Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Roebling Legacy in New Jersey

The Roebling Legacy in New Jersey
Written by NJ Historian

There are few true company towns left in the State of New Jersey. Originally the Villages of Allaire and Batsto developed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, then the communities of Helmetta and Milltown in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and provided workers with housing, recreation, and commerce around their factory sites. One of the best examples of a company town exists today in Roebling, New Jersey, about ten miles south of Trenton. It is located on the Delaware River and close to the Camden and Amboy Railroad, two important attributes that made the site desirable to construct a manufacturing center. The Roeblings constructed this model town to support its empire and supply the world with wire rope. However, the story of the Roebling family’s success in New Jersey begins much earlier than the Village of Roebling and traces its roots to Prussia.

John A. Roebling emigrated to the United States 1831 from Prussia. In Berlin, Germany, Roebling had studied architecture, bridge construction and hydraulics at the Polytechnic Institute. Roebling and a group of young people who arrived with him settled on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where they founded the town of Saxonburg. In order to survive, Roebling had to farm, but as he became more established, he began to experiment fabricating rope out of wire in 1841, after seeing hemp rope fail as a means of pulling canal boats over the Allegheny Mountains.

Because of Roebling’s success with the wire rope, he won bids to build suspension aqueducts and bridges. In 1848, Roebling moved his operations to Trenton, which was closer to his customers and had the available resources and transportation he needed to succeed.

Roebling designed and constructed numerous bridges, the most notable being the Brooklyn Bridge, which he started designing in 1867. In 1869, he was standing at the edge of a dock, working on fixing the location of where the bridge would be built, when his foot was crushed by an arriving ferry. His injured toes were amputated. He succumbed from tetanus twenty-four days after the accident and is buried in Trenton. His son, Washington Roebling, also of an engineering background, finished the bridge in 1883.

John A. Roebling
Around the turn of the century, Roebling’s sons Washington. Charles, and Ferdinand decided to build a steel mill to make their own steel to be used in making their wire ropes. Steel companies in Pennsylvania had already been producing steel and in order to stay competitive, and in business, Roebling needed to construct their own steel mill. The lands around Trenton were offered at a high price to the Roeblings, mostly due to their stature in the community as millionaires. So the brothers went south, finding farmland along the Delaware River suitable to construct their enterprise. Purchasing a 115 acre peach and potato farm from Jacob Hoffner at a price of $17,000 on June 25, 1904, the Roeblings set out to build their new manufacturing site. In June 1905, ground was broken for the construction on the first buildings. However, being ten miles south of Trenton, the Roebling brothers were troubled by the issue of housing the workers.

To solve the housing dilemma, Charles Roebling conceived and designed the village of Roebling, a “model town” to house all of the workers. He laid out 100-foot-wide streets and chose the London plane trees to shade the medians. The community featured nine different styles of house architecture, almost all of them built of sturdy red brick and a slate roof. In total, 750 homes were built. Row homes were constructed for the general workers with rent offered as low as $8.00 per month. Cottage duplexes were available for skilled laborers at a higher rent, and the largest single family homes for managers and superintendents were constructed with seven bedrooms and offered at a price of $24.00 per month. All of the homes featured indoor plumbing, gas, and electric, which in the early 1900s had not been available to many areas of New Jersey.

Roebling Row Homes. Constructed 1906.
Charles Roebling placed a water tower at one end of Main Street and the factory's No. 1 Gate at the other, the passageway through which every employee entered the "Lower Roebling Works." Constructed as part of the town were stores, a water system, streets, and gas and electric systems. A police force, volunteer fire department, a jail and school were also built. Two workingmen’s hotels were also constructed.

The Roebling Inn was the first permanent structure built by the Roebling family. Men working in the construction of the plant and village paid $2.00 a week for room and board. Two bowling lanes were built in the basement. Unlike other company towns, the Roeblings allowed the sale of alcohol in the community and men would line 3rd and 4th avenues to get in for a drink. Today, the inn’s exterior has been restored and is used for senior citizen housing.

