Monday, December 30, 2013

Contact! and Ahoy! Aviation on the Hackensack River

Substantially industrialized rivers can hold a lot of secrets. Sometimes they're regrettable, in the form of pollution and blight that take decades and millions of dollars to remove. Other times, they reveal a more romantic past, with activities you can barely imagine the area could support today.

We recently got a lead on one of these stories from reader Greg Parson, who commented on our story about New Jersey Aviation Hall of Famer Ed Gorski and the Lincoln Park Airport. Among his reminiscences about Gorski and the field, he mentioned that his uncle, George Lambros, had operated a seaplane base in Little Ferry.

A seaplane base? On the Hackensack River? With our friends from Hackensack Riverkeeper, we'd cruised up the river in August, enjoying the rebirth of the Meadowlands punctuated with occasional stories of past and present commerce on the river, but I couldn't recall hearing anything about aircraft. Had I missed something?

Indeed, when I mentioned it to friends on Facebook, several confirmed that two bases were operational at the location at some point in the past 40 years. One friend even noted that she used to watch the takeoffs when she was growing up in Ridgefield.

Greg kindly got back to me with some additional information, including an address and the observation that the current Little Ferry Seaplane Base is actually across the river from the original Lambros property, which was in Ridgefield Park. The Little Ferry location had once been the home to a famed restaurant called Tracey's Nine Mile House, which apparently served an amazing sliced steak sandwich.

Depending on your perspective, this is either the Hackensack River
or Runway 01-19 of Little Ferry Seaplane Base.
With that information in hand, I took to the web for additional background. While there's not a lot of data out there on George Lambros or his operation, I did discover that the base opened in August, 1947 as an adjunct of sorts to nearby Teterboro Airport. Lambros operated an instructional school and seaplane rental out of the base, using craft like the Grumman Wigeon to certify pilots for water takeoffs and landings. Among those giving the lessons was Springfield resident Kathleen Hilbrandt, who'd received her flight instructor rating after serving in the Women Airforce Service Pilots during World War II.

Lambros didn't have a monopoly on that stretch of the Hackensack, with Mellor-Howard Seaplane Base operating nearby. The Hackensack Riverkeeper himself, Bill Sheehan, also informed us that another seaplane port operated farther upriver, at Carlstadt. Now the site of River Barge Park and Marina, the former Sky Harbor was also a training location for water-heading pilots during World War II.

Look for more recent information about the Little Ferry operation, and you're up for a difficult search, especially if you attempt to find the seaplane base itself. At least two owners have operated the base since Lambros, but I couldn't find the date when it moved across the river from Ridgefield Park to Little Ferry. Several sources, including the Federal Aviation Administration website, list it as an active base, with two operations reported in 2012 (I'm assuming that's one landing and one takeoff, but I could be wrong). However, when Ivan and I visited the site recently, all we could find was a closed restaurant (perhaps the successor to Tracey's), a dock that appears to have seen better days, and no evidence of aircraft whatsoever. To be fair, the area was hit hard by Hurricane Sandy. Across the river, the former site of the Lambros base is occupied by a large industrial building.

Needless to say, we'll be doing a bit more research on this fascinating aspect of the Hackensack River. Meanwhile, if you're in the area and see an amphibious airplane coming in for a landing, let us know!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Looking back on 2013: our Hidden New Jersey adventures

It's been quite a year for Hidden New Jersey, with hundreds of new friends, speaking engagements completed and planned, and, of course, a host of new discoveries. We've published over 100 stories this year, and as 2013 comes to a close, I thought it would be fun to revisit a few of the amazing places and people we've learned about. I hope you'll check them out, if you haven't already!

Few people realize that the Meadowlands was the site of an explosive event in World War I-era sabotage. During a visit to Lyndhurst, we discovered the story of a 1917 munitions factory explosion and the heroism of switchboard operator Tessie McNamara, who bravely saved 1700 of her coworkers from harm.

Cumberland County's Seabrook Farms was not only a leader in agricultural production and distribution techniques, it fostered cultural diversity out of necessity during World War II.

Witnessing (and hearing) the mating of the woodcock is something everyone should experience. We spent a spring evening watching the show as twilight descended over the Great Swamp.

Who knew there was a uranium mine in Hunterdon County? Actually, there wasn't, but two brothers created quite a stir when they tried to start one not far from the Delaware and Raritan Canal.

