Monday, October 10, 2011

Exploring the industrial past: the Roebling Museum

I'll make it to Burlington someday. I swear.

Ever since our visit to the provincial capital of East Jersey, Perth Amboy, I've wanted to see its West Jersey counterpart, Burlington City. For one reason or another (Turnpike issues, birding imperatives elsewhere), we  just haven't made it, and I figured I'd take one of our recent beautiful weather days to make the drive while Ivan was occupied with a client.

Then I saw the brown sign for Roebling. You know what those brown signs mean: there's something interesting there. Follow that sign, leave Route 130 and cross the railroad tracks, and you land at the site of the former Roebling steel mill. It's an interesting vision: on one side, you see a fenced-in expanse of grass with what looks like two parallel monorail tracks high above ground, and some industrial equipment beneath. On the other side, you see construction trailers and a large expanse of disturbed earth. In the middle, there's a parking lot for the Roebling Museum, punctuated by an old green wooden building. The museum itself is at the top of an incline, as if to tower ever so slightly above the field below.

There's a good reason for that, I discovered. The museum building was originally the Roebling factory gatehouse, holding several different functions including a first aid station and a three-cell jail. I was welcomed  in by two very friendly docents who were more than happy to guide me through exhibits outlining the Roebling family, evolution of their company and the factory, and the adjoining town.

You might recall that earlier this year, Ivan and I visited one of John Roebling's early bridges, the Delaware Aqueduct spanning the Delaware River between New York and Pennsylvania. Town residents are justifiably proud of that span as well as the several more famous bridges containing Roebling wire: the George Washington, Manhattan, Verrazano Narrows and Golden Gate, among others. My guide pointed out that as an engineer, John Roebling designed and built a then-unique bridge over the Niagara River which conveyed trains on a top deck and horses and carriages on an underdeck. Had it not been rendered obsolete by changes in railroad technology, it might still be in use today.

Bridges, however, were only one use of Roebling products. Both the Wright Brothers airplane and the Spirit of St. Louis contained Roebling wire. Otis elevators were suspended by Roebling steel cables specifically designed to handle the unique stresses of pulleys and loads of varying weights. Remember the Slinky? Yup -- made from Roebling wire. Essentially, if you needed extruded steel, Roebling could and often did supply it, in gauges down to the width of a human hair.

I'm getting ahead of myself, though. To supply the wire rope for the bridges, the Roebling family established a steel mill-factory complex in Trenton, based on the recommendation of a friend who lived nearby. Soon, however, they'd expanded beyond the capacity of the property and needed another location. The village of Kinkora, about ten miles south of Trenton, was just the place -- close to the Pennsylvania Railroad and the along the shores of the Delaware River. The company bought three farms there in 1905 and got to work.

Along with a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility, the Roeblings built a company town to house the substantial workforce needed to operate the factory. I'll get into that in our next installment, but I'll say that the museum exhibit gives a great view into who worked at the plant and life in the village during the factory's heyday. You can also pick up a self-guided walking tour if you'd like to get a closer view of present-day Roebling.

The family sold the mill to Colorado Fuel and Iron in 1952, and it stayed in operation until 1974. Now only a few small buildings are still standing. Declared a Superfund site in 1983, most of the area has been remediated, though the Army Corps of Engineers is still on site, explaining the construction trailers I saw.

In all, the Roebling Museum tells an interesting story of American industrialism and its impact on both society and the people who worked there. I was particularly impressed by how well the information is presented, both in the exhibits and by the docent. They also host a series of special events; the next will be a lecture and tour of the town on October 15.

Oh, and when you go, be sure to check out the massive flagpole next to the guardhouse. You can't miss it: it's the third highest flagpole east of the Mississippi.

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