The Roebling Inn, constructed 1905.
 A general store opened on June 3, 1906 to serve the residents of Roebling. Samuel L. Major was in charge. The store sold everything from pork chops to pianos. Separated from the main store by an alley were several businesses. A bakery, pharmacy, barber, doctor, and dentist occupied these spaces. Private stores along Knickerbocker Avenue appeared in 1907 and included several butcher shops, a dairy, ice cream store, pool room, dry goods store, and confectionery. A fire in 1913 destroyed the entire row of stores. Most of the store owners moved to Alden and Norman Avenues. A gas station was built in 1927.

The original Roebling General Store, constructed 1905.
As for recreation, the residents of Roebling had many options. A boat house was built on the Delaware River, tennis courts were located on 7th Avenue, a band stand was constructed in Roebling Park, a ballfield was built in the 1920s, and a community garden was established on the outskirts of town. An auditorium was built in 1915 with removable seats depending on the event. It was the site of vaudeville shows, minstrels, boxing matches, silent movies, and then “talkies.” It was also one of the first air-conditioned buildings in America. Large blocks of ice were placed on cement slabs in front of fans. As a shower of water dripped down, cool vapor formed and was forced through the building. As the community grew in the early 1920s, a recreation center was constructed and contained four bowling lanes, six pool tables, and two shuffleboard tables. A bar sold soda and candy.

The first workers came to Roebling in 1906 – mostly Swedish. Over the next ten years over 2,000 others would follow - Hungarians, Germans, Poles, Czechs, Russians and Romanians. In 1912, according to the Industrial Directory of New Jersey, 1,440 men were employed and between one hundred and two hundred workmen were constantly engaged in laying out the streets and sidewalks, mowing the grass, and maintaining the properties. By 1918, it was reported that three-fourths of Roebling's 2,000 employees were foreign-born. Most kept to ethnic enclaves within the town and its seven churches. When the last homes were built in 1921, it is estimated that Ferdinand and Charles spent $4,000,000 to build the steel mill, wire rope plant, and the model town.

The Village of Roebling and the Steel Mill Complex, 1924. Source: 
The 1930s and 1940s are considered the high point for both Roebling the company and the town. The plant made the wire rope used to hold up the Golden Gate and George Washington bridges. Wire rope for oil drilling, elevators, logging, slings, fishing, construction equipment and mining were made in Roebling. The electrical wire and cable division produced materials for homes, high tension lines and electric substations, airports, telephones, televisions, washing machines, and refrigerators.

World War II and military contracts brought employment up to 5,000. But after the war, the company began to slowly contract.

After disputes with labor unions, Roebling eventually sold its housing to its workers. On December 31, 1953, Roebling sold the company to Colorado Fuel and Iron Inc, ending an era of forty-seven years. Finally, in 1974, Colorado Fuel and Iron closed down the plants in both Roebling and Trenton, leaving behind 70 empty buildings in Roebling. 

Roebling mill building before demolition. Source: 
In 1983, the property was declared a Superfund site by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. A remediation plan was drafted for the cleanup of the site and its buildings. Between 1983 and 2011, ninety-nine percent of the buildings were torn down, with the exception of the No. 1 gate, which was fully restored as part of the remediation and today houses the Roebling Museum, educating visitors about this unique and close-knit community in Burlington County.

The Roebling Museum/Gate No. 1, constructed 1907.
While walking the tree-lined streets today, you can imagine workers returning home from their shift, children playing in the front yards, neighbors waving hello to you from their porches as you stroll by, the sounds of the steel mill in the background and the aroma of home-cooked meals in the alley as generations of steel working families gather to eat dinner. Not much has changed since that time, except for the steady flow of workers through Gate No. 1 and the sounds of the steel mill in the background.

Additional photos of my trip to Roebling, NJ on Pinterest

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Great write-up!

Interesting to see America's industrial legacy, both environmental and social, converge in such a small community.

nice writeup and accurate too. I know since my moms side of the family grew up in florence. theres a field off of hornberger ave if you make a left just after the 2 bars that still has ethnic picnics in the summer, mostly hungarian.

Nice post, History Girl!
For more stories and illustrations about the Roeblings see The Roebling Legacy:

during my limo days I frequently drove a lady who lived in Florence. had to drive through roebling. tried to imagine life 100 years ago.

Thank you for keeping the history of my home town alive!

Jeanette Bartha

Having just read McCullough's "The Great Bridge", and finally learning about the Roebling's contributions to this great country, what a pleasure it was to see your pictures..

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