Our visit to the New Jersey Aviation Hall of Fame raised several fascinating stories of little-known links between the Garden State and the history of flight:

  • Trenton sent hundreds of paratroopers to serve in the D-Day invasion of World War II. While they served valiantly, not one received a medal or ribbon, for good reason.
  • Aviator Marjorie Gray ran her own flying school at Teterboro after serving in the Womens Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). She flew 19 different types of aircraft in support of our WWII fighting forces.
  • Lincoln Park Airport owner Ed Gorski was the go-to mechanic for everyone from Clarence Chamberlain, Amelia Earhart and Commander Byrd.

Speaking of flight, two Triton Regional High School students clued us into the landing spot of America's first manned air voyage. Tucked behind a new Walmart, the site of Jean Pierre Blanchard's 1793 balloon landing is also home to a historic 400+ year old oak tree.

Touring the National Guard Militia Museum of New Jersey gave us a new appreciation of the many ways our neighbors and forebears protect our state and the nation. Besides getting a more personal view of the demands of wartime, we learned about early conflicts we'd known nothing about!

Development pressure continues to endanger many places whose stories deserve preservation. Fort Lee's former Rambo's hotel and saloon was featured in several silent movies when the town was the film capital of the world. Fortunately through the work of community activists, it's been saved from the wrecking ball and will be repurposed by the town. Red Bank's T. Thomas Fortune house, however, is still in danger, with an active citizens group working to purchase and restore it. Once home to an eminent 20th century African American publisher and civil rights activist, the site tells a little-known story about the power of advocacy journalism.

Virtually everyone recognizes the power of the Ellis Island story in America's immigrant past, but few know that a smaller immigration station once welcomed floods of newcomers in Gloucester City. We found the building, still standing, and discovered why it was built in New Jersey when Philadelphia is just across the Delaware River.

Ridgefield's busy streets are lined with dense development, so it's hard to imagine that painters and poets once flocked there to escape the hubbub of New York. With roads including Art Lane and Studio Road, the town's Art Colony of Ridgefield attracted notables like James Maxfield, Man Ray and Marianne Moore.

And finally, in our continuing quest to explore the state to its farthest reaches, we traveled into New York to access the stone marking the point where New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania meet.

Many thanks to Hidden New Jersey friends Joe Bilby, Gordon Bond, Donna Brennan, Stephanie Espinal, Katie Field, Tom Meyers, Peter Primavera, Rebecca Vives and Craig Walenta for their contributions in making these stories come to life.

As New Jersey starts its 350th anniversary year, we look forward to sharing more of the state with you -- and hearing your stories, too. We think 2014 is going to be a lot of fun!

Monday, December 23, 2013

From Navy Wildcat to traffic helicopters: the story of Linden Airport

Studied closely, the gritty borders of U.S. Route 1 have a litany of stories to tell, their inspirations lost to progress or the wrecking ball. Like the phragmites reedgrass that grows so well in disturbed soil, the presence of a new strip mall is often a good indicator of something notable that's been replaced.

That, at least, is the case on one stretch of road in Linden. On the western side of Route 1, you'll see a large, fenced-off field; the only indication of the enormity of its previous use is the presence of big mounds of milled rubble. Across several lanes of traffic is a big-box mall and multiplex cinema of recent vintage; tall signs declare it to be Aviation Plaza.

In true 'blink and you'll miss it' fashion, you might notice one of those small square road signs with an airplane on it, the international designation for an airport, with the word "Linden" below it. And a little farther down, on the eastern side of the road, you might see a larger, but still modest sign saying "Linden Airport" at a nondescript intersection. What's an airport doing here, just a few miles down Route 1 from Newark Liberty International Airport?

Linden Airport seen from overhead. The large parking lot
and big-box mall at right were built after 1998,
replacing additional runways and older hangars.
The airfield and the empty field, as it turns out, share a common history. Between 1937 and 2005, that massive lot was home to a General Motors assembly plant where thousands of workers manufactured vehicles under just about every GM nameplate, from Cadillacs to pickup trucks and SUVs. Soon after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, however, the company's sights took to the air, bringing Linden along with it.

