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American Viscose Plant
 
Parkersburg
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Car 114 at Viscose Rayon Plant in Parkersburg
June 2, 1940
Will Whittaker photo
Bill Volkmer collection
Car 114 at Viscose Rayon Plant in Parkersburg - June 2, 1940


AVTEX Fibers Rayon Plant

Brief History of the Rayon Plant | Research | The History of Rayon | The Rayon Process | The Plant Railroad | The HO Scale Model

Photo of Prototype AVTEX Rayon Plant

Brief History of the AVTEX Rayon Plant

Known originally as the American Viscose Corporation and renamed AVTEX Fibers in July 1976, the plant was located on 440 acres on the eastern bank of the Shenandoah River in Front Royal, Virginia. Built by London-based Courtaulds Ltd., a British company, in 1937 as the largest rayon fiber manufacturing plant in the world and the largest industrial plant in Virginia, the plant was taken over by the United States Government as trade for Lend Lease during World War II. The plant made rayon fiber for garments, tires, rocket nozzles and many other uses. FMC (Food Machine Company), bought the plant in 1963 to add to their various holdings. In 1976, after letting the plant deteriorate, FMC put the plant up for sale and a manager of FMC, John N. Gregg, bought the plant for less that scrap value.


Link to 3 photos of plant . . Three photos of AVTEX Rayon Plant - 92k total

Although he spent over a million dollars for improvements to the power house and for various pollution controls, he experienced a poor rayon market, foreign competition, ageing equipment and buildings, extreme pollution, and deadly safety problems, all of which forces the company to close in November 1988. NASA had the company to reopen a few days later to make carbonized filament rayon yarn for rocket nozzles but the Virginia State Water Pollution Control Board continued to levy heavy fines for the reoccurring problem of letting chemicals reach the Shenandoah River, killing hundreds of thousands of fish. John Gregg, who had became ill with a brain tumor, sent 1300 employees home, shut the plan down for good and declared bankruptcy, leaving toxic chemicals in tanks and pipes which totally ruined much of the equipment. The Virginia Department of Emergency Services took over the plant but could not do much in saving equipment or cleaning up.

EPA Sign

The Environmental Protection Agency had designated the AVTEX plant a Super Fund Site in 1986. [See EPA Region 3 web page dealing with AVTEX Fibers] Although the EPA did much clean up of hazardous material over several years, it was not until 1997 that the EPA started to remove about half of the 60 acres of buildings [Link to story in Northern Virginia Daily - toward end of several articles] . Also see a new link (on line since August 1999) at http://www.avtexfibers.com/which describes recent activities in the clean up of AVTEX and the reuse of the land. Don't forget to come back and see the rest of my web site!.

Research

I traveled to Front Royal from my home in Columbia, Maryland, to photograph the plant in 1995. At that time, very little had change since the plant closed, all building were still present and the365 foot ventilation stack dominated the skyline. Although I had to take all photos from outside the perimeter fence, enough detail was available to build a model of the plant. Also, I research the files of the plant in the Front Royal library which gave me a few aerial views from newspaper photos. What I could not see was fudged to look similar to areas I could see to capture the feel of this large facility.


Link to Aerial view of Plant . . Aerial View of the AVTEX Plant - 64k

To model an undertaking of this size, I needed to be familiar with the industry, the manufacturing process, products shipped in and out, and general configuration. Here I was put in contact with Steve Hollingsworth of Woodstock, Virginia, an employee of AVTEX just before it closed. From him, I received drawings and maps indicating the use of each building, descriptions of the process of manufacturing rayon, lists of raw material shipped into the plant, process for distribution of the final product and hazardous waste, and indications of how the Norfolk and Western Railroad related to all these.

The History of Rayon

In 1975, FMC Corporation held a "Family Night Open House" to serve as a commemoration of the thirty-fifth anniversary of the first spinning of rayon at the Front Royal Plant. The following was part of a handout given during the open house:

 

"The first patent for making an artificial fiber was granted to George Andemars, a Swiss Chemist in 1855. Research did not meet with any degree of success, however, until it was stimulated by the need for a carbonized filament for Edison's electric light bulb.

