Monday, March 31, 2014

Edison's New Village cement plant -- finally found!

I really should have known.

I've driven on Thomas Edison's Concrete Mile many times over the past few years, knowing his Portland cement plant wasn't far away. The inventor laid this stretch of State Highway 57 in 1912 to test the effectiveness of concrete as a paving material, yet another of the experiments he was constantly performing to perfect his products.

For as many Edison sites as I’ve tracked down, and for as many concrete houses as I’ve found over the years, I’d never located the exact site of the factory. I’d always left it for another day, passing through the community on my way to check out a lead on another story.

On the recent Route 57 trip, I decided to take a gander. A good practice in directed exploring is to look for the right names, as streets were often named for the people who lived there or the businesses that were located along them. Thus, once I saw Edison Road in Stewartsville, I took the turn. Couldn't hurt.

Older buildings and homes near the intersection with 57 soon gave way to side streets lined with houses of more recent vintage, and eventually farm fields. The road coursed under an aged railroad overpass, and as it curved, a large concrete building stood almost directly in front of me. The company sign in front of it is of recent vintage, but the factory definitely looked as if it could be over a century old. Driving further, I saw evidence of other structures that had once stood nearby but were now pretty much in ruins.

Yup, I'd found the last used and perhaps best-preserved portion of the Edison Portland Cement plant. The business was, to use a well-known bromide, the lemonade to the lemon which had been his iron ore concentrating business in Ogdensburg. Though he lost about $2 million trying to manufacture high-quality iron, he’d recouped some money by selling the byproduct - pulverized rock – to cement companies as an ingredient in their product. Seeing an opportunity, he moved the rock crushing equipment from Sussex Mountain to lime-rich Warren County and started his own Portland cement company.

The 1600 acre, 60-building facility grew to include the existing factory, lime crushers and a large rail yard to transport finished product out to market. Per his practice of innovating within whatever industry he focused on, Edison introduced a long rotary kiln at Stewartsville that he soon licensed to other manufacturers. Ironically, the design made cement production so economical that it was difficult to make a profit.

Back in the day, the Edison Portland Cement plant
was considerably bigger than today's remains would suggest
Contrary to popular belief, Edison didn't do very much of his own construction through his cement business, aside from some test pourings of a garage and potting shed at his Llewellen Park home and a couple of houses in Essex County. He was more interested in selling molds and cement to others to build the pre-fab homes. Charles Ingersoll, for one, constructed several houses in Phillipsburg and Union for working class laborers.

The most notable use of Edison Portland cement, however, stood on 161st Street in the Bronx. Yankee Stadium may have been the House that Ruth Built, but it was actually poured thanks to the Wizard of Menlo Park. It's said that during the stadium's renovation in the early 1970s, the concrete stubbornly refused to budge, and was left intact.

A concrete ruin aside Edison Road. What was it? We don't know.
At its peak, the plant employed over 600 workers, some of whom commuted from as far away as Easton. Eventually, though, it and the nearby Vulcanite Company had pretty much depleted what limestone in the area that could be economically accessed. The plant shut down in 1935 and went out of business for good in 1942.

The present occupant of the plant building has been there since 1975, operating profitably among ruins of the other structures that once served the Edison operation. What those concrete slabs were intended for isn't clear, but those visible from the road stand as testament to Edison's tenacity. They may not be as perfect as they were when first poured a hundred years ago, but I'd venture they'd be pretty hard to demolish.



4 comments:

  1. I was able to find this marker for the Edison cement plant. It's located in the Morris Canal Bread Lock park. http://www.hmdb.org/marker.asp?marker=57791.

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  2. Thanks, Alan! We'll be heading back to Bread Lock Park in the next couple of months, so we'll be on the lookout for the marker and viewfinder.

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  3. theres an Edison commercial concrete building in Kearny nj on SR 7

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  4. I grew up in the house at the end of Edison Rd (directly ahead of you if you follow the road all the way to the end). I grew up exploring the ruins and my parents started a business in what used to be the shower house for the plant (they owned a small manufacturing company). The ruins across the street from the Victaulic plant were believed to be by all of us locals to be the kiln building. This was the site of a horrific industrial accident in 1903 when it's believed a spark ignited a supply of pulverized coal dust, which was used for fuel in the kilns. Local legend was that a factory foreman was brought up the hill to our house and passed away there. We always believed the house to be haunted.

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