Deciphering the Industrial Landscape
"Industrial heritage is not something to be ashamed of or discarded"
NEWARK, N.J.: Confronted with the dolorous industrial flatlands that stretch away to the south of Newark, New Jersey, most tourists would agree with the visitor who characterized the area as miles and miles of “robot vomit.” But it is a paradise to members of the Society for Industrial Archeology. This organization of historians, architects, engineers, and other enthusiasts recently took a one-day bus trip through industrial New Jersey to visit places that any other tour would want to avoid. I went along.
The 1,400-member society was formed in 1971, and the tour was part of this year’s three-day annual conference in Newark. For many members, the organization’s most important function is to sponsor “process tours,” conducted several times a year at historic industrial and engineering sites all over the country. But the SIA is also involved with documenting and preserving these sites, activities it records in a quarterly newsletter and a journal, IA.
As one SIA member, Eric DeLony, of the Historic American Engineering Record, in Washington, D.C., explains it: “We’re going to the armpits of the nation to tell them that their industrial heritage is not something to be ashamed of or discarded. The old industries have the potential for putting cities back on the map.”
The tour began as our bus lurched away from the Quality Inn in downtown Newark and our guide, Terry Karschner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, immediately began a running commentary on the view out the window. On our left was the raised railway of the Ironbound section; on the other side, the factory of Krementz & Company, once the maker of 99 percent of all American collar buttons. As we passed one of the world’s first Breyer’s ice-cream plants and the Lambert Hoisting Engine Company, my companions drank it in. Dressed for the field and armed with cameras and binoculars, they could have been any group of tourists —except for the hard hats some had brought along.
We were traveling, Karschner informed us, along Route 21, a 1930s urbanrenewal project also known as McCarter Highway. When a Manhattan-bound PATH train passed alongside, there was a noticeable stir of interest on board the bus. Then the Amtrak Metroliner hove into view and surged by to a chorus of appreciative oohs and ahs. These people were not merely observers or catalogers of the urban industrial scene, but true connoisseurs. With names, dates, scraps of information, and odd trivia ringing down the aisles, the tour was under way.
The McCarter Highway feeds into the New Jersey Turnpike just north of Newark International Airport. As we rode by, we were told of the airport’s significant past—it had the first hard-surfaced runway of any commercial airport in the nation in 1928 and began the first commercial transcontinental air service in 1930. Later, night lighting, air traffic control, radio transmittal from land to air, and instrument flying were all introduced there. And until 1930 it was the busiest airport in the world.
On the other side of the New Jersey Turnpike lies the 1,800-acre Port Newark/Port Elizabeth Port Authority Marine Terminal—the world’s largest container terminal. Its success illustrates the superiority of containment—shipping cargo in standard-sized twenty- or forty-foot-long containers—over the traditional method of shipping in bulk. One result of standardization, as the supervisor of Port Operations, Tom Morrow, observed, is that “if you’ve seen one container terminal, you’ve seen them all.”
The most striking part of the terminal is the “fields”—big stretches of land for storing noncontainerized cargo. In one of these, neat piles of steel billets were spread out over twenty-three acres. Next came forty-five acres of stacked lumber, and then a field studded with huge cylinders of heating oil. Most impressive of all were the car fields, which on that day held acres of gleaming new Jaguars and Volvos.
Bananas are the single largest commodity to come into the terminal. The banana pier has especially high security because, as Morrow put it, “bananas aren’t the only South American import,” but after some negotiation our bus entered the area. Ever since longshoremen complained of finding snakes and spiders in bulk banana shipments, bananas from South America have come prepacked in forty-pound boxes. Though we were there during unloading, I did not see a single banana anywhere.
Someone spotted a forklift, and there was a short debate over what kind it was—it turned out to be a standard, which scoops its prey, not a top handler, which grabs it from above. The make of the machine remained a mystery, but in general, someone could be counted on to come up with almost any information. A tugboat in Elizabeth Channel was instantly identified as a Moran by its black stack. (The other big towing company, McAllister, paints its tugs red and white.)
The terminal handles over 1.5 million containers a year and hasn’t lost one yet—a record it maintains by imposing massive amounts of paperwork on everything that comes into the port and by requiring multiple security checks before anything leaves. Last year, however, a few containers were lost at sea simply by sliding off ships’ decks.