In early 1942, GM created the Eastern Aircraft Corporation to take over the production of the Grumman Wildcat fighters for the U.S. Navy. The Linden plant was retooled to produce planes and an airport was quickly built across the highway as a testing and commissioning field. More than 3500 planes rolled off the production line and took to the skies from Linden, built with pride by hundreds of local men and women.

Following the war, GM's Linden Assembly plant resumed production of civilian vehicles and its airport found new life. The Federal government deeded the property to the City of Linden under the condition that it continue operation as an airfield, ready for recommissioning for military use in the event of future war. Since then, advances in defensive technology make that possibility highly unlikely, but as the airport's website notes, "back then it was considered a vital part of our military's strategic industrial reserve plan."

As Newark Airport grew as a regional hub and gained international status, the Linden field became a reliable landing spot for smaller commercial traffic that would ordinarily be dwarfed by passenger and freight jets. Though it lacks a radio tower of its own, New York radio and television news stations continue to count on the now-dubbed KLDJ as home for their traffic helicopters, and hobby pilots can use it as an alternative that's almost as close to Manhattan as Teterboro. The field even hosts occasional events like the Red Bull Air Race, held there in 2010.

For historians, however, ghosts of the World War II era field are virtually impossible to find. Present day Linden Airport bears little resemblance to the World War II-era test field, with only one original landing strip still in existence. The old hangars at the north end of the airfield were torn down in 1998 and replaced by newer structures tucked out of sight from Route 1. The rest of the property is now taken up by the Aviation Plaza shopping center and multiplex theater.

On the positive side, LDJ has fared much better than many of New Jersey's other airfields-turned-retail locations. Unlike South Plainfield's old Hadley Field, aviators can set down at Linden, do some last-minute holiday shopping and quickly return to the skies. It seems that the ratable-seeking Linden city government may have found the best of both worlds: maintaining its original commitment to keep the field operational for perpetuity while increasing the tax base.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Deck the Hook with boughs of holly...

Even after countless trips to Sandy Hook, I'm still finding new reasons to love the place. After visiting the snowy owl a few weeks ago, Ivan and I wandered the area near the Marine Academy of Science and Technology (MAST) and found something quite different: a set of American holly trees larger than any either of us had ever seen.

I'd long heard that the Hook is home to the largest holly forest on the East Coast, but I'd yet to see any of the actual trees, fully laden with berries. Here some were, standing innocently next to buildings. What of the forest?

Taking its slow growth into account, this holly tree on
Sandy Hook's MAST campus is likely well over 100 years old.
To find that, you likely need to go on a guided tour with a National Park Service ranger. Sandy Hook's holly forest includes several trees estimated to be more than 200 years old and 70 feet high, and is, perhaps, the country's largest stand of virgin holly forest. Its caretakers want to keep it that way, carrying on a tradition that once went as far as to include armed guards.

Yup, you read that right. The forest has a somewhat unlikely benefactor to thank for being preserved at all: the United States Army. The Hook's military history stretches back to the Revolution, when American forces raided the lighthouse to take the whale oil needed to light the then British-controlled beacon. And as speculators built entire seaside resorts along the length of the Jersey Shore, the establishment of the Sandy Hook Proving Ground and later Fort Hancock in the late 19th century cemented the peninsula's "off limits" status for developers. As a result, the trees, along with the other local plants, were free to thrive as their counterparts to the south were replaced with beach houses and boardwalks.

This female holly is already a great food source for wintering
birds, including cedar waxwings, cardinals and mockingbirds.
The New Jersey shoreline is an ideal place for holly, as it turns out. Native to sandy soil, its glossy leaves resist the corrosive saltwater spray that would decimate less hardy leaves. Still, ocean frontage takes its toll. While holly is normally slow to mature, many of the Sandy Hook trees grow only about an inch every ten years, their unsheltered boughs stunted by the force of wind and unrelenting sea spray.

While the Sandy Hook forest has enjoyed a reprieve from development, it hasn't gone entirely unmolested. By past tradition, area residents would sneak onto the Hook to grab a few sprigs of holly to decorate their homes during the winter holidays, prompting the Army to station armed guards to protect the trees. You have to question the motives of the fort's leadership on that one: officers' wives usually didn't have much trouble securing local holly to add to their own Christmas displays, and requests from dignitaries were reportedly filled. Rank has its privileges.

