Around Florida – Pensacola Industries

Pensacola boasts the purest water supply of any city of importance in the world. Its purity is equalled only by the water of a few of the world’s famous “mineral” springs and that which DeLand and a few neighboring communities obtain from an artesian well in Volusia County. Pensacola’s water comes from artesian wells which, at a depth of 1200 feet, tap a subterranean vein of water of such almost perfect freedom from mineral impurities of any kind that motorists use it without danger in their batteries instead of distilled water. The supply is practically limitless. Industrial plants requiring large supplies of pure water have been attracted to Pensacola by the quality of its water and have found that they could tap the same vein with their own wells without in the least depleting the flow of the municipal wells.

From its earliest beginnings, like all of the other towns along the Gulf, commercial fisheries have been one of Pensacola’s principal industries. Its fishing fleet is the largest and its annual catch brings in a large revenue. In common with all Florida, Pensacola has an important lumber industry and other industries which are based upon the readily available supply of lumber, such as an excelsior manufacturing plant, a flourishing furniture factory, cabinet works and boat building. Dry-docking and ship repairs are a natural adjunct of the important harbor.

Quite the most interesting industry in Pensacola, however, and one of the most interesting in America because of the ingenuity with which chemical research has been applied to the development of new products and the improvement of old ones is that of the Newport-Armstrong Industries. Starting in the 1920’s with one chemist trying to find a way of producing a purer quality of rosin than was available commercially, it has developed in the course of fifteen years into a huge plant spreading over thirty acres of ground, employing 22 chemists and 750 other workers, producing from old pine stumps such a variety of products as pine oil, synthetic camphor, several products used in medicine and the arts which are so new that the technicians have no name for them except the trade names which the Newport Company gave them. After all these besides turpentine and rosin have been extracted from the stumps, the desiccated residue is ground up and converted into a fiber board for building purposes which has gained a world-wide market. All of this came about because a manufacturer of writing paper in Milwaukee, using rosin for sizing his paper, was not satisfied with the quality which he could obtain in the commercial market.

Rosin, and its liquid twin, turpentine, comprise almost the largest item, both in tonnage and in dollars, in any list of Florida products shipped out of the state. They figure in com mercial statistics as “naval stores,” a term dating back to the earliest colonial times, when reliance was placed upon the pine forests of America for the supplies of pitch and tar requisite for calking and rigging the ships of the Royal Navy and merchant marine. Naval stores from the West Indies, under which inclusive designation all of North America was included, from Maine to Barbados, figure heavily in the records of commerce as far back as the time when Queen Elizabeth was still on the throne. They early became one of Florida’s chief contributions. In the course of 100 years, as the development and settlement of the country moved steadily southward and the forest resources became more accessible, the center of the naval stores industry moved successively from Wilmington, North Carolina, to Savannah, Georgia, and then to Jacksonville in Florida. Since the World War the rivalry for supremacy as the world’s principal naval stores shipping point has been a see-saw between Jacksonville and Savannah.

One of the novel, because unfamiliar, sights which attracts the attention of everyone from the North making his first visit to Florida is the miles upon miles of pine forests “cupped” for turpentine, through which every railroad and highway passes. Every one travelling about Florida encounters, somewhere on the edge of the forest, turpentine stills set up in clearings which usually contain no other buildings than the cabins of the Negro workers. The turpentine operations extend throughout the length and breadth of the pine forests, which cover all Florida. To obtain turpentine a strip of bark and the underlying sapwood is chopped away on one side of the pine tree, the skilled axeman scarifying the exposed heartwood in V-shaped ridges pointing downward. At the bottom of the scar is affixed an earthenware cup into which drips the thick, gummy exudation, or pitch, secreted by the sap of the tree. It is a slow process. It takes days for a turpentine cup, holding about a pint, to fill. Turpentining, therefore, can be carried on economically only in large-scale operations.

Turpentine operators speak of the number of “crops” they run. A “crop,” in the language of the industry, is 10,000 cups, which, roughly, are distributed over fifty acres of forest. A single operator may have a thousand crops set out at one time, covering 50,000 acres. The turpentine gatherers patrol the forests regularly, emptying the cups into barrels set at convenient intervals, and these, in turn, are gathered up when full and carried, usually in two-wheeled carts, to the still.

