The decision to construct the plant was itself the result of a drawn-out battle between Congress, the behemoth steel corporations of the early 20th century, and President Woodrow Wilson's Secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels. A debate had raged for two decades about the cost of producing armor plate for the new heavily armored warships that were then the pinnacle of naval firepower, and Josephus Daniels claimed the only way to hold the steel monopolies to a fair price was for the government to construct its own plant to use as a yardstick, by which the true cost of production could be measured. Daniels eventually got his way and the construction of one the U.S.'s largest weapons and armor plants began.
Ground was broken on Aug. 30, 1917, but despite producing some naval gun components in summer of 1918, most of the plant's major facilities were not operational until February 1921, well after the First World War had ended. Operations were suspended in February 1922, when the United States became a signatory of the Washington Naval Treaty, limiting production of new large warships such as battleships and aircraft carriers. Between the wars, a skeleton crew was retained to keep the plant in working order, but its usefulness was often treated skeptically. A 1931 New York Sun article blasted the Plant as a mere lump of steel, and a gross mismanagement of taxpayer money. A U.S. Representative from West Virginia even proposed Congressional legislation that it be sold in 1937. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, however, personally stated that in light of world affairs, it should be kept open, and in September of 1940 he personally toured the plant and allotted money for it to become fully operational. Roosevelt also had a personal connection to the Naval Ordnance Plant (NOP), as he had been Assistant Secretary of the Navy under Josephus Daniels, and had helped to bring its construction about. Roosevelt ascribed to the yardstick philosophy of Daniels and applied it to many large-scale New Deal constructions, such as the Tennessee Valley Authority.
By the end of World War II, the plant contained 47 buildings, including a school for workers' children, greenhouse, and recreation center. Adjacent to the plant were 65 houses and 42 bungalows, and off the reservation were nearby federal housing developments at Ordnance Park (St. Albans), and Kenna Homes. The entire Kanawha Valley boomed with wartime production, with several nearby chemical factories, a synthetic rubber plant, and numerous other facilities producing war materials. Over 11,000 workers worked at the NOP during the war--more than fifty percent of them women at the height of its production in 1944-45, due to manpower shortages as the invasion of Western Europe and fighting in the Pacific took male workers off the production lines and into uniform. Nevertheless, the NOP's production record was unmatched--with over 130,000 gun barrels produced, it completed more naval ordnance than all other plants in the U.S. combined. It introduced several revolutions in large-scale tooling technology, including the pioneering use of tungsten carbide boring bits.
Production came to a halt at the end of the war, and the facility was converted for storage. Several plans to convert the facility into another industrial use that would create badly-needed postwar jobs fell through, making the NOP a sore subject for many Kanawha Valley citizens. Then-candidate John F. Kennedy addressed the problem head on in a speech in South Charleston on the Presidential campaign trail in 1960:
Here, in South Charleston, you have one of the most demanding and important examples of the need for new industry. Your once dynamic and expanding Naval Ordnance Plant - a plant which once employed more than 11,000 men - has been slowly closing down as the government prepares to abandon it completely. In time of war this vital plant contributed strategic materials - vital supplies and important armor plate - to the great American victory - your factory was the pride of the nation. But today - in a time of unprecedented peacetime prosperity - the Administration has decided that it has no more use for South Charleston. It offers no hope of new jobs or new business. It has condemned thousands of workers to economic hardship, unemployment and despair. It has forgotten how much South Charleston contributed to America in the past - and it just doesn't care what happens to you in the future.9
The NOP continued to store military munitions and vehicles until it was sold by the newly elected Kennedy Administration to FMC (Food Machinery and Chemical Corporation) in 1961. After FMC retooled the facility, it was was used to manufacture M113 armored personnel carriers from 1962 until 1969, one of only two facilities in the U.S. to do so. But labor strife and contract losses soon convinced FMC to sell the plant. By the early 1970s, roughly two-thirds of the facility had been sold to Ray Park, a private businessman, much of whose fortune was made by apportioning and leasing out large facilities like the NOP to other businesses. In 1974, the short-lived American Motors Corporation leased the giant former Machine Shop to stamp components for Pacers and other automobiles--but was forced to give up the operation during its bankruptcy and purchase by Renault. By 1979, Volkswagen was leasing that portion of the plant to stamp parts for its popular Rabbit cars.
Today the South Charleston Industrial Park is still owned by Ray Park and houses Gestamp, a metal and automotive component manufacturer, a UPS facility, electric utility Appalachian Power, ClearOn (a chlorine bleach producer), and a number of other manufacturing companies. The largest component of the industrial park is Gestamp's metal stamping plant, a massive facility of approximately 922,000 square feet, in the former Carnegie-Illinois armor plate machine shop, which at the height of World War 2 could produce 7,000 tons of armor plate per month. In 2012, NBC's Today Show filmed a segment about Rosie the Riveters in the Plant, hosted by Ann Curry.
Beginning on September 3, 2018--the day Roosevelt visited the Plant in 1940--the South Charleston Interpretive Center hosted a large-scale pop-up exhibit adjacent to the former Naval Ordnance Plant with the support of the City of South Charleston. Entitled Century Strong, the exhibit featured hundreds of never-before-published photographs and significant new research on the NOP's hundred year history. The physical exhibit closed on October 27 (Navy Day, which was the traditional annual date when the NOP opened its doors to the public), but as of 2019 the Interpretive Center is in the process of making all photographs and resources available to the public on a new website, NavalOrdnancePlant.org.