Posts in yorktown

Penniman, The Canary Girls and The Spanish Flu

April 20th, 2020 Posted by History, Local History, Trish Thomas, williamsburg, yorktown No Comment yet

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

victory at yorktown

Revolutionary War: Victory At Yorktown

August 2nd, 2017 Posted by revolutionary war, victory, yorktown No Comment yet

Past A Turning Point

For years General Washington had a strategy of survival. His mantra was that even if you couldn’t win against the British in open battle, he could choose not to lose. What I mean by this is as long as the British armies could not openly defeat and decimate the Colonial Army, they could continue to fight on and on in a war of attrition.  He knew the longer he could prolong the fighting, the greater the chance of victory as the British army would run low on energy, manpower, supplies and just a general will to win. In the end he was right. It did get to that point as he was able to recruit Allies to help the developing nation and overwhelm a weary British force. revolutionary war difficulty

September marks that turning point in the paths of the Colonial American colonies and the British Empire. And it was culminated with a brilliant strategic move by General Washington and General Rochambeau of France to trap the British at Yorktown. Wedging them between the Continental Army on the land and the French Armada by sea forced them to surrender as they became overwhelmed by artillery. The battle alone is a huge strategic victory over well trained, well disciplined forces that would govern a huge number of countries in the world all through the 19th century.

But it was something much bigger than that. We had delivered a titanic blow to the British Empire as they began their rise to Colonial Expansion worldwide.  They would come to dominate the 19th century, with interests in Africa Asia and even North America.

It would certainly be a blow that the British were not going to forget anytime soon. In fact another war would break out in 1812 as the British actually invaded young America. Naturally, we resisted and were victors in this conflict as well. Truly the saying that freedom isn’t free is accurate.

colony struggleYears of struggle

Victory at Yorktown was not an easy one. The area stands as a monument to the eventual triumph of the colonies. But the years leading up to this outcome were marked by struggle and doubt. There was no guarantee that it would be an overwhelming victory like in Yorktown.

In fact when you see Colonial Williamsburg you see a beautiful microcosm of a gorgeous Colonial day. You don’t see the day in and day out struggle that many of these colonists faced in wartime.

Our tours are designed to give you real history. History is not neat and orderly. It is a mark of struggle, sacrifice and is often brutal. Our tours give you the real dimensions of  history and history is not gentile. This is a contrast from “historical marketing” or the reshaping of history to fit what certain groups want which you may have experienced elsewhere.


REVOLUTIONARY WAR – SEPTEMBER 1781

Your Bibliography: Revolutionarywararchives.org. (2017). Revolutionary War – September 1781. [online] Available at: http://www.revolutionarywararchives.org/49september1781.html[Accessed 21 Jul. 2017].

Save

Save

Save

Save