By a simple process of destructive distillation the volatile constituents of the crude pitch are extracted in the form of turpentine. The solid residue is rosin, which is poured into barrels while it is still heated and fluid, and solidifies into the brittle, translucent mass which finds its way to market. The turpentine and the rosin produced by this simple but effective method are commercial naval stores.

Occasionally a turpentine still catches fire. It makes a gorgeous and awe-inspiring spectacle which few ever see because of the isolated locations of most of the stills.

The ordinary rosin of commerce is graded by color, practically all of it being a dark red. It has a great diversity of uses in industry. It is the solidifying element in yellow laundry soap. It is used for sizing or water-proofing all kinds of paper and paper containers. The linoleum makers use great quantities of rosin. The finer qualities and lighter colors are used principally as a basis of varnish; and in the paint and oil industry is also found the largest market for turpentine.

Because the available supply of the finer grades of rosin for white paper sizing was not sufficient, nor the commercial product attained by the crude methods just described either uniform or entirely satisfactory in quality, the chemical research was begun out of which the Newport industry at Pensacola has developed. The whole naval stores problem was attacked from a new angle. Instead of relying on the natural flow of gum from the living tree, it utilizes what remains in the stump after the tree has been cut. The longer the stump has stood exposed to the sun and rain, the more of the impurities have been washed away or evaporated. Ten-year-old stumps are used by preference. These are gathered under contract over an area covering a range of 250 miles from Pensacola. Owners of cut-over pine land are not only relieved of the cost of clearing it for agriculture but are paid a small fee, per acre or per ton, for the stumps and the privilege of taking them away. They are lifted by mechanical stump-pullers, or, preferably, blown up with dynamite, which not only frees the stump from the soil but splinters it into fragments of convenient size for transportation and handling at the mill.

Five hundred tons of pine stumps are processed every day at the plant in Pensacola. The system of stump collection is so well organized that the daily deliveries of raw material, by wagon, motor truck and railroad, are exactly the daily requirement, so that there is no accumulation of surplus wood beyond a normal reserve in case of delayed deliveries.

Pensacola is the only city in Florida where natural gas is available. It is brought in through a pipe-line from Jackson, Mississippi. It is used as fuel for generating steam under high pressure for the extraction of the oils from the pine stumps. The wood, reduced to small chips, is loaded into a battery of huge metal containers, which are tightly sealed to resist a steam pressure of 500 pounds. Steam at that pressure is forced through the mass of pine splinters and through a connection at the opposite side into a condenser, where the vaporized mixture of steam and oil is liquefied and carried to a storage tank, in which the oils rise to the top of the water and are floated off for further treatment. After the oil has been removed, the tank is filled with a solvent and boiled until the rosin has been dissolved. Then the solvent is evaporated, leaving a residue of rosin in liquid form, which is readily adaptable for further chemical treatment. The oils which have been floated off consist not only of almost chemically pure turpentine but of another product which is obtainable by no other means. This is pine oil, which is found only in dead pine wood; it is not produced by the same living process that causes the gum to flow from the live tree.

With these raw products to work on the research chemists have developed a great variety of new chemical products which have a wide and growing use in industry. Pine oil is a particularly interesting product. One of its derivatives finds a constant market as a perfume base. It has been found the most useful oil in the flotation process of recovering copper and silver from low-grade ores. It is used extensively in the textile fiber industry, it is the foundation of various commercial disinfectants and insecticides, and enters into the manufacture of a variety of polishes and cleansing compounds.

One especially interesting product of the Pensacola plant is camphor, produced from turpentine and from pine oil and competing successfully with the natural camphor from Japan.

After everything but the elemental cellulose has been extracted from the pine fibers, they in turn are converted into a commercial product, being used for the manufacture of fibrous insulation and building board. In this part of its business the Armstrong Cork Company is associated with the Newport Company. The product is named “temlok.” It is made in thicknesses of from three-eighths of an inch to one and three-quarters inches and is used extensively in the construction of refrigerator cars and mechanical refrigerators as well as for structural and insulation purposes in buildings of all kinds.