Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Visiting our favorite Easter Peeps*: the Piping plovers

Easter seemed like the perfect day for a trip to Sandy Hook for the annual nesting season of the Piping plover. It was a beautiful day, breezes on the shore were soft and reasonably warm, and, well, who doesn't like a good Peep?

These impossibly cute shorebirds return to New Jersey every spring to mate and raise their young, and Sandy Hook is one of their favorite breeding spots. In fact, they were the mascots, of sorts, of New Jersey Audubon's late, great Sandy Hook Bird Observatory, which used to sell t-shirts emblazoned with the plover. (As an aside, the shirt was a great conversation starter in Hawaii, scoring me a few pointers for locating the endangered Nene goose.)

Piping Plover adult. U.S. Geological Survey/photo by Susan Haig.
Besides their overall loveableness, Piping plovers deserve our regard as a federally threatened species, with fewer than 2000 breeding pairs in the Atlantic population. Over-development along the shoreline and indiscriminate human behavior on the beach are among the biggest perils to these little guys, so state and federal parks are usually the best places to find them. It's always good to see them return in the spring, and every successful brood is cause for celebration.

The top of the hook -- North Beach and above -- is generally a reliable place to find the plovers, which means a hike along Fisherman's Trail. It's a good workout, tromping a sandy path over small dunes and mounds that shift below your feet. Who needs the gym?

Neither Ivan nor I had been to the end of the trail since Hurricane Sandy came through, but the beach seemed to be in pretty decent shape. Inland from the water's edge, a wide expanse of sand was cordoned off for the explicit use of nesting protected birds. As always, a variety of gulls was making their presence known in the sky above and on the beach. American oystercatchers were easy to find, their orange bills and dark backs and heads contrasting nicely with the sand.

The plovers, not so much.

Imagine trying to find a tiny bird, the color of wet sand with some white thrown in, on a damp beach strewn with shell shards. It ain't easy. On the plus side, it gives you a real respect for the power of camouflage. But you're left scanning yards and yards of what looks like empty beach, hoping to detect some movement that's not a stray piece of paper or plastic fluttering in the breeze.

Some knowledge of their habits helped us eliminate part of the beach right off the bat. We figured they'd make themselves scarce among the gulls and oystercatchers, both of which are known to dine on plover eggs and chicks. Passing a good stretch of sand, we got to some yardage seemingly free of all life but for random dune grass in the distance. And then... there was movement.

They weren't easy to focus on, but about a half dozen plovers were rushing among the beach detritus, looking like house hunters power-walking to the next real estate listing. We felt reasonably sure they were still checking out neighborhoods, because the usual unmistakable signs of nesting weren't yet there.

The thing about Piping plovers is that depending on the time of season, the nests can either be near impossible to locate, or darn easy. Unlike the construction of twigs or grass that most birds generally use, plovers' nests are pretty much just uncushioned scrapes in the ground, their mottled tan and white eggs laying in a slight depression that might be decorated with shells or pebbles as camo. That makes them almost invisible. If the area wasn't cordoned off, folks might mistakenly step on a nest without realizing it.

Ironically, it's the benign hand of man that makes the nests easy for birders to find. On Sandy Hook, for example, the National Park Service reserves parts of ocean-facing beaches with regulations and signage to keep the birds from being harassed. The dunes are roped off from March 15 through Labor Day, and visitors are reminded that dogs are allowed only on the bay-facing beaches, where the plovers don't nest.

If you wait long enough in the season, your search for Piping plovers is aided by the large chicken-wire structures the Park Service erects around the nests the birds create on the beach. The holes in these exclosures are large enough to allow the plovers to leave easily to forage for food, while being too small to allow predators in. Raccoons, cats, skunks and foxes are all known to go for plover eggs and chicks.

Piping plovers generally lay clutches of two to four eggs, which hatch in about 25 days. Born with pinfeathers, the chicks are mobile almost immediately and will follow their parents around as they graze for food. In about another month, the youngsters will be ready to fly, provided they survive predation. Parents will feign a broken wing to distract predators from the nest, as the little ones lay motionless in the sand, nearly invisible thanks to their camouflage. That's not to say that Piping plovers won't stand up for themselves. Other birds who approach the nest will be chased, bitten or pecked, possibly leaving an enduring injury.