Sandy Hook may be home to the largest natural occurrence of holly in the state, but other New Jersey communities rank in the annals of Ilex opaca, too. Rutgers Gardens in New Brunswick contains one of the nation's biggest collections of bred hollies, while Millville in Cumberland County became known as the Holly City after the New Jersey Silica Sand company planted a 50 acre, 2800-tree orchard there in the 1920s. I haven't visited the Millville property yet, but if my research is any indication, that installation may have fallen victim to a real estate development called -- wait for it -- the Holly Orchard Estates.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Get your kicks on Route ... which Route is this?

It should come as no shock that we Hidden New Jerseyans spend a lot of time on the road, whether it be for birding or to scout out more obscure history. From time to time, we've highlighted a couple of those roads, like the Pulaski Skyway and the White Horse Pike, and of course, the mighty Turnpike, but we've never talked much about the numbered roads, with the exception of the shortest one.

Between us, Ivan and I are at least reasonably conversant about the highways that criss-cross the state, so when we led a talk at the Sussex County library this past summer, we felt pretty confident in answering an audience member's question about the road system in place during the Cat Swamp hijacking of 1921. But as only lifelong residents can, another audience member clarified, "Route 46 was Route 6 then."

Ah, yes. Forget about traffic: our roads have the power to confuse on a whole different dimension.

A treatise on the history of New Jersey's road system could go on for thousands of words. Suffice to say it's been a continual work in progress since the Lenape discovered that spending the summer down the shore was a pretty great idea. With the arrival of European settlers, some of the natives' paths became carriage and stagecoach routes and eventually some of the roads we know so well today. Others were forged by the newcomers, using the best technologies of the day to surmount environmental challenges that had frustrated earlier efforts. Paterson Plank Road in the Meadowlands, for example, was paved literally with wood planks that prevented horses and carriages from sinking into the murky marsh.

Corporations were initially chartered in the early 18th century to build a series of turnpikes, but over time, investors shifted their money into canals and railroads, leaving many roads underfunded. By the dawn of the 20th century, the state had assumed ownership and maintenance of the derelict pikes. The 1916 Egan Good Roads Bill established funding for 13 numbered state highways, with routes largely linking the state's larger cities. Additional legislation the following year established two more roads and a state highway department; one more road was added in 1921.

At that point, the barn door was open. The increasing number of motorists wanted a decent road to drive on, and the business community was clamoring for well-maintained highways to get raw materials to factories and finished product to market. I don't know if frustration with state bureaucracy had anything to do with it, but local politicians started to take matters into their own hands. By 1930 the miles of paved road in New Jersey had doubled, engendering confusion along the way. In their zeal to get roads into service, local authorities had started numbering them with no regard for how other highways in the state were labeled. As a result, drivers could drive one Route 18 from Camden to Toms River, another 18 between Penns Grove and Atlantic City, or from Hoboken to Alpine. A realignment in 1923 helpfully added "N" or "S" to some road designations, but seriously? This was supposed to make sense?

Yet another law in 1927 sought to regain some order statewide, renumbering roads within a system that added logic to the mix. Routes 1 through 12 were in the northernmost part of the state, 21 through 28 originated in or near Newark, 29 through 37 started in Trenton, 38-47 radiated from Camden, and 48 through 50 were in the southernmost reaches. Still, though, Route 25 eventually spawned a series of roads called S-25, 25-A, 25-AD, 25-B, 25-M and 25-T.

Then there was the confusion between the state highway numbering system and the federal designations. State 29, at one point, shared pavement with U.S. 22 for several miles before the two routes diverged. It wasn't till 1953 that the mess was finally settled with a set of rules that forbade giving a state road the same number as a Federal road, assured that numbers matched when New Jersey roads flowed into New York or Pennsylvania, and declared that roads could not have both a state and Federal number. And clarifying another issue brought up with the new "superhighways," neither the Garden State Parkway nor the New Jersey Turnpike would have route numbers, though they'd earlier been assigned the numbers 400 and 100, respectively. The now-familiar "black square surrounding white circle" state road sign design was also introduced starting in 1954.

We often joke about needing to be 'from here' to know where the roads go, but imagine the confusion launched 60 years ago by all of the changes. Cartographers raced to make the necessary changes to their products, with the State Highway Department spending 250 staff hours updating the official map. Officials had already coordinated with the gasoline companies and motorists' clubs to ensure that their courtesy maps reflected the new reality of New Jersey roads.

