You can still see the old train tracks along the factory floor of the Scranton Army Ammunition Plant, an echo of the days when the workers at this cavernous 115-year-old building used to assemble steam locomotives. The 15-acre site is on the national register of historical places, and it looks the part: from the ornate brick facades of the buildings to the huge vaulted windows meant to light the workshop floor without electricity to the occasional buckets placed to catch drips from a leaky ceiling.

Located just off the recently-renamed Joseph R. Biden Expressway in the city where the president was born, the factory feels like a throwback to an earlier era of American heavy manufacturing and a time when this northeast Pennsylvania city was an industrial hub.

“This building tells the story of Scranton,” Richard Hansen, a Scranton native who serves as the factory’s top civilian employee, said while giving a tour to visiting reporters last week.

he army took over the factory in 1953, and ever since, it’s been used to produce unguided artillery ammunition: a product that in recent years was starting to look almost as antiquated as the steam engine. At the end of World War II, there were 86 factories producing artillery for the U.S. military. Last year, that number was down to around six. Despite the fact that the U.S. has been at war for most of the last two decades, those few plants were enough: The counterinsurgency wars in Iraq and Afghanistan didn’t create the same need for the kind of shells produced in Scranton. General Dynamics, the defense contractor that operates the Army-owned plant, laid off dozens of workers there in 2014.

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