Like us humans, plovers are generally off the beach by the middle of September. They often gather in groups in quiet staging areas before heading south to the gulfshore and beyond. For now, though, they're counting on us to share the beach with them as they start another generation of adorable birds.

*Technically, Piping plovers aren't included among the shorebirds generally categorized as "peeps" by birders. Those would be a certain group of Sandpipers. I just couldn't resist the Marshmallow Peeps reference.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Inclined to love the Morris Canal: technology and archaeology at the Jim and Mary Lee Museum

It's not often my mind gets blown on a Hidden New Jersey jaunt. We see a lot of wonderful things and meet many interesting people in our travels, but it's rare that a visit to one place gets me so excited that I don't know where to start the story. This is one of those instances.

It started a couple of weeks ago, when I traveled Route 57 through Warren County to find remnants of the old Morris Canal. Once-busy port towns revealed small pieces of their past, while a wrong turn outside of Montana brought me to a lonely stretch of the canal hidden in the woods of Scott's Mountain. As interesting as it all was, something was missing: the actual mechanical workings of the canal. Without that, you're just looking at a series of long ditches. Yeah, they're historical, but they show no indication of why the Morris Canal was such a big deal.

And it was a big deal, and still is now, 90 years after it went out of business. You see, to traverse its 102 mile run across north-central New Jersey, the Morris Canal had to surmount a total altitude change of 1674 feet (760 feet up from Phillipsburg to Lake Hopatcong, and then down 914 feet from the Lake to Jersey City). Canals generally use locks to float watercraft to a higher altitude or down to a lower one, as the Delaware and Raritan Canal did to overcome its 55 foot altitude change.

Having to manage a lot of height in a relatively short range, the engineers designing the Morris had to come up with something much different. Sure, they built locks to handle the smaller elevation rises, but the really pronounced peaks and valleys were addressed with a system of inclined planes that made the Morris a technological marvel for its time.

Plane 9W is just 4.5 miles from the canal's start in Phillipsburg.
The inclined plane is essentially a big ramp with machinery that pulls the canal boat up or down a ramp and deposits it back in the canal at the other end. To start, the boat would be floated onto a cradle car that acted as a little train, hauled on tracks by steel cable wound through a pulley system. The whole thing was powered by water shunted from the canal, through an elevated flume, into a powerhouse and down a 47-foot tall chute to a large turbine. Leaving by way of an underground tail race, the water would be returned to the canal, so nothing was lost.

Each inclined plane (and there were 23 of them over the route of the canal) did the work of the many locks that would be needed to make up for that degree of altitude change. The vast majority are gone now, some having been paved over as roads like Plane Street in Boonton.

Plane 9W's reaction-type or "Scotch" turbine was designated
a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark in 1979.
The technology would have been left for history texts had it not been for a man named Jim Lee. Just after World War II, he bought the Stewartsville property on which plane 9W had stood, including the plane tender's house and remnants of the sleeper stones and cable which had been part of the site's apparatus. While the 100 foot tall incline was still there, the wooden flume and powerhouse had been demolished by the State, and much of the debris was tossed into the underground shafts, burying the turbine.

Jim, his family and friends set to work excavating the workings over the course of many years, clearing out the turbine chamber and finding scores of artifacts. In the process, Jim became the foremost expert on the Morris Canal, welcoming visitors to check out the old plane and turbine room. Though he died in 2007, his family continues to share the story on the property, which is now a Warren County park. They make special arrangements for school groups and the like, but it's open to the general public only seven times a year, on the second Sunday of the month, from April to October.

The 5.5 foot circumference tailrace took water from the turbine
back out to the canal at the lower end of the plane.
There's so much that makes the site cool that I barely know where to start. First off, it's absolutely mind blowing to consider the love and dedication behind Jim's work to unearth and share the story of Plane 9W and the Morris Canal. It's a huge testament to what a motivated history lover can do if he or she puts energy and persistence into gear. For someone to rescue a historic site on his own initiative, and then open it to others -- well, that takes a special person.