As Morrow climbed off the bus at the terminal’s administration building, he left us with a thought on the future of the containment industry: it can only grow. “If everyone in China gets a headache,” he pointed out, “that’s a lot of aspirin.” And aspirin bottles fit into containers.
After a lunch break at Branch Brook Park, an Olmsted-designed oasis amid the squalor of Newark, we set off on the one part of our journey that an ordinary traveler would be likely to enjoy—the Edison National Historic Site, in West Orange. Built in 1887, this cluster of buildings is regarded as the first modern industrial research lab, where, with the aid of sixty-odd employees, Edison developed the first successful motion-picture camera, an improved phonograph, and the long-life alkaline battery.
Back aboard the bus, we headed for Littleton Avenue and the Wiss Company. Founded in 1848, the company installed power drop hammers for hot-forging steel shears, scissors, and snips in 1907.
It is not a quiet process. Armed with earplugs, our group stood amid the din of the forging area and watched as the 500- to 3,000-pound hammers, each operated by a single man, pounded steel rods into cast-iron dies.
Several blows would produce a flat strip up to two feet long that bore the imprint of a nascent pair of scissors or shears. While we watched, one of the workmen found something wrong with his piece and let it spin off behind him onto the floor. The SIA spectators, until now eyeing these events from a wary distance, converged on the glowing morsel as if a gold coin had been thrown into their midst. The deformed object was scrutinized for its flaw—or perhaps simply for the intrinsic interest of a thing in mid-creation.
An unusual tour bounces through New Jersey’s manufacturing past— and present.
There is no such thing as a dull landscape in the world of industrial archeology. Plunging on toward Muhammad Ali Boulevard we passed a vacant lot where an enormous, burned-out television set had been appropriated by locals for use as a card table. “That’s an example of adaptive reuse!” one of my bus companions cried, speaking in the idiom of industrial archeology. The appraisal was enthusiastically seconded.
Our jaunt was capped by what was listed on the tour brochure as the “Jersey Bounce” and described as an “hour-long loop by bus through those complexes of refineries, chemical plants, truck and railroad yards, container ports, transportation networks, heavy industrial remains, and chemical- and human-waste processing plants which most of us have only seen (and smelled) from on high—that is, from the Jersey Turnpike.”
With these enticements, the group set out at the foot of the Port Elizabeth pier. As it turned out, the Bounce had been aptly named: our bus’s shocks were no match for the potholes in Doremus Avenue, a strip of highway leading from the Jersey Turnpike Extension straight into the heart of the scrapyards, sewage disposal plants, and other landmarks of so-called Chemical Beach. On our left the Oak Island Yards offered the grisly remains of trashed automobiles; farther along was a more unsettling vision of severed fronts of buses, piled into towers.
With the Passaic River narrowing on our right, the Pulaski Skyway loomed into view. This three-mile-long viaduct, running between Newark and Jersey City, was built, according to Karschner, “to connect the Holland Tunnel with the rest of the world.” When completed in 1932, the bridge was the longest of its kind anywhere. The historian Carl Condit later praised it for revealing the “potential grace” of the cantilever truss.
Veering away from a snarl of rotaries around the Turnpike Interchange, we crossed the Passaic into Kearny by way of a 1935 vertical lift bridge. Now on Central Avenue, we drove by the first Ford factory in the East and a recently defunct Western Electric plant. North of the Skyway the 1926 Kearny Generating Station commanded attention with its colonnaded service building and forest of chimney stacks. Small quantities of coal are still burned here.
Not to be missed were the famous burning garbage dumps that lie just north of Kearny Point; they have smoldered continuously for twenty years. We were also introduced to some more recent geological phenomena, the “all-new” Secaucus Alps—landfills that rear up from the marshland along the Hackensack River. Three of these squareshouldered mounds have lately become known as Mount Trashmore, Mount Hoffa, and Mount Byrne.
After sweeping down toward Harrison, where the sun was just beginning to set over the Conrail train yards, we made our final stop of the day at the Campbell Foundry, which has been in operation since 1921. The place was deserted, but fresh castings were piled high outside the doors—layers of warm manhole covers stamped with the names of city sewer systems, and brand new street gratings, many of them still clogged with black casting sand. Standing on the edge of New Jersey’s industrial frontier, I derived a peculiar kind of comfort from the thought of human feet treading on these quietly steaming objects.