PITTSTON, PA. -- Frank Dainese, self-proclaimed "nitroglycerin man," ran his fingers along the 2- by 16-inch tube of brown waxed paper. He handled it as he might a fine piece of jewelry.
"That's a damn good stick of dynamite," he said. "Feel the density. It's well filled. It's a beautiful stick. I hate to see it replaced."
Yet after more than 40 years researching, making, selling and detonating all kinds of explosives, Dainese realizes that -- sentimentality notwithstanding -- dynamite is no longer the explosive of choice.
The product that literally moved America's mountains to make way for airports, superhighways, coal mines and quarries is gradually being replaced by other explosives with futuristic names such as Eagle 906 and Tovex.
Dainese is president of the Independent Explosives Co. of Pennsylvania, one of just three remaining producers of dynamite in the country. At its plant in a rural area near this small Luzerne County town, Independent makes 100,000 sticks of dynamite a day in much the same way it has for a half century.
It is a methodical, safety-conscious process spread over a manual conveyor system involving 82 buildings -- each 275 feet apart -- amid 247 acres of thick woodland and steep mounds of earth and rock. The buildings are connected by gravel, dirt roads and long, boardwalk-like walkways.
The sides of many of the buildings are made of plywood and tar paper and corrugated metal, and with the narrow roadways, boardwalks and train tracks running throughout the leafy setting, the fenced-in plant has the appearance of a run-down amusement park. The ramshackle construction of the buildings is a safety feature that would keep an explosion from doing a great deal of damage.
But also on the property is a sparkling new building constructed in October as the company was celebrating its 50th anniversary. That facility, thanks to computerization, eventually will be able to do with eight employes what it takes almost 90, spread throughout the plant, to accomplish now.
The difference between the processes illustrates the change in the explosives business itself. The old line mixes nitroglycerin, an explosive oil, and kieselguhr, an earthy sediment, to produce dynamite, which has been around for more than a century.
The new plant makes nonnitroglycerin-based products known as emulsions, many of which are still being refined in the company's laboratory.
Dainese entered the explosives business when dynamite was king.
A chemical engineer with ballistics training, he worked as a civilian employe of the U.S. Department of Interior's Explosives Division, investigating domestic dynamite accidents during World War II.
"There were times when all the evidence was gone with the accident," he said. "We had to simulate the accident to determine the probable cause."
Dainese became an expert on dynamite and its uses and hazards, and he never left the business. First with other companies and, since 1969, with Independent, whose corporate headquarters is in Scranton, Dainese has been involved in all aspects of producing and marketing the product.
But he also understands that the new products are what will carry Independent into the future.
"Independent is staying abreast of the market. These are much safer," he said of the new products. "There isn't the hazard as there is with the nitroglycerin-based products."
Emulsions are doing to dynamite what dynamite did to black powder, one of the earliest explosives. Black powder is believed to have been developed in the 13th century. It reached its peak consumption in 1917, about a half-century after dynamite was developed by Alfred Nobel, a Swedish scientist.
"For many years, black powder was the explosive throughout the world," said Tom Dowling of the Institute of Makers of Explosives, a trade organization based in Washington.
"At one time, up in those coal fields around Lackawanna and Luzerne County, there were black-powder plants all over the place. Dynamite kicked them out," Dowling said. "It's just a matter of changing technology."
For years, of course, Du Pont Co. was the explosives industry leader. In 1973, the company sold off its last black-powder company. And in 1974, even though it was the industry leader, Du Pont announced it was getting out of the dynamite business in favor of products less hazardous to manufacture, transport and use. Finally, in May, Du Pont announced that after nearly two centuries, it was selling its commercial explosives business.
The decline of dynamite actually began in the 1950s, when producers were able to package the explosive ammonium nitrate and fuel oil in safe, convenient forms. Like the newer emulsions, the ammonium nitrate-fuel oil mixture that evolved did not contain nitroglycerin, making it far less volatile.
Dainese estimated that emulsions now account for 70 percent of the explosives business.
Independent continues to manufacture nitroglycerin-based dynamite, Dainese said, because it still has numerous applications. His customers across the country want dynamite for underground mining, oil and gas exploration, and seismic work.
The biggest difference between dynamite and emulsions is that dynamite is sensitive to friction and impact; emulsions are not, which makes them less hazardous.
Independent's plant, which was built on the face of an old quarry, is laid out and operated under strict federal and state regulations.
Each building, for instance, has a sign above the entrance, limiting the number of people and the amount of weight permitted inside. Workers must wear coveralls with no pockets to prevent matches from being carried into the work areas.
An armed guard stops all visitors to the plant's gate, and security is sometimes strengthened; company officials say the grounds have been a popular partying spot on holidays. The plant is secluded. The most dangerous area, the nitroglycerin facility, has a mountain between it and the nearest home, more than a mile away.
A.J. Munchak, the company's controller, said the last major accident at the plant was in 1972, when an explosion killed five men. In 1980, a building was destroyed by an explosion, but no one was hurt.