Next, there's the interpretation of the site. We were fortunate to get a tour from Jim's grandson, Jim Lee III, who's an industrial archaeologist when he's not educating people about the canal. First sharing the history and rationale for building the canal (a story for a future Hidden New Jersey entry), he led us through the technology behind the inclined plane in a way that revealed the ingenuity behind the designers' solution to a tough problem. Even if you're mechanically challenged, you'll come away with a clear understanding and a huge respect for the canal's builders.

A portion of the steel tow cable.
And finally, there's the ground you cover during the tour. Jim brought us through the stone-lined tailrace tunnel to see the turbine underground that powered the plane's tow rope, and then to the top of the plane to inspect the sleeper stones that once acted as a bed for the cradle car rails. Remnants of the steel tow cable snake through the grass, rusted but still looking very strong. At every stop along the way, Jim gave us insights about life on the canal and its impact on the communities it traveled through.

The last stop on the tour is the Jim and Mary Lee Museum, a room within the plane tender's house. While plenty of artifacts and photos are on display, I have to say my favorite was the conch that once belonged to Mary Lee's grandfather, who was one of her many relatives to work on the canal. Sea snail shells may seem out of place in western New Jersey, but they were a common sight along the Morris. Barge crew would sound the conch's trombone-like note to alert lock and plane tenders of their imminent arrival. As Jim demonstrated, they make quite a commanding sound when you blow into one end.

As an appreciator of all things innovative in New Jersey, I found it heartening to see how many people stopped by to visit Plane 9 and the museum during the hour or so that we were there. Such an important site, interpreted so well, deserves a large audience. If you'd like to visit or arrange a tour for a group, check out the Morris Canal website for more information.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Waiting out a rarity: the Neotropic cormorant in Clinton

It's been a while since Ivan and I have gone for a good "chase" bird, making a trip to see a species that rarely, if ever, shows up in New Jersey. Probably the most recent one was the Snowy owl that showed up on Sandy Hook last November, starting a season of almost commonplace sightings of the usually-rare visitor. And, of course, the awful weather this winter was enough to discourage the most ardent birder from striking out to find unique species.

Spring, however, has brought more reliable weather and an end to hibernation. In fact, we were enjoying an unusually warm series of days that seemed to enliven both nature and our fellow New Jerseyans. It was in that spirit that we heard about a Neotropic cormorant that was visiting Clinton.

To put it succinctly, this guy is way out of his usual range. Neotropics are usually found closer to the Gulf of Mexico, in Texas or perhaps south of the border. Instead, for reasons unknown, this fella made a right turn somewhere and made it to a scenic town on the South Branch of the Raritan River. Perhaps he wanted to get a look at Clinton's picturesque and historic red mill, which shows up on many of the state tourist brochures. Regardless of his intent, he appears to represent the first recorded sighting of his species in the Garden State.

The discovery of "Neo," as some have been calling him, highlights the wisdom of birding your local patch. Though the reservoir in Spruce Run Recreation Area is within easy flying range, the bird had chosen a nightly roost at a pond in Demott Park, just off Route 78 near a Holiday Inn on the edge of town. A few days after the initial sighting, other birders reported seeing Neo downtown, sightseeing near the mill. A favorite spot for human fishing enthusiasts, that part of the river must be a good place for the corm to grab a meal, too.

The Neotropic cormorant at Clinton (many thanks
 to Lisa Fanning, This Great Planet, for use of the
When we first got to town Sunday morning, both sites were discouragingly free of birders. The river at the mill site was overrun with waders-clad men, not exactly an ideal situation for a cormorant. With directions from some friendly firefighters, we made our way to Demott Park, but Neo wasn't there, either. We saw lots of geese and the usual Mallards, but not the bird we were looking for. Once or twice, a Double-crested cormorant flew high overhead, momentarily getting our hopes up. After about an hour, we cut our losses and headed to Spruce Run, figuring we'd return to Clinton if time allowed. Perhaps we could come back to catch a glimpse of Neo as he settled in for the night.

Returning around 4 p.m., we were among the first birders to arrive for what has become a nightly vigil at the pond. Others streamed in as the sun started sinking in the sky, many having made lengthy detours from excursions to birding hotspots around the state. We stayed alert to the possibility that Neo would make a fly-by or perhaps perch in the tree in the center of the pond, but mostly we traded notes on the other species we'd seen during the day and the latest developments at our favorite birding spots.