An Englishman, Sir Joseph W. Swan, who produced the first man-made filaments in 1880, forced a cellulose nitrate solution through tiny holes into a hardening bath. Because Swan's interest was in electric lamps, he did not develop the textile feature of his new fiber.

It was Count Hilaire de Chardonnet of France who became the "Father of the Rayon Industry". He obtained his patents in 1884, and in 1889, his fabrics of artificial silk caused a sensation at the exhibition in Paris. He built the first commercial rayon plant in Besancon, France, in 1893, for regular production of yarn by the nitrocellulose process.

The Viscose process was discovered in 1892 by two English Chemists, Charles W. Cross and E. J. Bevan. Their viscose solution was essentially the same as that used today by all producers of viscose rayon yarn. At first, they made use of the molding properties of their new product. In solution, it served as a finish for linen, curtain fabrics, and paper; as a solid, it was formed into door handles, dial heads, and valve wheels. But it was really destined to be a fiber, history has proven.

After several years of experiment in the manufacture of yarns by several different firms, a company of Englishmen was successful in spinning rayon yarn. Some of their products were imported to the United States where they found a ready consumer market that stimulated a demand for domestic production.

In 1910, Samuel Salvage, a young English yarn merchant in the United States, persuaded Samuel Courtaulds and Company, an English textile firm, to form the Viscose Company of America. This company was the first to commercially produce rayon successfully in the United States. It was also the forefather of the present Fiber Division of FMC Corporation.

After the original viscose patents expired in 1919, there were five American rayon producers formed within two years, and eight by 1925, now there are eleven [Remember that this was written in 1975].

In the United States, rayon out sold silk for the first time in 1925.

In 1935, the American Viscose Company began making staple [a fine type of Fiber used in clothing] at Parkersburg, then in 1940 at the Front Royal Plant. Today, because of its extreme versatility and ready ability to blend with other natural and synthetic fibers, stable accounts for the bulk of the rayon industry's poundage.

About 1945, war time use of rayon include tire cord, parachutes, paint brush brustles, pump packing, lint free wiping cloths, uniforms, gloves, electrical insulation, decontamination garments, cartridge bags, felts, and rugs.

The growth in the use of rayon since World War II has demonstrated its reputation as the most versatile of all the world's textile fibers.

Used in every type of clothing for men, women, and children, either alone or in blends, rayon makes possible exciting new fabrics. It's in the upholstery and lining of our automobiles. It's in the tires we ride on, the lining of our shoes, and in the carpets, draperies and furnishings of our homes. It's in surgical bandages, industrial belts, strapping for heavy packages, fire hose, tents, tarpaulins and sails.

From such modern laboratories as those of FMC's Fiber Division, the world's largest producer of rayon and this country's pioneer in the man-made fiber industry, continually flow new modified rayon fibers to meet the growing demand for more versatile material for apparel, home, and industry."

The Rayon Process

Most rayon is made by the viscose process. The name "viscose" derives from the word "viscous", meaning "sticky or thick." Steve Hollingsworth of Woodstock, Virginia, provided much of the following.

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Manufacturing Process - Raw Materials

Viscose Rayon Fiber is made from specially processed wood pulp (purified cellulose manufactured by the sulfate process). Making wood pulp is an industry in itself. The American Viscose Corporation owned Kaskanan Pulp Company with large land holdings in Canada for a source of wood pulp. Processed wood pulp bails were shipped in by rail. The N&W made frequent deliveries of wood pulp, sulphuric acid, caustic soda, carbon disulfide and many other chemicals.

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Storage of wood pulp

The wood pulp arrived in the form of pressed sheets which were packaged into large bundles looking somewhat like yellow cotton bails. The wood pulp was stored in two seperate buildings in the plant until ready for processing.