The old state highway signs are long retired, but you can still find vestiges of the old numbering system on some of the aging bridges of the earlier highways. Look for the aggregate cement structures along the outer shoulders of the road, and you might see an unfamiliar road designation set, literally, in stone.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Vineland wine that wasn't: the evolution of Welch's Grape Juice

With increasing frequency, a drive around New Jersey countryside will have you riding past a vineyard or two, particularly in the southern part of the state. We're not talking big, Napa Valley-sized productions, but several viniculturalists are making a decent living producing and selling wine here.

Historically, though, the most famous product of our vineyards isn't wine at all.

It's hard to think of a time when unfermented grape juice didn't exist, but 160 years ago, it didn't. Sure, you could make the juice, but you couldn't store it very long without ending up with, well, wine. This was a problem for the many 19th century churches that advocated temperance: it was difficult to promote a life free from alcohol when your own ministers were providing wine at each Communion service.

Thomas Bramwell Welch, Welch's Grape Juice, Vineland New Jersey
The father of grape juice that doesn't ferment:
Thomas Bramwell Welch
It was especially problematic in Vineland, which had been founded as a utopian, dry community by Charles Landis in 1861. In an apparent contradiction, after discovering that the region's sandy soil was ideal for vineyards, he promoted the community as a worthy spot for Italian grape growers.

While not a viniculturalist by profession, dentist and ardent Methodist Thomas Bramwell Welch cultivated grapes in his Vineland backyard. He and his church's minister, Rev. A.K. Street, were both troubled by the presence of wine during services, and in 1869 they agreed that Welch would produce enough juice from his grapes to supply an alcohol-free Communion.

Welch harvested grapes from his own vines, squeezing them by hand to get the juice. The near-term issue was solved, but what would they do when the grape growing season was over? Even if he were able to bottle enough juice to supply the church for the winter months, they'd eventually end up with wine.

Ever the experimenter, Welch turned to new developments in science for an answer. He'd read about Louis Pasteur's experiments with wine, in which the liquid was briefly heated to about 140 degrees to kill the microbes that cause unwanted acidity. Perhaps modifying the process would eliminate the alcohol-creating organisms entirely, thus allowing pasteurized juice to be bottled and stored for long periods without the danger of it turning to wine.

After more experimentation, Welch hit upon the ideal process, and a new industry was born. Word of the "unfermented wine" quickly spread through the Methodist community, and Welch soon found himself struggling to keep up with the demand. He'd had no intention of starting a business but soon found himself building a small factory, purchasing machinery and incorporating the Welch Fruit Juice Company.

Welch himself didn't seem too impressed with the prospect of growing the business much further, but his son Charles saw possibilities beyond dry Communion. Buying his father out in 1873, he started on an ambitious promotional campaign that encouraged people to buy the drink for home use ("unfermented wine: it's not just for church anymore"?). He even exhibited at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, where thousands of people got their first taste of New Jersey grape juice that wasn't fermented. Welch's Grape Juice was a big hit.

Though its "dry" beginnings and sandy soil were fertile ground for the start of the business, Vineland was the victim in Welch's success. When the demand for grape juice exceeded the ability of the surrounding farms to produce enough fruit, Charles moved the business to upstate New York, which was better able to supply the crop. It's since expanded its product line and become a staple of the American household. The company dutifully outlines its New Jersey roots in its website, but I'll bet few people actually realize where this quintessentially American beverage got its start.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Well preserved: the birth of the Mason jar

Few realize it, but New Jersey's southern counties could take a legitimate place among the pantheon of influential sites in preserved food technology. As we learned this summer from our visit to Upper Deerfield Township, Seabrook Farms was a pioneer in flash freezing vegetables and became America's largest frozen food processor. However, the groundbreaking work of Clarence Birdseye and C.F. Seabrook was preceded by another technology that helped millions of homemakers preserve the bounty of their farms and gardens without refrigeration.

Yup, the Mason jar was born in New Jersey, invented in 1858 by a Vineland native named John Landis Mason. To be fair, he was already established as a metalsmith in New York City when he came up with a practical way to extend the shelf life of preserved produce, but he returned to his native state to bring the concept to reality. It wasn't loyalty, just practicality that brought him back: he needed a good jar, and South Jersey's glass industry was in its heyday, with several factories using the local sand to turn out a superior product.