We noticed something else as we waited, too: this local patch yields a nice variety of waterfowl, with Gadwall, Green-winged teal and Bufflehead joining the usual Mallards and Canada geese. I later discovered the site is on one of the New Jersey Birding and Wildlife Trails and attracts even more ducks during the winter, as long as the pond doesn't freeze. As if to prove why a cormorant would find the park so attractive, a few fish sallied from the water.

As the glare of the setting sun faded to a glow behind the hills, tension began to build. Would Neo come to roost for the night before it became too dark to see him clearly? We'd all been very patient, but the zero hour was quickly approaching. Was it possible that he'd moved on to another location, leaving birders to hope he'd be re-spotted wherever he'd chosen for his new grounds?

And then... the cormorant came flying in, directly over our heads and gliding in a broad curve to approach his roosting tree in the center of the pond. If I didn't know better, I'd think he was making a grand entrance for our benefit. After taking a quick look to confirm the identification, birders picked themselves and their spotting scopes up and moved 90 degrees around the water's edge to get a better-lit view. I lagged behind, taking a longer look to seal the image in my mind before I changed positions.

To me, the size and shape of the bird proved this wasn't a Double-crested or Great cormorant, the two species that normally spend time in New Jersey. The Clinton visitor's tail was too long, his body too slim to be either of those in my eyes. And his feathers have a lovely chocolate tint, indicating youth. You might remember a previous post on cormorants, in which I compared one of their typical poses to that of Bela Lugosi. Well, if Lugosi's Dracula had had a grandchild, the Neotropical cormorant would be it.

Just as I was getting my view reset on him, the bird took flight, giving us all the chance to view his wingspan and another perspective of his comparatively dainty structure. Setting down again, the bird took to preening and occasionally extended his wings in the Dracula pose. The only thing we didn't get to see was his fishing maneuver, but he was probably full from wherever he'd spent the day, swimming and eating.

The origin of the Neo and his reasons for coming to New Jersey are already being debated by those who study birds for a living. Regardless of how he got here, I'm glad to have had the opportunity to see him here in the Garden State.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Visiting the range of lighthouses: Conover Beacon and Chapel Hill Light

Beyond the aids to navigation that are still operating (and a few that are far off shore, like Ship John Shoal) New Jersey is home to a number of decommissioned lighthouses that are, alas, no longer lit. The Monmouth County bayshore, for example, once hosted lights at Keansburg and Leonardo, right on the waterfront. On a recent ride home from Sandy Hook, I made the spur-of-the-moment decision to seek out the Conover Beacon and the Chapel Hill Lighthouse.

There's a good reason why I chose to look for both on the same trip. The pair once worked together as range lights to help guide ships through the Chapel Hill channel west of Sandy Hook. Ship captains would look for both lights -- Conover at sea level in Leonardo and Chapel Hill more than 200 feet up in the Navesink Highlands -- and when the lights lined up one directly above the other, the sailor knew he'd successfully guided his craft into the safety of the channel. Two additional sets were constructed, at Keansburg and New Dorp, Staten Island, around the same time, for the same purpose.

Water-side Conover Beacon was going to be the easier one to find, if it was still there at all. The area was hard hit by Hurricane Sandy, and the neighborhood close to the waterfront still shows signs of rebuilding. Having not done my homework before making the trip, I didn't know how tall the beacon was, or exactly where it was, and I wasn't seeing any indication of a tall tower anywhere. When I made it all the way to Leonardo Harbor without finding the beacon, I feared it had been washed to sea in Sandy's 10-foot-plus-high storm surges.

Then I turned around. Retracing my path and heading along Beach Avenue I found it: a 45-foot tall white and red capped metal tube braced with a skeleton frame. Conover Beacon is a bit battered, pushed off its base by Sandy, but it's still standing. The beach around it still looks rather storm-tossed, with broken concrete strewn nearby.

