Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Belco: (not) a blast from the past in the Pinelands

Acres and acres of pitch pines and other evergreens obscure the remnants of industry that once dotted the Pinelands. Land cleared for pig iron foundries and papermills in the 1800s has now been overtaken by regrowth, rendering the old factories difficult to locate. Other, more accessible abandoned industrial sites like the Estell Manor glassworks are easily visited within Atlantic County parks.

What we didn't realize on our original visit to Estell Manor was that there was a larger and more recently-built and abandoned factory community nearby. In fact, a good part of the park now stands on the grounds of the World War I era munitions manufacturing site and proving grounds known as Belco. Just outside of the former blast range, the companion factory town of Belcoville is still alive and well.

New Jersey's contributions to the war effort began well before the United States entered the conflict in April 1917, with several suppliers manufacturing ammunition for our allies. Once we were formally in the conflict, four additional factories were constructed around the state by various defense contractors, including the Bethlehem Loading Company, or Belco. Under the direction and supervision of the U.S. Army, Belco cleared about 10,000 acres of marshy pine forest along the Great Egg Harbor River to build the factory along with the nearby village of Belcoville to house more than 3000 workers and their families. An adjacent proving ground was to be the largest testing site of its kind in the world.

Storage facilities for loaded shells.
Courtesy Atlantic County Government.
War is a great motivator for rapid construction, and Belco is a case in point. Work on the factory site and village began simultaneously in early 1918, continuing non-stop, seven days a week. A subsidiary of the Bethlehem Steel Company, Belco was the only ordinance contractor to supply shells from mining the iron ore through forging the steel, machining, loading and assembling the final product. The site at Estell Manor was responsible for the loading and finishing stages, requiring both factories and complex safety measures to address the highly explosive elements that employees would handle.

The self-contained plant included everything that would be needed to keep production moving, including a power generator, water works, personnel offices, machine shop, blacksmith and carpentry areas, and storage facilities including reinforced powder magazines. A barracks held 1100 soldiers who guarded the plant against potential sabotage, a threat already felt from explosions at Jersey City's Black Tom Wharf and the Canadian Car and Foundry munitions plant in Kingsland.

Safety was paramount. Plants were built at distances to ensure that a fire or blast in one would not set off a chain reaction. A modern water pump and main system included special valves to ensure that firefighters would have adequate water pressure even if part of the system was damaged by explosion. Much of the plant was constructed of wood to prevent sparking that could set off fires, and escape chutes were built into the second floors of the plants, leading to protective ditches. Changing houses were built for both male and female workers to ensure that employees wouldn't track poisonous TNT residue out of the loading areas.

As a result of these measures, Belco was a reasonably safe place to work, and no fires or blasts of note caused significant worker injury or damage to the plant. No employee ever suffered from TNT poisoning though more than 17,000 such incidents occurred at other plants around the country. Nevertheless, a 100-bed hospital stood ready to address injuries and illness.

By July 1918 the first 155 millimeter shells were being filled and rolling off the assembly lines, even as construction work continued on additional factory buildings. Meanwhile, employees enjoyed the benefits of living in modern housing at nearby Belcoville, with running water and heating as well as community amenities like a school, bowling alley, shopping district and YMCA/YWCA.

Belcoville housing ranged from dorms for single employees
to large homes for supervisors with families.
Courtesy Atlantic County Government.
Just four months later, with about 70 percent of the plant built, the war ended, though Belco continued to turn out munitions for several months afterward. Plant buildings were dismantled and sold for scrap, leaving only the concrete foundations. Many of the newly-vacant worker houses were sold, taken down and moved to other locations in the area, while many employees remained in Belcoville to keep the community going.

Belco is listed on the New Jersey and National registers of Historic Places, and Ivan and I visited some of the roads and ruins recently, guided by an informative booklet available at the Estell Manor Park Nature Center. On a warm, sunny day, the gnats were in full force, accompanying us as we walked the broad main path into the complex.

Had we not already known that a busy manufacturing plant had been there less than 100 years ago, we'd never have been able to tell. Roadways are still evident from the long, reasonably straight breaks between trees, but many of the side streets are little more but wide strips of overgrown grass marked with wooden signs.

The booklet points out the sites of several Belco buildings which are a 10 or 15 minute stroll from the visitor center (depending on whether you stop to look for the stray cuckoo or vireo calling from the trees). We found the footings or a water tank and the machine shop, blacksmith and carpenter shop before the gnats got to be too much for us. There's more along the other paths, but from what I understand, most of it is along the lines of "you need an imagination to see it." No doubt, a late fall, winter or early spring visit might be more productive for those wanting to find more of the ruins.

Still, a hike through Belco is thought provoking. If such a busy industrial site can revert to virtual wilderness so quickly, what potential is there for other highly-developed tracts to be reclaimed by nature? So much of New Jersey has been paved over, some to great benefit and some not. Maybe sprawl isn't irreversible after all, and maybe old industrial sites can, with some effort, host wildlife once again.

Oh, and if our experience is any indication, it's a wonderfully reliable place to find Yellow-billed cuckoos. During our visit, we saw at least four, including a pair perched comfortably beside each other not far into the woods from the trail.


2 comments:

  1. I spent several weeks in the Belcoville volunteer fire department and walked many of the overgrown roads of the old munitions factory and housing. History gone away...

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  2. thanks for sharing this. I have lived in Belcoville for over 50 years and am well aware of the great history we have

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