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Stripping, weighing and steeping

From storage, the wood pulp is put on a conveyor and moved to the Viscose Department where the wood pulp bundles were broken apart into sheets and weighed. Caustic Soda (Sodium Hydroxide) is mixed with the pulp, water added, and steeped (soaked) for 2 to 4 hours at 56 tpo 62 degrees F to control oxidation and prepare for further processing. A total of 170 gallens of water for each pound of rayon is used in the manufacturing process. The resulting mixture is pressed to remove excess caustic soda liquid.

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Shredder and crumb weighing

In the soda room, the wood pulp is shredded in crumbing machines with rotating blades and again weighed. It is now called white crumb.

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Crumb storage and churns

The wood pulp "Crumbs" are aged (controlled oxidation) in metal tanks for 48 to 72 hours at 75 degrees F before being mixed in Churns with Carbon Disulfide (a very deadly corrosive liquid) for three hours resulting in yellow crumb or Xanthate.

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Mixers and viscose tanks

Xanthate is dissolved in Mixers with a diluted caustic soda (Sodium Hydroxide). This makes viscose which looked like honey and is a strong chemical base. Viscose is aged (riped) in the viscose cellar at about 45 degrees for four to five days, then the liquid is filtered several times to remove any solid particles, degassed by a vacuum process to remove air bubbles, and pumped to Production. There were two viscose sections in the plant.

The resulting liquid is forced through a die (Spinneret), made of platinum (which looks like a shower head), into a chemical bath (sulfuric acid, sodium sulfate, zink sulfate and sometimes glucose) to regenerate (solidify) it back as a cellulose fiber. Sulfuric acid in various strengths and makeup was used for each type of rayon being made. There were several acid systems in the Acid Department. The acid circulated between production and acid reclaim. When the reaction between viscose and acid was complete, the acid was piped back and made ready to recirculate. There were several million gallons of acid in the whole system. The Acid Department was a maze of tanks, evaporators, coolers, and pipes of all sorts. A by-product, anhydrous sodium sulfate salt, was removed in the Acid Department. When the plant closed, this was the worse area and the Acid Department was the first building to be torn down.

Production Department was broken up into three processes: Box Spinning, Double Deck, and Staple Fiber. In each process, the strong base viscose was injected through a jet (Spinneret) into an acid bath, forming rayon filaments. The machines had to stand up to these strong chemicals and were made of lead, stainless steel, glass, and fiber glass. The jets were the size of a dime made of platinum and had 1000 holes in them. Fumes were pulled off through ducts and tunnels.

Box Spinning

Box spinning

Box Spinning was a 1940's technology which made yard. After several steps of ageing and filtering, viscose passed through an acid bath and rayon was formed looking like very thin spaghetti. The fiber was wound through several wheels and spun into a revolving can or box. When the box was full, the machine had to be laced over so the yarn, called a cake, could be removed.

 

Cake Wash, drying and coning

This yarn was stored in the Cake Cabinet where fumes were vented. The next step was the Cake Wash machine, a huge machine which washed, bleached and dried the cakes. Cakes then went to Converting. The Box Spinning machines were about 10 feet wide and 70 feet long. There were 99 machines which were removed from the Front Royal plant in the mid 1980's.

Double Deck or Continuous Spinning

Double Deck Spinning

This was an improvement on Box Spinning combining Box Spinning and Cake Wash and the machines did not need to be relaced to remove the yarn. It was called Double Deck because the machines were two stories high and were cramped into what had been a tall one store area. There were 32 machines which spun the filaments onto a drying drum and then wound onto cones. Several cones were warped onto a beam.

Beam Storage

Beams were then stored until boxed and shipped. Double Deck was cleaner and work was much easier than Box Spinning but it was hotter. It took about 15 years seniority to bid for a Double Deck job. This is where the NASA yarn was made.

