On land that is now occupied by Cheatham Annex, about six miles from Colonial Williamsburg, there was once a thriving little village known as Penniman. This village was originally founded in 1916 by the Dupont Company to make dynamite, but World War I changed their plan and the sole industry in Penniman became the manufacture of TNT.
The wages being paid were so high that people from all over came to work at Penniman’s factories, yet local farmers found it hard to find laborers to work in the fields. The village had electricity, sewer, water and hard roads, all at a time when pigs roamed free on muddy Duke of Gloucester Street. The population grew to about 20,000 with 10,000 of them working in the plant.
Because so many men were in the military, women were the obvious choice for factory workers, encouraged to step out of their traditional roles and work at the plant to support “The Boys at the Front.”
Stuff one for the Kaiser! became a recruiting slogan, and the women came. Their job was to load powdered TNT into artillery shells. The TNT was as finely powdered as talcum, and it didn’t take long for it to poison the women. TNT poisoning turned their skin and nails dark yellow and turned their lips purple. The women were soon called “The Canary Girls.” The skin and nail discoloration weren’t the only effects; their bone marrow and their livers were damaged. The women suffered dizziness and nausea but the worst effect was that their immune systems were compromised.
The name Canary Girls was not a compliment or a term of endearment; these women were shunned by the people in the village and by the other workers. The Canary Girls were not allowed to sit with other people in the cafeteria; they were “socially distanced” from everyone else.
In spite of the poisoning the work went on, the village boomed, townspeople had to wait in long lines for a seat at one of the local restaurants, the bank, and the post office. Penniman was the most modern town in rural Virginia.
It all came to a halt in 1918 when the Spanish Flu came to the Peninsula — and to Penniman.
Because of the pandemic, public gatherings became illegal, schools were closed to children and reopened as hospitals, and public funerals were outlawed. People were told to wear a gauze mask whenever they went outside.
On October 13, 1918 a reporter at the Daily Press newspaper on the Peninsula wrote, “A Williamsburg undertaker had to requisition a truck to haul bodies from Penniman this morning… There is a scarcity of coffins here, the dealers having in hand only a small stock prior to the grip of epidemic.”
By October 18, 1918, around 6,000 Virginians had died of the Spanish Flu. On that day another reporter wrote that the undertakers in the Williamsburg area were being kept very busy, and that “baggage cars are always full of caskets.”
Locals later recalled seeing coffins stacked to the ceiling at the rail depot. So many died that the plant ran out of burial space, forcing the bu
rial of many at a local undertaker’s farm. There is no record of exactly how many died at Penniman; the only reference I have found was in a newspaper where a local reporter said the number he saw was “so large as to be unthinkable.”
World War l ended November 11, 1918, the TNT plant at Penninman closed and the majority of employees still living were packed on trains and sent to their respective home towns. The employees who remained immediately started to dismantle the town. Equipment was sold as salvage; houses were moved or torn down.
By 1920 the village of Penniman was gone, disappeared as quickly as it had appeared, a victim of war, manmade calamity and widespread fatal disease.
Patricia Thomas, Williamsburg Walking Tours