Sunday, March 25, 2012

Where Edison concentrated: iron ore processing at Ogdensburg

A little over a year ago, we made a trip out to Thomas Edison's concrete mile on Route 57 in Stewartsville/New Village, the site of his famed Portland cement factory. What I didn't mention in that account was the earlier use of the equipment that ground stone into fine enough particles to make a durable concrete.

You see, the Wizard of Menlo Park didn't originally set out to make concrete. He was looking to capitalize on the high iron content of the northwestern reaches of New Jersey, to supply concentrated iron ore bricks manufactured from the raw material of Sussex Mountain. And to do it, he built the first Edison, New Jersey: a veritable city of workers and innovative rock crushing machinery that used magnetic force to separate iron from pulverized stone. While mines in western Morris County and beyond were starting to peter out of useful material, he somehow thought that his experience would be different. No matter what, you've got to give the guy credit for optimism.

Finding the Edison mining property wasn't all that easy for me -- this is a trip I took before Ivan and I met, so I didn't have the benefit of his knowledge of the area. After some internet research, I discovered that my target was just off Sussex County Road 620 in Ogdensburg. More specifically, it's on Edison Road. For some reason, the Garmin people hadn't included 620 on their GPS maps, so I was left to do a little automobile bushwacking once I got into the Sussex area.

I arrived to find a stone and brass marker erected by Sussex County not too long ago, and a sign with topographic mapping of several trails that ramble through the woods. Noticing a New Jersey Audubon logo on the topo sign, I realized that I'd come upon one of the organization's unstaffed areas, and that if I'd bothered to look at my Audubon trails guide, I'd have known exactly where to go.

If you check the area out for yourself, be sure to stop at the county marker and check out the photos embedded in it. They show an environment that differs substantially from the woods and open fields currently on the property. More than 500 men and several huge pieces of processing machinery were working furiously during Edison's time there, and there's little to show for it now. Yes, as you walk around, you'll find the remnants of rustic looking stone walls, and a fair number of steel reinforcing rods poking up from the ground, but besides that, there's little to indicate the industry that existed there from 1891 to 1900. Still, though, random rocks on the ground show the telltale reddish-brown shade of oxidized iron. And fittingly, the area is now traversed by a set of high-voltage transmission lines.

Edison spent much of his time at Ogdensburg during the eleven years his iron ore business operated, ultimately spending about $2 million of his personal wealth on the unsuccessful venture. Characteristically unaffected by the cost of yet another experiment that didn't work out, he said, "Well, it's all gone, but we had a hell of a good time spending it!"

Where does the cement come in? Like any great inventor and entrepreneur, Edison studied the failed venture to determine lessons learned. He noted that the crushing machinery was especially good at manufacturing finely-ground material that could be used in high-quality cement. The machinery was moved about 45 miles southwest to New Village, and in 1903, a new business was born: Edison Portland Cement. From roads and houses to Yankee Stadium, this durable material showed up all over the place as Edison strived to find markets for the product. Once again, he'd managed to make some pretty tasty lemonade from the lemons he'd been served.

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