Staple Fiber

Staple Spinning, cutting, wash and dry

This made rayon that was fiber like cotton. There were ten big machines: they were at least 1/4 mile long. Rayon filaments from the Spinneret and acid tank were pulled together, twisted and chopped into lengths from 1 to 3 inches, depending upon the type and use of the rayon fiber. The resulting staple fiber was washed, bleached, and dried.

Bailing, weighting and storing

Staple was then bailing, weighed, boxed (which filled a box the size of a refrigerator in about 30 seconds from each machine) and sent to storage.

Converting - The last major department was the Converting Department. Rayon yarn was wound onto cones or Lang Beams. Yarn from Double Deck needed to be twisted because Double Deck machines did not put enough twist to the yarn. From here, the yarn was either stored of shipped.

Shipping

In support of the above departments, several other services were provide which are found in most other manufacturing plants. These include Receiving, Shipping, Carpentry Shop, Pipe Shop, Machine Shop, Truck and Engine Repair Shop, Plant Engineering, Physical Testing, Powerhouse and Power Generator Building. Several offices were scattered through out the plant. There were two cafeterias, security, first aid, waste disposal ponds, water purification facilities, rail transportation, heat exchangers, and a 365 foot tall brick ventilation stack to remove the deadly gases released during the manufacturing process.

For a more detailed discription of the Rayon Fiber process, see "fibersource Home - Rayon Fiber".

The Plant Railroad

The plant had its own railroad. There were about seven miles of track and over 40 switches. The track circled the plant in its later years and went to various places in the plant. There was a yard beside stores. Tracks were lettered A to J; nine tracks. The Norfolk and Western Railroad mainline went through the plant with a long passing siding and a double ended siding. There were three entrances to the plant: North or Old Virginia, South, and Wye or Old Scale House. A company owned bridge crossed the N&W tracks. Also, at least two elevated pipe lines crossed the N&W.

The plant shipped and received a lot. It was the reason for the Front Royal Shifter and kept it busy.

Locomotives -

First, they had a fireless cooker, which they recharged with steam from the Powerhouse. They replaced it with a 44 tonner and a 60 tonner. These engines were both General Electric's. Each locomotive had two prime movers. One had a motor on each end; the other had both motors on the same end. In the late 1980's, one of the motors was replaced with a Detroit Diesel truck motor. The two locomotives would not M.U. They serviced the locomotives at the plant garage.

When needed, they leased a N&W locomotive. The plant railroad crew liked to use the N&W locomotives. They had a six axle N&W locomotive during the summer of 1977. It is believed to been a SD-35 as it had six axles and a high short hood.

Operations -

The plant railroad was under control of the Stores Department. Stores had many functions in the plant. The Yard Master was in charge of the railroad. A day train crew did the bulk of shifting. This crew worked Monday through Friday, daylight shift. At other times, shift engineering did the needed shifted. This was frequent and a favorite job for First Class Shift Engineers (in the plant, Engineer meant Mechanic).

Incoming Products -

Outgoing Products -

The HO Scale Model

Link to view 
entering the basement . . View Entering Basement - 34k

When I began the project, an area for the modeled town of Front Royal was already set aside in the 3400 square foot basement. While poring over US Geographical Survey maps, the AVTEX Fiber rayon plant stood out as the largest railroad oriented industry in the area. By rotating the configuration of the prototype 180 degrees, the model plant along with key trackage would fit in the assigned area; but only if I reduced the size of the plant by about 50 percent in length and width. The building complex extended over 2000 feet plus surrounding fields, roads, ponds, and tracks. By selective compression, I could fit the buildings into an eleven foot long area while still retaining the estimated height of the structures. Neighboring fields, out buildings, and adjoining industries and railroad station would double this length. Since the name of the plant was "American Viscose" in the 1956 period of the layout, that name is used for the industry. So, one railroad oriented industry becomes a large as many full layout.


