Friday, February 11, 2011

Solid as a rock

The Phillipsburg jaunt deserves a bit more discussion on several fronts, but given that today is Thomas Edison’s birthday, we’ll talk a bit about his link to the area. Oddly enough, it’s because of Edison that we found the Barber School.

You see, among Edison’s 1093 patents are a few related to a proprietary formulation of Portland cement, and the great inventor actually built a cement factory in New Village, New Jersey, just a few miles from P’burg. Originally the machinery had been used in his failed iron ore mining enterprise farther north in Ogdensburg; it proved ideal in the manufacture of cement.

The cement venture wasn’t exactly profitable until the company received a massive order for the construction of the original Yankee Stadium in the early 1920’s. Until then, Edison continually thought of new uses for the product, a few of which are still extant in the Phillipsburg area.

The first is the Concrete Mile, a stretch of NJ Route 57 in Stewartsville. Built in 1912, this was an experiment to see if Portland cement would hold up as a road surface. Indeed it does; this stretch has done quite well, though it’s occasionally patched by crews using more cement.

The second is the concrete house. Few realize it, but Edison had a vision of creating affordable housing well before people like William Levitt. It was simple: erect a pre-fabricated mold that could include all of the outdoor and indoor walls, floors, ceilings and major fixtures. With one pour, fill the mold with Edison Portland cement, and within eight hours, the mold could be taken down and moved to a nearby location to rebuild and pour another house. He planned to sell the molds to developers at cost, and sell them the cement at a profit. The houses were expected to sell for a modest $1200.

Ultimately, Edison didn’t go into concrete houses big time, but others did, including a man named Charles Ingersoll, who built a small enclave of them in Union, NJ and Phillipsburg. Having grown up in Union, I knew that the houses there are close to Route 22 on Ingersoll Terrace, so when I saw an Ingersoll Avenue off of Route 22 in Phillipsburg, I had a good feeling that a historic site was not too far off.

Unfortunately, we found no concrete houses on that street or nearby. All we found was the Barber School and, well, a street that had a name from my family history. Just goes to show, you’ve gotta be open to possibility. Sometimes when you look for one thing, you find another.

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