The original light, a hexagonal wooden tower and keeper's house, was built in 1856 on land purchased a few years earlier from Rulif Conover. Ironically, the first keeper's name was Marsh L. Mount, a moniker that you might say foreshadowed the fate of the ill-conceived tower. After a few years, the wood at the base of the tower started to rot in the damp seaside environment, and the light had to be braced with metal mounts. Design flaws extended to the tower's white/red/white daymarks, which became confusing to sailors when the beach was covered in snow. To improve visibility from sea, the Lighthouse Board erected 25-foot tall black screens on either side of the beacon.

The beacon itself is no stranger to moving, having previously served at Point Comfort in Keansburg as the front end of the Waackaack Range Light system. When the wooden Conover structure was retired in 1941, Keansburg gave up the Point Comfort tower (some in town are apparently still a bit sore about that), which was moved four miles westward.

Most likely, the beacon would have met the same fate had it not moved at all. The Coast Guard deactivated Conover Light in 1957, and it's sat quietly on the beach since then, reportedly the last tower of its type still in existence. Various sources note that property ownership was transferred to Monmouth County in 2004, and a friends organization was assembled to manage and hopefully restore the beacon, but it appears that beyond a new coat of paint several years ago, not much has been done.  

Conover's partner, Chapel Hill Lighthouse, has fared much better in the intervening years, its location and design working heavily in its favor. Constructed in 1856 on what was once known as High Point, Chapel Hill Light stands more than 150 feet above sea level, giving its lantern room an impressive 224 foot altitude over the bay. The design was rather plain -- a rectangular house about two stories high, with a square tower rising in the middle to accommodate the light. Painted white, it suffered the same "invisibility" complaints as its Conover partner: sailors couldn't discern it from surrounding snow in the winter. Rather than painting the house a different color, the Lighthouse Board erected black screens on either side of the house, just as it did at Conover.

Chapel Hill Lighthouse is now a private home, obscured
by trees, though I'll bet that rusting fence is original to the
days when the government owned the property.
Aside from the snow issue and expected storm damage from time to time, Chapel Hill Light seems to have had a reasonably reliable tenure until it was decommissioned and replaced with an adjacent steel tower beacon in 1957.

The next chapter of Chapel Hill Light's history is a classic case of the ideal property finding the right buyer. When the Government Services Administration auctioned the site, the winning bidder was a man who bought the property for his son, an amateur astronomer. Natural altitude and the towering lantern room looked like an ideal place to gaze into the stars.

Nearly 60 years and several owners later, the lighthouse stands quietly in the affluent neighborhood that's grown around it. Hidden behind landscaping and accessible only by a long, gated drive, it's clearly not looking for visitors, and I respected that when I found it. My research revealed a virtual tour on the website of a contractor who's done some work to enlarge and update the house, showing it's being well cared for. Whether the lantern room is used for any specific purpose is anyone's guess, but I think you'll agree that Chapel Hill Light is in good hands.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Beauty after the encampment: Bernardsville's Cross estate

Morristown National Historical Park is deceptively large, holding surprises for those who go beyond the obvious to seek out the entirety of its acreage. Sure, you've got the Ford Mansion that was Washington's headquarters during the two winters the Continental forces were stationed in town, and property on a hill not far away held fortifications later known as Fort Nonsense. Farther outside town, Jockey Hollow dramatizes the legend of Tempe Wick and the tribulations faced by the Pennsylvania brigade during the harsh winter of 1779-1780.

To get a true sense of the enormity of the Morristown encampment, you need to do a bit of driving. The National Park Service makes no secret of the fact that over 10,000 soldiers were stationed there during the worst winter, but it's easy to overlook the fact that Jockey Hollow wasn't the only spot they took up. Troops were spread out for miles. Our own spiritual forebears, the New Jersey Brigade, endured the winter about two miles away from Jockey Hollow, on a steep plot of land in what's now Bernardsville. You might say that beggars couldn't be choosers when it came to a campsite: the 900 men were among the last to get to the encampment in 1779, arriving on December 17. Rapidly building shelter for the winter, they moved into their cabins on Christmas Day.

Even in the earliest days of spring, visitors can imagine the beauty
of Cross estate gardens 
When I went to check it out, I found another interesting, yet more recent treasure: the Cross estate gardens.