Mason was building on the work of Frenchman Nicolas Appert, who, nearly 50 years earlier, had theorized that the act of heating food would sterilize it to prevent spoilage. It wasn't known why -- Louis Pasteur wouldn't perform his groundbreaking work in germ theory until the 1860s -- but inventors quickly sought ways to capitalize on Appert's findings. The tin can was introduced as a storage option a few years later, but the technology wasn't practical for those who wanted to preserve their own food, nor was the food inside the cans visible. Others had come up with canning methods using cork and wax, both of which proved problematic.

Going a step farther, Mason designed a porcelain-lined zinc lid that would form a protective seal as the food cooled within the glass container. That, however, required a jar that could receive the lid effectively. Mason chose to work with Samuel Crowley, whose glassworks were on the Mullica River not far from Batsto. Outlining his concept, Mason asked if Crowley could make a jar with a threaded mouth that could accept a screw-top lid. Not long after, master glassblower Clayton Parker produced the prototype jar, and a month later, Mason received the patent for the jar that bears his name.

Having proven that the practicality of his concept, Mason returned to New York and went into business with partners there to manufacture his new invention. He eventually returned to New Jersey, moving his family to New Brunswick and working with the Consolidated Fruit Jar Company, which gained rights to his invention. According to the Encyclopedia of New Jersey, he later patented a soap dish and a life raft, but to my knowledge, those have fallen into oblivion.

Today, "Mason jar" is one of those iconic names that has stuck to a group of products, despite the fact that other manufacturers have become far more prevalent. Some still use them for canning, others as beverage glasses. However you come upon them next, take a moment to raise a drink -- or some preserves -- to the man from Vineland who made them possible.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Hamburg's castle made of wheat: the milling history on Wheatsworth Road

Most Northern New Jersey explorers know about the Gingerbread Castle in Hamburg. Some even remember visiting the whimsical structure during its heyday as the centerpiece of an amusement park between 1930 and 1978. It's one of those places that tends to stick in your mind -- a fanciful fairy-tale castle replete with characters like Humpty-Dumpty and arch-backed black cat, among others.

The Wheatsworth factory, as seen from a HiddenNJMobile.
In near total contradiction to the whimsy of the castle, a large, forbidding concrete building casts a shadow over the abandoned property. A few small turrets and balcony-like structures break up the monotony of the facade, but it's not a pleasant looking place. The windows that aren't boarded up are mostly broken, evidence of a lengthy abandonment. A posted sign informs visitors that an environmental cleanup is in process, not surprising after you notice the traces of painted lettering atop the building which seem to spell the word "synthetic."

Why in heck would someone put something so ugly next to something so adorable ... or was it the other way around? Unfortunately, New Jersey has more than its share of juxtaposition of beauty and industry, but why, when there's so much room in Sussex County, would these two be so close?

A first clue can be found on the old stone gateposts nearby. They're adorned with Arts and Crafts-style Flint Faience tiles depicting idyllic scenes of fields and mills. One even features a steaming bowl of hot cereal, a comforting start for a chilly Sussex County morning, and a millstone is embedded in a nearby wall. Each scene is labeled "Wheatsworth Mills."

Wheatsworth? Like Nabisco Wheatsworth crackers? Absolutely.

Turns out that the Gingerbread Castle's less-than-attractive industrial neighbor was just the last of the wheat-related ventures operated on that spot in Hamburg.

Today, the Wallkill River flows unimpeded past the building and under Wheatsworth Road, but in the day it was harnessed to power a waterwheel for the industry of the day. Joseph Sharp, Jr. built a stone grist mill there in 1808, replacing an ironworks that had made cannonballs surreptitiously for the British during the Revolutionary War. Sharp's mill, by contrast, ground local wheat into flour for American troops during the War of 1812 and no doubt benefited from its location just off the Hamburg Turnpike (now Route 23) after it opened in 1795. That mill was lost to fire in 1834 but was partially rebuilt.

Moving forward to the 20th century, New York-based F.H. Bennett Biscuit Company purchased the site in 1921 to supply flour for its bakeries across the Hudson. Six years later, the company changed its name to Wheatsworth to capitalize on the popularity of the brand name under which it sold biscuits, flour and other bakery goods. Around the same time, the company substantially enlarged the mill building, erecting a taller concrete structure that basically swallowed up the old Sharp mill.

