Monday, July 22, 2013

The Journals of Harry D. Pomeroy, The World War I Years, 1915-1919

by  Alethea Connolly

In her teaching about historic primary resources, Stacia Kuceyeski distinguishes between the diary and the journal.  The diary, she says, was originally a tool for reflecting on one’s spiritual growth, and later developed into a “general recording of personal feelings and self-examination…” 1   The journal, by contrast, is a less intimate record of events and activities often including details of weather and business.

According to these descriptions, the small pocket-size notebooks of Harry Dwight Pomeroy, part of a family collection donated by his son, Donald Pomeroy Sr., to the Onondaga Historical Association in Syracuse, New York are journals, even though they were commercially sold under the name “Standard Diary.”  Indeed, Pomeroy’s entries always give a weather report, though they reveal much more.
Harry D. Pomeroy was the youngest son of Dr. Theodore Clapp Pomeroy, a physician, and his second wife, Jane Amelia Blodgett of Cortland.  His grandparents, Captain Stephen Pomeroy and Hannah (Polly) Clapp, started their family in Otisco, New York in 1806, after a westward journey from Southampton, Massachusetts.   

Harry was a keen observer.  He wrote in pocket journals since he was fourteen, and continued to do so until 1937, the year of his death at age seventy.   Brief, almost telegram style entries showed he lived an energetic life, over thirty years of it in Syracuse, within many social circles: family, work, neighborhood, city, state and nation.  All of these interactions were frequent, and important to him. 

He was a mechanical engineer and an inventor; a recorder of detail. 2   His diary is a kaleidoscope of images, activities, and observations.  Catastrophes got his attention, as did any parade or a circus.  He worked diligently, but also had a peevish side that surfaced when he felt underappreciated at work.  Pomeroy’s diaries are particularly interesting because they depict not only interactions at his home at 134 Baker Street and at work, but within a larger context of historical time, place, and responsibility.   What was going on in the nation and the city of Syracuse mattered to him.   The nation was gradually being drawn into the European war theater as a combatant, and Harry’s notes show family members getting involved in the war effort amidst their ordinary daily routines. 

In 1915 when he started work as a draftsman at Semet-Solvay Company, Harry Pomeroy was fifty years old, a widower of eight years, with four children.   The Semet-Solvay Company, a chemical manufacturing business, made an array of products distilled from coal in coke ovens.  The preceding year, the company started building a plant to manufacture explosives, picric acid, ammonium picrate, and trinitrotoluene (TNT) at Split Rock.  

As the war spread across Europe, the United States identified a need for independent supplies of ammonia because both the food and munitions industry required it.  One way ammonia was used in explosives was by oxidizing it to get nitric acid.  Much of this was under secret experimentation, much of it at the Semet-Solvay plant.  It was a dangerous business.   

During the course of World War I this company accounted for almost 25% of the nation’s military munitions.   Chemical engineer Ludwig A. Zohe was in charge of the building project, and was Pomeroy’s supervisor.  The TNT was set up in one quarry, and the picric acid plant in another. 

Feb.1, 1916:  Snow squalls.  Worked part of the day on Synthetic ammonia apparatus for Zohe and then back on N A 4 & P A 3.

Feb 19: …an explosion occurred about 9 last eve in the TNT #2 Plant at Split Rock, killing 5 and injuring 5.  We got a .094% bonus today on our Jan salaries.  Went down town in aft. 

Nov 6: … A nice day.  Mr Conklin came over and brought a sketch of an electric furnace for me to design.   In eve stayed home & read.

Nov 28: …Worked all day on the Metallic Sodium furnace.  In eve worked on Shoe Polisher for Sanborn.  Robt arrived fr  NY with a hard cold.  The boys went down to the Empire and saw The Birth of a Nation in the moving pictures…

Dec. 5: ...We had a notice of over time work to begin tonight.  Most of the boys complied.

Dec 13: …the German offer of peace is spurned by the Allies.  The stock market suffered on announcement of the proposal.  Wheat took a drop.

Dec 30: …Zohe & I spent most of the forenoon studying on a sodium carbide furnace.   Payday. …deposited my paycheck…Went to the Eckel.  Walked home. 
In 1917, the company pressed forward with its munitions contracts, in what was a relatively new industry, handling volatile and unstable chemicals.

Jan 9:  Zohe went to Split Rock to start the new men who are to build the new acid towers….

Mar 31:  Cold and cloudy with snow flurries….a very heavy explosion occurred at 5:50 which I afterwards learned was at the C. A. Plant at Semet-Solvay. 18 men injured…in eve I attended services in the church.
In April, 1917, the United States declared war on Germany.

Apr 2:  Cloudy and threatening.  Congress met at 12 noon in special session to hear President Wilson’s message requesting them to give him permission to prepare for war with Germany.  A most momentous time for the nation.  In the eve attended prayer meeting in the chapel.  Zohe returned from his trip to NJ  rather suddenly.

Apr: 4:  The Senate took a vote on the resolution that we declare war on Germany, and carried it by a large majority.

Apr 5:  The House has the war message in debate…..

Apr 6: …A company of State militia is here from Buffalo to do guard duty on the canal and railroads east of here.

As the European war expanded, Semet-Solvay accelerated its product experimentation and manufacturing in the weeks and months following the declaration of war,

May 1: …Zohe got out the prints today of the ammonia oxidizing plant at the Rock to send to England.