Bedminster is known as one of Somerset County's more affluent communities, and when you take Jockey Hollow Road to get to the encampment site, you get an eyeful of why. A series of large estates is nestled in what became known as the Mountain Colony of the town, a place where wealthy city dwellers could escape the stresses of urban life. (Check out this map for perspective on just how popular the area became around the turn of the 20th century.)

Land surrounding the New Jersey Brigade campsite was purchased in 1903 by civil engineer John Anderson Bensel and his wife. A graduate of Stevens Institute of Technology, Bensel held a series of jobs that had him working around water, including chief engineer for the New York City Dock Department. While building a 23-room stone mansion for himself and his wife, he applied his professional acumen to providing water for the property. The product, a five-story high stone water tower, remains as a landmark of sorts on the property, though it's no longer topped by the windmill or ringed by balconies Bensel designed.

Lighthouse in the hills?
No, a water tower.
Alterations on the structures came with the second owners, W. Redmond and Julia Appleton Newbold Cross, who purchased the property in 1929. For many years the president of the New York Horticultural Society, Mrs. Cross is credited with improving the gardens, in concert with regionally-known landscape architect Clarence Fowler.

Much of the estate was purchased by the Park Service in 1975 as a buffer to protect the New Jersey Brigade encampment from possible future development. However, the formal English-style gardens the Crosses had cherished continued to lay untended and overgrown, as the NPS had no resources to care for or cultivate them. Fortunately, local residents came together to rediscover the paths, walls and borders, trimming back the overgrowth and replacing what specimens had been lost. The gardens are now much as they were in the 30's and 40's.

When I visited, the grounds still held a few small mounds of persistent snow, and there was little evidence of an awakening garden. Even on that cloudy early spring day, though, I could see the garden has real potential. It's beautifully laid out with a view of the Watchungs, backed with a wide, vine-entangled pergola. Well-placed benches offer a pleasing spot to sit and take in the sights and smells of flowering plants. Walking between rows of shrubbery, I enjoyed the aroma of damp boxwood plants, always the hallmark (for me, at least), of a historic garden. It would be the perfect place for a genteel afternoon tea, or simply as a spot to rest and meditate after a long hike from Jockey Hollow.

We'll be sure to return when the greenery has returned.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

A truly Revolutionary doctor: Warren County's Peggy Warne

World War II brought us Rosie the Riveter, the fictional female defense worker who represented hundreds of thousands of real women who took jobs in industry to replace men who were called to war. "Rosies" around the country not only relieved a critical labor shortage, they proved that women were capable of taking on what had been considered "men's" work.

While Rosie is a lasting icon of the mid 20th century, there's no similar character to represent the women who ably filled the labor gap during earlier conflicts. Sure, Mary Ludwig Hays became known as Molly Pitcher when she took up the cannon in place of her injured husband at the Battle of Monmouth, but what of the women who didn't serve in combat? For the most part, one has to dig into history books, study roadside markers or scour graveyards to find them.

Warren County's Peggy Warne is a classic example.

A member of one of New Jersey's oldest families, Margrietje Vliet was born sometime between 1746 and 1751 in Six Mile Run (now part of Franklin Township), Somerset County. The Vliet family had already been in the New World for nearly a century by then, having emigrated from Holland to Flatbush, Long Island when the territory was still in the hands of the Dutch.

In her mid twenties, Peggy married Joseph Warne, grandson of one of the original proprietors of East Jersey (for a quick primer on the proprietors, check out this story. Suffice to say, the Warnes had lived in New Jersey for quite some time.). Joseph's father George gave the young couple 130 acres of farmland in what was then Mansfield-Woodhouse, Sussex County, now Broadway, Warren County.

The Warnes had a total of nine children -- six daughters and three sons -- but Peggy still had time to serve as midwife for the community. At the time, helping mothers through childbirth was the exclusive domain of women; doctors didn't handle pregnancies or deliveries, and few physicians lived in the sparsely-populated area, anyway.

When colonists began rebelling against British rule, both the Vliet and Warne families took up the cause. Peggy's father served as a captain under General William "Scotch Willie" Maxwell during the Revolution, while five of her brothers served in various ranks of the New Jersey Militia. While it's not clear whether Joseph Warnes fought in the war, three of his brothers did, leaving little doubt that he supported the patriot cause one way or another.

