The Roeblings of S. Jersey

by R. Cohen | Apr 4, 2005
The Roeblings of S. Jersey In 1905, the Roebling family had outgrown their bustling factory space in South Trenton when they looked south to a tract of empty space along a bend in the Delaware River in Burlington County. Here, they constructed a little company town whose workers milled the structural steel used to hold up the Golden Gate and many other awesome suspension bridges.

The town name and the family name are one and the same—Roebling--and the town of Roebling remains today a charming artifact of the industrial age. Brothers Washington, Ferdinand, and Charles Roebling were already millionaire kings of industry whose privately held company had built the Brooklyn Bridge. John A. Roebling's Sons Co. had two problems. It was far too big for its scattered sites in the city's southern end, and was growing increasingly dependent on the greedy trusts that supplied raw materials. Building anew would solve these dilemmas. Trenton would remain the site for weaving bridge rope, but a new mill would serve the express purpose of manufacturing the steel to be turned into bridge rope.

The place chosen was a tract of farmland eight miles south of Trenton, just south of a railroad whistlestop known as Kinkora. It had easy rail and river access from Trenton. The land was a bargain at $17,000. It was level and well-suited for building. However, as the company began to move earth for its project in June 1905, the owners faced the task of figuring out where to put all the workers they would be hiring.

"Perhaps the most troublesome feature of Kinkora (now called Roebling) was the utter lack of houses where the working men could live," wrote Washington Roebling, the oldest of the bridge-building brothers and the man who built the Brooklyn Bridge. "This could only be overcome by building an entire town, a so-called Model Town." By the day's urban standards, Roebling really was a model town — 750 brick houses laid out on a rectangular grid.

Charles Roebling, the youngest brother, was the one who actually created the town that bears the family name. He was less famous than his brothers Washington, an engineering genius and Civil War hero, or Ferdinand, the financial wizard. But he had an artistic touch and a love of planning. He laid out 100-foot-wide streets and picked the London plane trees shading the medians. He chose nine different styles of house architecture, almost all of them built of sturdy red brick and slate roof. He 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."

Where many other company towns prohibited bars, Charles Roebling gladly allowed whiskey to be served at the Roebling Inn. Charles Roebling also provided facilities for a more sober family life. He placed shops, banks and a post office around Main Street's central circle. Schools, churches, social halls and baseball fields would follow.

"Not only is every possible material want of their employees being provided for, but the aesthetic side of the proposition is being worked out to the satisfaction of an extreme idealist," reported the New York World.

But for all the gushing praise, Roebling was no Utopia. It was a business for profit. The company owned everything in town. Workers could rent — not lease — their homes. And they could be booted out of his home without notice. That provision made for an obedient labor force, and a welcome change from the Roebling works in Trenton, which were sporadically disrupted by strikes. To further discourage anyone from forming a union, the Roeblings imported most of its hands from Eastern Europe, whose teeming masses were thankful just for a job at 12 cents an hour. "The workers were coming from depressed areas of the old country. In Roebling, they had a job, they had a home, they had a backyard where they could grow vegetables — it was the nearest thing to being in heaven."

These men worked hard. For 12-hour shifts, in an era when air conditioning hadn't been invented, they tended open-hearth furnaces as 1,000-degree molten steel came rushing out. They pushed around handcars bearing tons of material. Occasionally, they lost a limb to the heavy machinery. "One of the biggest problems was their shoes wore out so quickly," said Clifford Zink, a historian of the Roebling company. "There was so much stuff on the floor — dirt, grease, scrap. And it must have felt unbearably hot on the feet."

The '30s and '40s were the high point for Roebling the company and Roebling the town. The Blue Centers, a semipro football team featuring husky mill workers, was the pride of the town. The plant made the wire rope used to hold up the Golden Gate and George Washington bridges. World War II and military contracts brought employment up to 5,000. But after the war, the company began to slowly contract. First, it sold off all its houses to the workers. In 1952, the company sold out to Colorado Fuel and Iron Inc. Finally, in 1974, CFI closed down the plants in both Roebling and Trenton, leaving behind a sprawling wasteland of 70 empty buildings.

Today, Roebling is a bedroom community of 3,800 whose industrial might belongs to the past — in the form of tourist brochures, walking tours and reunions of the plant workers. Florence Township and the state and federal governments have sunk $20 million into an environmental cleanup. When complete, it could become a marina or retail store complex, said township Mayor George Sampson. Whatever it becomes, Sampson — a former wire-rope inspector at the plant — said he is determined that Gate No. 1 remains and becomes a museum to Roebling's industrial history. "Roebling, as a village, has to move on," Sampson said. "But we don't have to forget where we came from...and for those of us who worked at the plant, we'll always be family."

For more South Jersey History, visit our History page.

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Author: R. Cohen


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