Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Just another brick in the marsh: finding Little Ferry's historic clay industry

You wouldn't know it by the lack of traffic in recent years, but the Hackensack River and its tributaries were once important shipping routes. Well before the invention of trucks and the establishment of major highways, schooners and barges once traveled well up the river, stopping to pick up a wide range of materials and finished goods grown or made in the Meadowlands.

Along those lines, a quiet wooded park and a man-made pond in Little Ferry are among the last vestiges of an industry that helped to build many sturdy buildings in New Jersey and New York City. And the name attached to the pond and the adjacent road recall an earlier time when a German immigrant family dominated the local brickmaking business.

I was a little surprised to discover that bricks had been such a big business in the Meadowlands. As far as I'd known, the state's clay-based industry had taken hold in Central Jersey, specifically in Woodbridge and Trenton. In fact, the Woodbridge Center mall was built in a former clay pit. I guess that I never considered what might be below the spartina grass and phragmites in Bergen and Hudson counties.

Small bodies of water like Mehrhof Pond appear to be
the last visible signs of a once-thriving brickmaking
industry in the Meadowlands.
Most of the clay business along the Hackensack was centered in Little Ferry, starting in the late 1840s. Recognizing the value of the local soil, a freed black woman, Elizabeth Sutliff Dulfer, purchased 87 acres of land there to supply clay to craftspeople in Jersey City and Newark. The first business to actually produce clay products within the town's borders was a flowerpot factory. In any case, it was the ideal place for a successful clay-based business. The raw material was right there, close to the river for shipping.

By the mid 1860s, brickmaking was well established in Little Ferry, with several facilities in operation to supply the growing cities of New York and northern New Jersey. Among others, members of the Mehrhof family purchased brickyards there, enlarging until they were among the nation's largest brick manufacturers. Producing up to two million bricks a year, they even owned a fleet of schooners to ship finished bricks to customers as far away as Providence, Rhode Island. To keep up with demand, the Mehrhof companies dug a 60-foot deep pit alongside a lowland forest near the Hackensack. Continuously-operated pumps kept the nearby river and ground water from filling the pits.

Brickmaking started to decline in the Meadowlands after World War I, with the last yard closing in the 1940s. I haven't found a specific reason why, though the overall decline of New Jersey's clay industry is attributed to rising real estate values. Apparently, the clay to be mined wasn't worth nearly as much as what developers were willing to pay for the land.

In any case, the water pumps stopped after Little Ferry's brick companies went out of business, and the pits eventually filled in with fresh water. These days the largest clay pit in Bergen County is known as Mehrhof Pond, part of Losen Slote Creek Park, one of several habitat areas managed by the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission. The pond itself is fenced off, presumably to prevent the curious from swimming or boating there (I'd wager that the water there is significantly deeper than just about any other place in the Meadows). That said, you can still check it out from the far end of Mehrhof Road, or from one of the park trails. Just find your way off Route 46 and down past the Little Ferry DPW. You can't miss it.

Ivan and I seem to find ourselves at Losen Slote only to experience extremes. On our first visit, the bitter-cold January wind prompted us to walk briskly through the woods in our futile search for the much-talked-about common redpolls that never appeared for us. Most recently, we thought better of tromping through the overgrown underbrush in the 90 degree plus heat and humidity. We'll have to return sometime when the temperature isn't either topping or scraping the bottom of the thermometer. I've heard it's a nice place to check out migrants on a sunny spring or fall day.

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