Peggy couldn't take up arms with so many children at home, but she could do the next best thing. Expanding her existing medical practice, she assumed the role of country doctor, caring for neighbors with ailments well beyond her usual obstetrical duties. According to Hunterdon County historian James Snell, "she not only practiced in her own neighborhood, but kept a horse ready night and day and rode into the surrounding country, through Warren and Hunterdon Counties, undeterred by rain, hail or drifting snow." Some accounts even credit her with tending to soldiers injured in battle, perhaps after they'd returned home.

Whether she did or didn't handle combat wounds, Peggy Warne definitely was an able replacement for doctors who'd left their local practices to join the Continental Army or New Jersey Militia. She's credited as being the first physician at the community now known as Broadway, and she continued her obstetrical practice well into the 1800s. The Phillipsburg chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution is named in her honor.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Edison's New Village cement plant -- finally found!

I really should have known.

I've driven on Thomas Edison's Concrete Mile many times over the past few years, knowing his Portland cement plant wasn't far away. The inventor laid this stretch of State Highway 57 in 1912 to test the effectiveness of concrete as a paving material, yet another of the experiments he was constantly performing to perfect his products.

For as many Edison sites as I’ve tracked down, and for as many concrete houses as I’ve found over the years, I’d never located the exact site of the factory. I’d always left it for another day, passing through the community on my way to check out a lead on another story.

On the recent Route 57 trip, I decided to take a gander. A good practice in directed exploring is to look for the right names, as streets were often named for the people who lived there or the businesses that were located along them. Thus, once I saw Edison Road in Stewartsville, I took the turn. Couldn't hurt.

Older buildings and homes near the intersection with 57 soon gave way to side streets lined with houses of more recent vintage, and eventually farm fields. The road coursed under an aged railroad overpass, and as it curved, a large concrete building stood almost directly in front of me. The company sign in front of it is of recent vintage, but the factory definitely looked as if it could be over a century old. Driving further, I saw evidence of other structures that had once stood nearby but were now pretty much in ruins.

Yup, I'd found the last used and perhaps best-preserved portion of the Edison Portland Cement plant. The business was, to use a well-known bromide, the lemonade to the lemon which had been his iron ore concentrating business in Ogdensburg. Though he lost about $2 million trying to manufacture high-quality iron, he’d recouped some money by selling the byproduct - pulverized rock – to cement companies as an ingredient in their product. Seeing an opportunity, he moved the rock crushing equipment from Sussex Mountain to lime-rich Warren County and started his own Portland cement company.

The 1600 acre, 60-building facility grew to include the existing factory, lime crushers and a large rail yard to transport finished product out to market. Per his practice of innovating within whatever industry he focused on, Edison introduced a long rotary kiln at Stewartsville that he soon licensed to other manufacturers. Ironically, the design made cement production so economical that it was difficult to make a profit.

Back in the day, the Edison Portland Cement plant
was considerably bigger than today's remains would suggest
Contrary to popular belief, Edison didn't do very much of his own construction through his cement business, aside from some test pourings of a garage and potting shed at his Llewellen Park home and a couple of houses in Essex County. He was more interested in selling molds and cement to others to build the pre-fab homes. Charles Ingersoll, for one, constructed several houses in Phillipsburg and Union for working class laborers.

The most notable use of Edison Portland cement, however, stood on 161st Street in the Bronx. Yankee Stadium may have been the House that Ruth Built, but it was actually poured thanks to the Wizard of Menlo Park. It's said that during the stadium's renovation in the early 1970s, the concrete stubbornly refused to budge, and was left intact.

A concrete ruin aside Edison Road. What was it? We don't know.
At its peak, the plant employed over 600 workers, some of whom commuted from as far away as Easton. Eventually, though, it and the nearby Vulcanite Company had pretty much depleted what limestone in the area that could be economically accessed. The plant shut down in 1935 and went out of business for good in 1942.

The present occupant of the plant building has been there since 1975, operating profitably among ruins of the other structures that once served the Edison operation. What those concrete slabs were intended for isn't clear, but those visible from the road stand as testament to Edison's tenacity. They may not be as perfect as they were when first poured a hundred years ago, but I'd venture they'd be pretty hard to demolish.