Link to 
three photos of the modeled plant . . HO Model of American Viscose (AVTEX Fibers) Rayon Plant - 3 photos - 86k total
Avtex
Offices and Entrance . . HO Model of AVTEX's Offices and Entrance - two photos - 52k total

Structures

About forty, mostly brick buildings, make up the American Viscose complex, covering areas ranging in size of 3 square inches for a guard shack to 500 square inches for a production building. Several of the buildings are flats to partly line the ten foot walk-in area. All brick buildings were scratch built with .060 inch styrene and then covered with Holgate and Reynolds plastic brick sheeting. All brick buildings were air brushed with Floquil Boxcar Red. When dry, a thin wash of Buff Floquil Polly-S water based paint was applied before the walls were glued together so they would lie flat. The wash settled into the brick mortar lines while toning down the Boxcar Red. All building were made with removable roofs. In multi-floored buildings, each floor lifts out for lamp replacement. Most of the buildings have interiors: heavy machinery, holding tanks, pipe, and raw materials for the manufacturing buildings and desks, chairs, and filing cabinets for the offices. Hundreds of windows were required. Almost all the windows were composed of the industral standard 12 by 15 inch panes. Instead of going broke using commercially available windows, I drew a grid the size of a standard industral window pane, filling a sheet af paper. I then made copies on vu-graph sheets. If I needed a window that was four panes high and 6 panes wide, I just cut out that number of panes from the vu-graph sheet plus about 1/16 inch all around, lined the edges in black, and gooed the windows in place.

Several tanks, either scratch-build or using available kits are sprinkled around the complex along with their associated piping. These tanks held water, fuel oil, and various chemicals used in the manufacturing process.

Trackage almost surrounds the plant. The ability to reach all the track but still give an indication of the size of the plant was required. To solve this, the center of several of the buildings became a walk-in area with 20 feet of flats or thin building faces being modeled on either side of the walk-in area and along the ends. [Link to Track Plan] The back of the flats, reinforced by 1 by 3 lumber which faces the walk-in area, are painted flat black. Four two foot by two foot and one two foot by three foot cover sections, containing the roofs of the buildings, are being constructed to fill in the walk-in area for photography and during display only operation. The lightweight lift-out sections are to be stored under the layout when normal operation is scheduled. Three of these "Covers" have been completed and are in place.

Layout Structure Lighting

To provide a dynamic night scene (18K) , two types of lamps were used extensively to light the interior of the structures and provide outdoor area lighting.

Clear miniature Christmas tree lamps are about 3.5 volts per bulb. By cutting up a string of Christmas light into paired lamps in series, a source of a little under 7 volts was required. A 6.3 volt filament transformer provided the power while extending the life of the bulbs. These Christmas lamps are used where they can not be seen, such as in the ceiling of large buildings. A baffle is built around the bulbs covered with aluminum foil to keep the bulbs from being seen through windows and to not shine through the thin plastic ceilings. About 70 of these Christmas bulbs have been installed.

A much smaller bulb was required for outdoor lighting and where space inside buildings was not available for the larger Christmas bulb. A five volt. 115 milliampere, 40,000 hour life bulb was selected which measures .093 inch diameter and has wire leads. These bulbs are available from several electronic supply houses listed as T-3/4 type 7153, manufactured by Chicago Miniature. We happened to have on hand a five volt, 50 ampere power supply with enough amperage to power well over 400 bulbs. About three hundred of these bulbs are presently in use. Instead of running wires through out the structures, copper tape from the stain glass hobby was used. To make street lamps, a #2 flat washer was just the right size to slip half way over the bulb, a dot of thick ACC on the lead end of the bulb held the washer in place. A little black or green paint kept light from leaking around the leads. Another use of the lamps was over doorways. Here a .093 hole was drilled, the lamp stuck part way out in the open, ACCed in-place, and the top of the bulb first painted with silver and then black so that light only shines down. The back of the bulb sticking inside the building was dabbed with red paint, ending up looking like an exit sign.