Lyman Kilgore BHM

Lyman Kilgore bought a failing business and turned it into the highly successful B & T Metals in Columbus, Ohio. Kilgore’s company helped the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers convert uranium metal billets into rods that could fuel reactors, helping the United States build the first atom bomb. In August 1948, the Ohio State News published an account of Kilgore’s life in his obituary. Photo courtesy of the Ohio History Connection.

As the United States raced to build atomic bombs during World War II, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Manhattan Engineer District, commonly known as the Manhattan Project, had acquired enough pure uranium metal by 1943 to begin mass-producing fuel for plutonium production reactors. What they did not have was the know-how to convert uranium metal billets into a form capable of fueling reactors.

USACE’s prime contractor for plutonium production, E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company (DuPont), was tasked with converting the uranium billets into reactor fuel, known as “slugs.” The first and most pressing step toward making slugs was to convert the billets into rods.

DuPont turned to the Battelle Memorial Institute (BMI) in Columbus, Ohio, for its technical expertise. BMI was already under contract to the federal government’s Office of Scientific Research and Development. While BMI had technical expertise, it did not have the necessary equipment.

With the clock ticking, DuPont searched for fabrication shops in the Midwest, close to BMI, that had the capability to produce large numbers of uranium rods. In February, DuPont placed Purchase Order XPG-123-1/2 with B & T Metals, which was in the Franklinton neighborhood of Columbus, less than five miles from BMI.

An African American entrepreneur, Lyman Kilgore, owned B & T Metals. Born in Hillsboro, Ohio, he had labored on an orchard before taking a job with a flooring company in Columbus. When the company faced bankruptcy, Kilgore bought it out and turned it into the highly successful B & T Metals. Kilgore’s company specialized in fabricating a unique metal trim, trademarked as “Chromedge,” that was used around sinks and carpet edges. Critical for the Manhattan Project, B & T Metals had an extrusion press that could be used to figure out how to extrude uranium metal billets into rods.

Through the work performed at B & T Metals, the Manhattan Project gained the know-how to mass produce uranium rods.  B & T Metals completed its contract with DuPont on Aug. 3, 1943. In less than seven months, the shop had extruded 336,108.25 pounds of uranium billets into rods that were fabricated into slugs to fuel the X-10 Graphite Reactor in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and a test reactor at a secret location outside of Chicago known as Site A.

The U.S. Department of Energy remediated the B & T Metals site in 1996, under the Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program (FUSRAP) and later released the site for unrestricted use. In 2004, DOE assigned long-term stewardship responsibilities for the site to the Office of Legacy Management (LM). LM maintains records about the Columbus East, Ohio, Site and its cleanup to be able to respond to interested stakeholders. In 2017, the privately owned property was repurposed and now provides studio space to local artists. 

After he died in the summer of 1948, The Ohio State News recognized Mr. Kilgore’s tenacity in building a major industry, a feat “that many industrialists considered impossible.” What the newspaper did not know at the time was that Kilgore’s company had also helped the United States win its top-secret race for the atomic bomb.