May 21:  Cold, rainy and disagreeable.  I started a floor drawing for the Prussiate plant at Buffalo for Miller.

May 24:  Cold, cloudy and rainy.  I subscribed for a Liberty bond of $50 today through the company.  Yesterday Mr. E. L. Pierce was elected president of the Solvay Process Co. and Judge Nathan L. Miller vice president.

Jun 8: …Mr Zohe told me that they began to make picric acid today for the first time at Split Rock

June 22:  Zohe spent the day in conference with government officials over the Ammonia Oxidizing experiment…

June 23: …After dinner Harry, Dwight and I walked down town and saw the great military parade, probably 4500 men, four regiments, the largest ever held here…

June 28: …The papers report the safe arrival in France of our first contingent of ten thousand troops.

July 2:  A beautiful day, cool and clear.  The Red Cross fund raising here in Syracuse has reached $1,250,000….

July 4: …no fireworks of any kind here today.  The lid is on tight.

July 20:  Warmer and clear.  Everybody is all excited over the draft which is held today to make a new army of 900,000.  Dwight wasn’t drawn, but Edgar was…I wrote Dwight and sent him clippings of the draft numbers.
Harry and His Horn

Early in 1918, Harry D. Pomeroy accepted an opportunity that added focus and delight to his life.  He loved music, and that year Semet-Solvay started a band.  Carl Becker was their director.  Marching bands and free concerts were often sponsored by large corporations during the war years. They helped enliven patriotic sentiments and financial support for the war effort, while promoting the industry or business.  Pomeroy played the French horn.

Apr 25, 1918:  At 2 P.M. the band assembled at Guild Hall and were provided with linen dusters and white hats and practiced marching, after which we marched over to the Patrol bldg….At 4 we went to the armory and participated in the Liberty Loan parade.  About 50,000 were in it.  It took 2:15 to pass.  The biggest ever.  I walked home…

Apr 30: …Reports from the battle front indicate terrific fighting with great losses on both sides but with the Allies holding….Donald went out in the eve to sell thrift stamps

May 2: …Band practice at Guild Hall this afternoon from 4 to 6.  We rehearsed three new pieces.

June 13: …Becker announced that we would play tomorrow at 11:45 for a flag raising at the Patrol bldg. also at 2:30 at Split Rock…

Jun 15: …Clear and cool…We saw the parade of fathers and mothers of soldiers at 4:45.  Secy of the Navy Daniels walked with Mayor Stone and lieut. Gov. Schoeneck at the head of the parade, and reviewed it from a stand in front of the Wieting Opera house.  Walked home….

June 18: …During the forenoon the War Chest subscription cards were passed out for signature.  In the eve the band played for a meeting at the old Solvay village hall….

June 27: …Another of our band men leaves for “the service,” his name is Northrup, and he plays the bassoon.  He is to go into the Naval Recruit Band at Pelham Bay, L. I.

July 2: …On the way home stopped at Foxes and while visiting with them a terrific explosion occurred at Split Rock and we could see a fire was in progress over there.  Harry rode out as far as he was allowed on his wheel.

July 3: …the main topic of conversation is the terrible catastrophe of last night at the rock 40 to 60 dead and 50 or more casualties.  A full report will be impossible for some days.  Attended prayer meeting in the eve….

July 5:…Helen went down to Red Cross work.  The evening papers report 50 bodies found at Split Rock.

July 18:…A big victory for American arms in France announced…
            While the war lasted four more months, other anxieties gripped Syracuse residents for weeks.

Sept 23: …when I went to bed I had a chill.  The hospitals are full of soldiers who are afflicted with the Spanish Influenza,”  5 deaths today.

Oct 2 :..Fourteen deaths from influenza epidemic reported today.  Abroad the allies continue to advance.

Oct. 5: …23 deaths in the city reported from influenza

Oct. 10: …the influenza epidemic increasing here and through the country  38 deaths have occurred in this city during the last 24 hours.

Oct 13: …Late in the afternoon Harry and I took a walk up thru Oakwood.  We noted the many new graves as a result of the epidemic…

Oct 16:  In the afternoon went over to Willis Ave and had a conference with Dr. Jordan, Wermick, Zohe, and Townsend regarding arrangement of apparatus for benzaldehyde experiment.  32 deaths today.

Nov. 11, 1918:  I was aroused at 3’oclock this morning by noises of horns, bells, and whistles.  The occasion was the signing of the armistice terms by german officials.  Hostilities ceased at 11.  The city began to celebrate early.  When I went to Solvay at 8 people were parading.  The band was called at 8:30 and we made a tour of the works until 11.  At 2 we met at Guild Hall and took trucks for downtown and participated in the parade.  The weather was cool and clear.


1. Journals & Diaries, by Stacia Kuceyeski, History WORKS Technician. Online at:

2. While Harry D. Pomeroy worked on various designs and ideas for his employers, he also designed machine projects for private contractors, and had his name on several patents.  In 1894, he and two colleague patented improvements to a chain making machine.  In Syracuse he worked on the blueprints for Melville Clark’s small harp base in 1911.  With two colleagues, he received a patent on a disk record cabinet in 1920.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed reading your latest APHGA blog article, Lee! Harry's diary entries from late 1918 hit close to home. My husband's grand uncle, Ira Robinson, a young Syracuse soldier, became ill with the Spanish flu on Sep 28th, died on Oct 5th and was buried in Oakwood cemetery on Oct 8th. It's fascinating to think that Harry noted and recorded, to the day, each of these events.


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