An old sign with a valuable message.
As the story is told, F.H. himself was inspired to add the Gingerbread Castle to the factory campus after seeing a production of Hansel and Gretel at New York's Metropolitan Opera. He hired the opera's set designer, Austrian architect Joseph Urban, to create what became the centerpiece of a children's amusement park where Grimm's fairy tales came to life. Reflecting Bennett's business, the castle appeared to be constructed of cookies and crackers, and after its opening in 1930, visiting children were told that if they touched the building, the appealing treats would turn to stone. 

The National Biscuit Company (Nabisco) purchased Wheatsworth in 1931, taking ownership of the factory/mill building but not the castle. After operating there for six years, Nabisco sold the plant to Canterbury Mills, the last operator to use the building for baking-related purposes. The final owner, a wire coatings manufacturer called Plastoid Corporation, took possession in 1943. While they eventually moved production to another location, Plastoid's corporate offices remained in the building until sometime in the 1980s.

Together, the mill building and Gingerbread Castle were listed on Preservation New Jersey's Most Endangered Historic Places list in 2012. Not surprisingly, the castle attracts the greatest interest and has benefitted from partial restoration and a brief reopening in 1989. The far less photogenic mill/factory building seems ignored by all but adventure seekers despite its arguably more historic past. Reportedly suffering from a collapsed roof and internal deterioration, it would no doubt take a lot of effort to make it habitable again, but who knows? And with the Gingerbread Castle and Wallkill River on either side, the view from any of the factory's windows would be a welcome site for anyone who chose to work or live there.

It's a thought...

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Bang, zoom, straight to the moon, Diana!

If there was intelligent life on the moon, the first call it would have gotten was from New Jersey. Wall Township, specifically.

More accurately, the call was a microwave radio signal, and rather than expecting a message back, scientists were trying to create what became known as moon bounce, or earth-moon-earth (EME) communications.

The Diana antenna, made from four
existing conventional radar antennas.

Known as Project Diana, this classified work was based at Fort Monmouth's Evans Signal labs, birthplace of dozens of 20th century technological advancements. Its urgency was driven by the success of the revolutionary German V1 and V2 guided missiles during World War II. After the United States proved the effectiveness of nuclear weapons in 1945, the fear was that the USSR would combine the two technologies with disastrous results. We clearly needed a way to identify and track the missiles before they entered U.S. airspace.

Colonel John DeWitt and his Camp Evans-based team were charged with the task in the closing months of the war. Before they could work on detection, however, they had to prove that a radio signal could pierce the earth's atmosphere as the V1 and V2 could. A few years earlier, a British communications scientist had theorized that existing technology would be capable of bouncing microwave signals off the moon which, at 238,900 miles away, would serve as an ideal target.

In September 1945, Evans Signal Labs personnel got to work designing and building the necessary equipment: a sufficiently powerful transmitter and receiver along with an antenna array to capture the return signal. (If you're an engineer, astronomer or physicist, you might enjoy reading a more technical description and schematics written by one of the participants.) Three months later, their initial tests were hampered by a series of malfunctions and outright equipment failures.

A new year and heavily redesigned equipment brought better results. At moonrise on January 10, 1946, they succeeded, receiving a return signal 2.5 seconds after transmission. It took some time to determine the right conditions to repeat the achievement, but Evans professionals had made theory a reality.

The first experiment in radio astronomy, Project Diana's impact reached far beyond national defense. Many consider that first successful radio bounce to be the true birth of the space program. Had scientists not proven that human-created radio signals could leave our atmosphere, people on Earth would not have be able to communicate with astronauts in orbit or on the moon. Skylab and the International Space Station would have been pipe dreams. Nor would we have been able to receive signals from long-distance spacecraft like Voyager I and II, which have been returning information to us by radio since their launches in 1977.

And, of course, this experiment on The Big Bang Theory would have been totally impossible.

The original Diana antenna no longer exists, but a support building remains at Camp Evans, now the site of the InfoAge Science History Learning Center and Museum. As we discovered during our visit last July, the expansive yet utilitarian-looking property holds a wealth and breadth of history well worth exploring.