County; Judge J. Emmett Walsh of the seventh judicial district of Goldfield and C.C. Ward, district attorney of Mineral County.
Hawthorne residents gave a warm welcome to those in arrival. Days prior, pits had been dug at the courthouse (located on 5th and C Streets) where mutton and beef would be roasted in the open pits. The barbecue served all those who attended but the official party, who arrived too late for the feast, lunched at the home of Senator Miller.
Ward would act as master of ceremonies where the dignitaries delivered short addresses of welcome and presented the naval officers in attendance at the courthouse.
After the formalities, the scene was moved out to the depot where a spot was selected for the flag raising ceremony of the arsenal site.
Members of the Mineral County American Legion Post 19 were on hand to raise the colors as well as the rear admiral’s pennant on a short flagpole set up just for this purpose.
Governor Balzar would deliver a short address after a salute boomed over Walker Lake and “echoed from the surrounding mountains.” He ended the ceremony by turning over several shovelfuls of Mineral County earth to celebrate the day.
In celebration, residents devoted the rest of their day to entertainment. Two ball games were enjoyed and dancing was held throughout the night, “due to the lack of lodging in Hawthorne.”
The naval party remained on the newly christened reservation of the arsenal until July 28, 1928 to organize construction of a water works to serve both “Hawthorne and the requirements of the Navy”.
Hawthorne would begin to see a boom in activity. With the site of the naval munitions depot, a broad gauge railroad from Las Angeles to east and north through Mina was predicted. Southern Pacific Company begins to rebuild the line from Mojave to Lone Pine and Bishop through Nevada to Reno.
“The location of the depot was located two miles east of Hawthorne between the then small village and the railroad that passed through Thorne will the area to be occupied by the industrial works connected with the munitions plate will be north and west of the storage plant while the homes of the munitions plant employees will be north of Hawthorne, lying almost directly between the Mineral County seat and the shores of Walker Lake,” the Western Nevada Miner reported on June 2, 1928.
The newspaper would go on to report about the storage buildings, power service, general supply station and industrial group. “The expenditures for services, which include water, power, roads, fence and a six mile railroad spur is given as $1,440,000. The development of the water service and distribution system will cost $350,000, while road construction will cost $480,000.”
More money would be spent on a fire alarm and telephone system as well as heating. A $12,000 locomotive was purchased as well as a crane, five trucks, 20 trailers, two boxcars and six flatcars.
Lieut. Com. C.H. Cotter, who was in charge of construction work at the new plant, met with the governor to review the survey for the Hawthorne-Luning highway so that it could be changed so not to go “near the munitions plant.”
“We have the surveys to make the layout of buildings to plan before plans and specifications for the plant can be prepared,” said Admiral Gregory. “After that is done we have to advertise for bids and when the contracts are let the contractors must be given time to move machinery on the job. It will take several months to do this,” he explained to the Western Nevada Miner in 1928.
The $3,500,000 projected project ($51,576,695.91in today’s dollars) would bring workers to the Mineral County desert from all over the United States.
Before heading back to Mare Island, the naval officers would explain to the Western Nevada Miner, “I never enjoyed an inland visit so much in my life,” said Admiral Leahy. “Not only did they have a real celebration, but we met people there that I believed only existed in story books. Climbing to a farm on the side of Mount Grant was an experience that I enjoyed and always will remember. It is only in the West here men are created who can start farms on mountain tops and make them successful.”
Today, the Hawthorne Army Depot is operated by contractors and store reserve munitions. It is under the command of LTC Dustin G. Bishop.