A podcast about history

That's not stuck in the past


One of the Bay Area’s first business booms was the rapid growth of explosives manufacturing following the Gold Rush. The power of nitroglycerine and later dynamite enabled industrial-scale mining, continent-spanning railroads, and a total reshaping of California’s landscape. For many decades, the small Contra Costa town Hercules produced millions of tons of explosive chemicals that were used to move mountains, build cities, and wage wars. This episode features an interview with Stephen Lawton, a longtime resident of Hercules who co-authored a book all about his town’s earth-shattering history.

Also, special shoutouts go to local producer Justin Lee, who created the original music heard in this episode, and all the Patreon supporters who make East Bay Yesterday possible. If you appreciate the podcast, please show your support.

This 1918 image of a TNT manufacturing facility in Hercules was taken near the present-day intersection of Bayfront Blvd and Railroad Ave. According to Stephen Lawton’s book (co-authored with Jennifer Posedel), “TNT is primarily a military explosive used inside bombs and shells.” (Photo courtesy of Hercules Historical Society)
This 1884 ad produced by Giant Powder Company, which had a dynamite operation at the present-day site of Point Pinole, uses mythical imagery to convey the power of its product. (Photo courtesy of Contra Costa Historical Society)
“Joe Scarsella, October 1929. Highly unstable nitroglycerine was moved in a cart with two compartments. One worker explained, ‘We called ’em angel buggies cause one sharp bump and that’s what you’d be.’ This spot is now the waterfront residential neighborhood of Hercules.” (Caption from Hercules book, photo courtesy of Ashland, Inc.)
Accidental explosions were a major reason why explosives manufacturing migrated from San Francisco and Alameda Counties to a more remote region of northwest Contra Costa County. The others killed in the blast besides the “four white men” were likely Chinese laborers. (Photo courtesy of Hercules Historical Society)
A stylish advertisement for one of the many products manufactured in Hercules through much of the 20th century.
This symbol of the company town was demolished in 1981 to make room for 310 housing units in the Olympian Hills development. (Photo courtesy of Stephen Lawton)
Longtime Hercules resident Stephen Lawton shows one of the sources he used while researching his book on Hercules. (Photo: Liam O’Donoghue)
Although many of the structures dating back to the era of Hercules Powder Company have been demolished, several still remain. (Photo: Liam O’Donoghue)
Other historic buildings in Hercules have been lost to fires, leading to fears that if structures like this aren’t renovated, they could end up with a similar fate. (Photo: Liam O’Donoghue)
Several Hercules businesses, like this pet store, have names that nod to the town’s explosive past. (Photo: Liam O’Donoghue)
During the 1980s, 20 historic homes that formerly belonged to Hercules Powder Company employees were relocated to Bay St and renovated. These houses are now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. (Photo: Liam O’Donoghue)

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The earth-shattering history of a small East Bay town
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