r u b b e r t o w n
h i s t o r y
Welcome to Rubbertown – an industrialized area of West Louisville that is home to a cluster of chemical manufacturing facilities. Several large chemical plants are co-located on Bells Lane, while the rest are on the south side of Paddy’s Run, co-located along Camp Ground Road.
This riverside portion of the county was first industrialized by Standard Oil of Kentucky, which built an oil refinery in the area in 1918. Two other companies would come to the area for similar business in the 1930's – Aetna Oil and Louisville Refinery. These refineries were producers of fuel, gasoline, kerosene, naphtha, oil, and petroleum coke. These refineries have all since been torn down and replaced by petroleum terminals (now Chevron and Marathon, and, until recently, Citgo).
From 1924 to 1959, Bond Brothers, the largest railroad tie manufacturer in the United States, had operations in the area. Then, in the 1929, Reynolds Metals built their third plant, “Reynolds No. 3,” on Camp Ground Road as part of its Louisville area aluminum foil manufacturing operations; ECKART subsequently bought just this one aluminum powder and paste plant in 1997. In 1979, Borden Chemical Inc. opened a facility farther down Camp Ground Road to produce formaldehyde, urea-formaldehyde resins, phenolic resins, and adhesives; that plant later became Momentive, then Hexion, and is now operated as Bakelite. These three facilities (Bond Brothers, Reynolds/ECKART, and Borden/Momentive/Hexion/Bakelite), two of which predate the “Rubbertown” complex, are notable in that each was constructed for stand-alone operations, not connected to or associated with any neighboring facilities.
Now to speak to the integrated complex that gave “Rubbertown” its name…
In 1941, the U.S. Office of War Production contracted with National Carbide to construct a calcium carbide and acetylene gas plant (now Carbide Industries, previously C/G, previously Airco). The War Office also negotiated with the B.F. Goodrich Corporation to build an adjacent plant to make chemical intermediaries (that site now jointly operated by Lubrizol and Zeon). A third company, E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Co., was also contracted in 1941 to build a Neoprene® synthetic rubber facility (on the site that is now split between DuPont and Chemours). Subsequently, in 1945, the Union Carbide Co. (no relation to National Carbide or Carbide Industries) built a facility in the complex to manufacture butadiene from grain alcohol that was piped to Rubbertown from distilleries elsewhere in Louisville (that plant was subsequently purchased by Rohm & Haas and is now operated by Dow Chemical). Also in 1945, a consortium of five tire companies known as National Synthetic Rubber (NSR) opened a plant to make styrene-butadiene rubber for tires needed in the war effort (that plant subsequently became known as American Synthetic Rubber Co. or “ASRC,” which is now owned by Michelin).
Combined, the sequence of operations from National Carbide (acetylene gas) through B.F. Goodrich and DuPont and Union Carbide (chemical intermediaries) resulted in the manufacture of NSR’s Neoprene® synthetic rubber, a commissioned product that was essential to the war effort – hence the name “Rubbertown.” The entire “Rubbertown” complex was strategically sited right here in Louisville because the three essential inputs to the first phase carbide plant operation were plentiful in the region – lime, coke (purified coal), and cheap electricity (then fueled by regional coal). The Ohio River system was utilized to transport raw materials and finished products. Finally (and not coincidentally), this mid-continental location was sufficiently out-of-reach of any potential airstrikes as may have been attempted the War Axis.
For ten years after the war, the federal government continued to operate the styrene-butadiene rubber complex, up until 1955 when it was auctioned off to private operators. Also in 1955, the Calvert City chemical complex in far western Kentucky started its operations, modeled on the success of Rubbertown. Meanwhile, back in Rubbertown, DuPont built a Freon™ production block next to its wartime Neoprene® plant, and they would subsequently also add an additional unit to manufacture vinyl fluoride. In 1961, Union Carbide sold its Rubbertown site to Rohm and Haas Co., and its operations expanded to create acrylic plastic and such products; Dow Chemical bought that site in 2009. Their Plexiglas® manufacturing activities subsequently spun off to be operated separately as Arkema, now Trinseo. The B.F. Goodrich complex split into separately operated entities that became Zeon Chemical, Lubrizol (formerly OxyVinyl), and PolyOne (formerly Geon, a small polymer plant that ceased operations at the end of 2019). The National Carbide plant was subsequently operated by Airco until it came under local ownership in 2002. Carbide Industries ceased its manufacture of acetylene as a sellable product in 2007, after DuPont shut down its Neoprene® plant and would no longer purchase direct-piped acetylene as a feedstock. The remaining operations at the DuPont facility split in 2015 to become Chemours (Freon™) and DuPont (VF). Carbide Industries continued to manufacture calcium carbide, a key desulfurization agent in iron and steel production, and their Rubbertown facility is now the last remaining manufacturer of calcium carbide in North America.