This is a photograph of the Navassa Guano Company’s factory circa 1905. The landmark fertilizer company was located 5 miles north of Wilmington, N.C., on the northwest branch of the Cape Fear River. The sprawling complex included, left to right, the main line of the Atlantic Coastline Railroad, which crossed the Brunswick River by the plant, a sulfuric acid factory and, behind it, the fertilizer factory proper.
On the far right, you can see two large brick warehouses. The three-masted ship at the company wharf was most likely delivering phosphate rock or pyrite ore. The boat at the ship’s stern may be the steamer Kinston, which ran workers between Wilmington and Navassa.
By 1912, the Navassa Guano Company employed approximately 300 workers and produced 50,000 to 60,000 tons of fertilizer a year.
A group of Wilmington businessmen founded the Navassa Guano Company in 1869, seeking a profitable return cargo for local vessels bound for the West Indies with lumber and naval stores. To keep the guano’s acrid aroma out of the city, and to take advantage of a new rail line that crossed the river at that point, they built their factory upriver on a marshy peninsula where the Brunswick River emptied into the Cape Fear River.
They borrowed the company’s name from the island of Navassa, a tiny limestone crag between Jamaica and Haiti. That island was originally the source of the firm’s phosphate rock.
The island was notorious for the hardships faced by its guano miners. They had a long history of violent protests and suppression, including an 1889 uprising that led to the deaths of 4 overseers.
Originally a term used to describe dried bird droppings, mostly from remote islands in the South Atlantic, guano had come to refer to any kind of commercial fertilizer by this time and was in high demand by Southern farmers struggling to extend the fertility of otherwise exhausted soils.
The fertilizer brands produced by the Navassa Guano Company always started with ground phosphate rock mixed with sulfuric acid. From that point they might include any combination of menhaden, dried blood and bone, potash (wood ash) and nitrate of soda, among other things.
A tremendous amount of the state’s menhaden catch went to the company. Menhaden are a small, oily fish and they had been widely used as a source of fertilizer for centuries. Historians believe that they are most likely the fish with which Squanto (Tisquantum) taught the Pilgrims to fertilize their fields in Plymouth, Mass.
At the time of this photograph, the state’s menhaden fishing fleets were based in Beaufort, Morehead City and Southport.
Following in the Navassa Guano Co.’s footsteps, probably a dozen other, smaller fertilizer companies opened their doors near Wilmington in the late 19th and early 20th century, some of them utilizing ingredients as varied as cottonseed oil and pine straw.
The guano factory workers who proved tough enough to survive in the company’s “acid factory” had nothing to fear from Hell’s fire and brimstone. There long rows of furnaces burned pyrite ore, usually shipped from mines in Spain or Newfoundland.
The sulfurous fumes condensed into sulfuric acid, which was piped into the fertilizer factory next door and mixed with ground phosphate rock to form the foundation for all the company’s fertilizer brands.
Then the factory’s workers mixed in the other ingredients (including the menhaden), pounded out the lumps and bagged the final product.
A little settlement of factory workers grew up outside the gates of the Navassa Guano Company. Called Bluff Hill, or simply “the Bluff,” the company town had bunkhouses for single men, shotgun-style houses for married couples, and a cafeteria called the Cook Shop.
Many of the workers had left sharecropping and tenant farming families in East Arcadia, Elizabethtown and other rural districts on the upper parts of the Cape Fear River. Some worked their fields in the summer, then spent their winters at Bluff Hill, taking one of the river steamers home on Saturday afternoon and returning the next day.
Over time, the settlement came to be called Navassa, after the company, and developed a reputation as a tough, prideful, hard-drinking, no-nonsense kind of place, where the employees worked hard, played hard, and were not to be messed with.
“Navassa didn’t have anything but a little country store, and the churches, Mt. Calvary and Davis Chapel,” Clarence Alston, born in 1910, remembered.
When I interviewed him in 2005, Mr. Alston recalled how “we used to have little house parties, people playing guitars and things like that. Later, the piccolo came out. They’d take one of them houses, put a piccolo—juke box—in there, and you could go and dance, sell sodas, cut red liquor.”
The smell of the fertilizer factory lingered, and not just in memory. Alston, who began working at the factory in 1921, at age 11, recalled wading into boxcars and unloading maggot-infested fish with pitchforks and pushing 300-pound wheelbarrow loads of them into the factory.
When he got older and began going out at night, he burned pine straw to remove the fish smell from his skin and clothes. When I visited with him, he described how “I’d stand up in the smoke to kill the scent off of the fish scrap. Then I could take my bath and put on my clothes!”
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This photograph is from the Dr. Robert M. Fales Collection at the North Carolina Room at the New Hanover County Public Library (NHCPL) in Wilmington, N.C. To me the NC Room is one of the state’s cultural treasures. Obviously gathered with scholarly rigor and a loving hand, its collections of manuscripts, old photographs, maps and published historical materials are a singular resource for researching, teaching and just plain understanding the history of Wilmington and the rest of the Lower Cape Fear.
To learn about the Town of Navassa’s more recent history and its struggles with industrial pollution, I also highly recommend a series of articles from 2016. The N.C. Coastal Federation’s Mark Hibbs wrote them, and they were published in the Federation’s daily e-newspaper, Coastal Review Online. You can find the first in the series here.
Finally, if you’d like to read my Raleigh News & Observer story on Mr. Clarence Alston and the history of Navassa, you can find it at NCpedia here.