Growing up in the omnipresent shadow of a Dupont chemical plant in the Mid-Ohio Valley, I never thought about the company’s history or reach. Dupont was the major sponsor for almost every community event and embedded into everyone’s subconscious growing up. It was one of the few sources of prosperity for the economy and a major source of an environmental and health crisis. It wasn’t until the release of Dark Waters and a move to western North Carolina that I began to research the global reach, environmental catastrophes, and family legacy of Dupont.
Last month, my friends suggested we go running in Dupont State Forest near Brevard, North Carolina. I accepted with hesitation; after hearing the name, I assumed it held some legacy of chemical pollution. Dupont State Forest is a haven for bikers and hikers, as well as 600,000 annual tourists wanting a picture by the waterfalls.
The land was sold by Dupont from 1995 to 2000. Prior to that it was home to an industrial facility and recreation area intended for employees and their families to enjoy. The company has since divided up the land with multiple holders: real estate developers (which locals fought against), an imaging company, and (eventually) the state of North Carolina (through a conservation fund-brokered deal). A substantial amount of private property remains in the Forest, but a few waterfalls were taken by the state through eminent domain.
Dupont’s reach is astounding. In central Appalachia, the company’s environmental footprints can be seen across Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee. Most Washington DC residents and tourists will pass through Dupont Circle, a monument to Civil War Rear Admiral Samuel Francis Dupont. Beyond America, Dupont has business in 70 countries. Its headquarters remain in Delaware, where it was founded over 200 years ago.
Delaware was a haven and entrepreneurial starting point for Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nermous (later the company name was shortened to “Dupont”), the family patriarch. Pierre Samuel gained a reputation for scientific advances in gunpowder and held a government position in pre-revolutionary France. After being imprisoned during the French Revolution, he fled to America in 1800.
Before arriving, Samuel Pierre was already gathering French and American investors for a new company in America. The Dupont company got its official start on the Brandywine river in Delaware in 1802. That same year, Samuel Pierre and Thomas Jefferson were writing to each other to discuss philosophy and politics. In the 1800s, the company manufactured gunpowder, dynamite, and other explosives. The family was like early American royalty, there were even rumors intermarriage to protect the precious bloodline. The town of Winterthur, outside Wilmington, became its royal seat, where the headquarters, mansions, and monuments still stand today.
After the Civil War, the first environmental problems started. “Water pollution became a concern during the 1880s after the opening of Repauno Works, when local fishermen noticed the factory’s waste acids were killing the Delaware River’s sturgeon and shad,” Dupont’s website noted.
Over time, the Duponts dabbled in politics: Family members served as governor (once), senator (twice), and treaty intermediaries (twice). Their role in politics has lessened, however, as their focus shifted to the chemical manufacturing business and lobbying in the last century. Much of their legacy can be seen at the Hagley Museum and in the estates-turned-historic-sites near Wilmington.
In the 1920s, the Duponts rose to the height of wealth in America. They were critically involved in the Manhattan Project, a government project to develop atomic weapons during World War II. During the mid-20th century, the company went global after stretching across America, thanks to chemical manufacturing and plastics, such as teflon.
In recent decades, family members running the company have faced difficult times. In 1996, then-company heir John Dupont killed Olympic wrestler David Shultz (as depicted in a recent drama Foxcatcher). The next heir was convicted of raping his daughter in 2010. More bad press followed Dark Waters and greater awareness of C-8/PFAS chemicals. Researchers are uncovering just how toxic and widespread PFAS is in American water systems and many fingers point at Dupont as a major polluter.
Even with the company’s bad press as a major polluter, the family and company maintain its place in the higher echelon of American class. Today, Dupont remains a top chemical and manufacturing company globally. And the du Pont de Nemours family is the 15th–richest family in America with a net worth of $14.3 billion. The younger generation is forging new paths—one in remote Idaho. Much of family and company philanthropy has traditionally gone toward health care.
Like other historically wealthy families, Dupont’s legacy in Appalachia is mixed. Dupont was a pillar of the Mid-Ohio Valley community for so long that very few people critically thought about the name, its roots, or its reach. Their legacy in Delaware may be sweeter because the family invested serious philanthropic dollars there, but in Appalachia, the name still evokes a morally contentious contradiction.
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Alena Klimas is a writer and cofounder of expatalachians. She also manages the weekly newsletter, The Patch. Klimas recently moved to Asheville, NC to work on regional development projects with a small consulting firm. She enjoys the vibrant outdoors and beer culture in her new home.