Monday, March 25, 2019

The Alvira Bunkers

The Alvira Bunkers
150 Storage Bunkers were built on land the government took from families in Alvira, and surrounding areas, of Lycoming County.  TNT was stored in the bunkers for less than a year, before the operation ended.  The bunkers still remain today, many on lands owned by the Pennsylvania Game Commission, which is open to hikers.

Quick Notes:

Established in 1825 as Wisetown, the town once located near present day Elimsport & Montgomery, now known as "The Ordnance" , was renamed Alvira in the 1860's.  By 1942, the town included schools, a gas station, a blacksmith shop, and a church, along with other businesses, and had a population of over 100.

Less then 100 years after it was named Alvira, in 1942, the War Department acquired, mostly by eminent domain, all 8,400 acres.

The Last Easter Service At The Old Stone Church, 1942

On March 7 1942, residents gathered at the Christ Lutheran Church, where they were told that the government needed their land for the war effort, but that they would be able to repurchase it after the war ended.

Map Of Alvira in 1868

Residents were given six weeks to leave their property. Just six weeks to pack up, and move everything they owned, including livestock. 

  "Betty Yoder remembers she and her brother, Nevin, driving their cows from Alvira to a farm the family bought in the Limestoneville area. “We brought them across the bridge at Allenwood. The plank bottom made a noise. I used to dream about that bridge. It made a racket,” she said. They continued through Watsontown with the cattle, walking behind them to their destination."

"My grandmother's mother was actually carried off her front porch and her house was torn down by bulldozers," says historian Paul C. Metzeger."

 Within a few short months, everything but the church was gone.  The homes and structures were all burnt to the ground.  All that remains are a few cemeteries, and the stone church where residents learned they were losing their land.  The church is on the federal prison property, and is only open to the public for special events such as the Christmas service.
(See photos of the Stone Church Christmas Service in 2018 here)

 A petition was filed in March of 1942 in the federal courthouse in Scranton, seeking the right of immediate condemnation of 7,604 acres of the White Deer Valley, and possession of all properties within the Ordnance Works as well as other properties outside of the Ordnance fences. The petition was granted almost immediately.  Within a week , workers had begun constructing The Pennsylvania Ordnance Works.

The site was likely chosen for it's proximity to the Reading Railroad, which made it easy to transport materials to the facility.  It was also remote enough to keep the activities somewhat private and out of view.  The tract was large enough for the 150 bunkers planned to store the TNT, with an appropriate safety radius around each one.  If a bunker exploded, it needed to be placed far enough away from the other bunkers that it did not cause another bunker to explode, preventing a domino effect. 

Nitric Acid Plant, at the Ordnance

 Another consideration may have been the proximity to the Susquehanna River - which could provide the water needed for the TNT plant.  A river pump house and dam were constructed on the east side of the highway, near the river.

150 storage bunkers, 17 miles of railroad track, 55 miles of roads, and 300 buildings replaced what was once the town of Alvira.

Each bunker held 250,000 pounds of TNT, which had been shipped in in wooden crates.

The need for TNT production had been overestimated, and the entire operation ceased 11 months after it began.  Operations  ceased on January 14th 1944.

In 1944, the Susquehanna Ordnance took over the land, which became a munitions storage and transfer depot. No longer a top secret operation, dignitaries and local journalists were sometimes invited in for tours.

Williamsport Mayor Leo C. Williamson is shown here in 1948, at Bunker 98.

Two dozen bombs were stored at the Depot, including the one shown here, with the depots commanding officer Major Lundhal, Captain Severaid, and Lieutenant Elsaiss standing on top of it.

In  1950,  half of the land was given to the Allenwood Federal Prison Complex.

March 1952, Sun Gazette
In 1952, it was considered, but found unsuitable, as a location for an Air Force base.

The four silos housed anthracite coal that was brought daily to the ordnance works from the Ashland-Mount Carmel area by train

Only about 500 acres were ever sold back to their former owners. 
4,200 acres deeded to the US Bureau Of Prisons (This is where the prison complex, and the landfill are now located)
3,018 acres were given to the Game Commission 
220 acres were given to Lycoming County (a golf course is now on this land)
400 acres were given to Williamsport Area Community College (Now PennTech)

2023 [Possibly the old pump station?]

We drove past these ruins in 2023, on our way to the Memorial Day Service at the Old Stone Church.  This area is  gated  off and not accessible to the public on a regular basis, only for special events such Memorial Day.

Photo from 2023

Photo from 2023

The Stone Church, 2023
Today the future of the church is uncertain. Located on the Federal Prison property, services had been held a couple of times each year, hosted by the Montgomery Historical Society. In 2023, the building was determined to be unsafe, it needs repairs to the main tower stonework, and no one is permitted inside.

2023 Statement regarding the status of the church, from the Montgomery Historical Society

The Delaney Family, victims of notorious axe murderer William Hummel, are buried in the Cemetery at the Stone Church.  

The Stone reads:
Oliver D. Delaney Died Aug 13 1899
His Wife Sarah Frances
Children Johnny W., Olive F, Florence H.
The wife and three children met death at the hands of Wm. Hummel, The 2nd Husband Nov. 15 1899
On November 25 1899 the bodies of Sarah, John, and Olive were buried in the Stone Church Cemetery in Allenwood, where Oliver Delaney was already interred. The victims were buried at the tax payers expense, and as such, the overseers of Clinton township seized Hummels house and five acres of land, selling it at auction to recoup the expense. By March of 1901 the residents of Clinton Township had collected enough money to erect a grave marker for the Delaney family. The marble monument was dedicated on Memorial Day.

Read more here:

The Bunkers Today

Inside one of the bunkers today

The land was never returned because it could not be - it is too contaminated.  Making TNT is a "sloppy process", and that land is too contaminated to ever be farmed again.

The Pennsylvania Game Commission Map shows the locations of the bunkers, which are still on the property today:

Each "S" is a bunker.

Today some of the bunkers are overgrown.  
Some are full of trash.  

Some are locked, but most are open.

(Molly is wearing her "I'm not a Rabbit" vest, hiking during hunting season)

Looking into one of the bunkers

It's Not Radioactive Here

Although recently discovered papers link this area to the Manhattan project, and radioactive waste was stored here, there are no traces of radiation in this area.

"In May 2011, the state Department of Environmental Protection's Bureau of Radiation performed gamma radiation scans on roadways on state game land. It later did the same on two igloos on the game land that had been identified as holding the uranium shavings in barrels.

The scans found no indication of uranium or other gamma-emitting radioactive elements above the natural background levels, the report states. The Bureau of Prisons did not permit scans of two igloos on its land, DEP said."

This event is over, but the movie is still available for purchase  - or you can borrow it from the Union County Public Library.

See the Documentary this week-end at the Campus Theatre in Lewisburg, Followed by a talk at the Barnes & Noble Book Store Across The Street

"To add to the excitement of the Alvira documentary showing day, March 31, Steve and Martha Huddy, the “SURRENDER!” filmmakers, and Paul Metzger, author of “Deeds of the Valley: The Land that Became the Ordnance” will be holding a discussion regarding Alvira in the 3rd floor community room in the Barnes and Noble across the street from the Campus Theatre in Lewisburg. It will be held immediately following the showing of the film, at approximately 2pm. This discussion is FREE and open to the public!"

Places to Hike

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