Preserve America Community:
Roebling, New Jersey
The Village of Roebling (population 1,568) in Florence Township, New Jersey, is a community that was created as a company town. John Roebling, for whom the town is named, studied architecture, bridge construction, and hydraulics at the Polytechnic Institute in Berlin before immigrating to the U.S. in 1831. He and a group of fellow immigrants founded the town of Saxonburg on the outskirts of Pittsburgh. It was here that he began to fabricate rope out of wire, and to use it to construct suspension bridges.
In order to meet increasing demand for his wire rope, he built a factory in Trenton, New Jersey, in 1848. Shortly thereafter, he and two of his sons built a suspension bridge across the gorge of the Niagara River, a feat for which they became world famous. In 1866, they began to build the Brooklyn Bridge. When John died in 1869, his son Washington took over and supervised its completion.
Around the turn of the century, the Roeblings decided to start making their own steel, but land close to the existing plant in Trenton was costly. In 1904 they built a new wire rope plant and steel mill on a farm they purchased in an area south of Trenton, along the Delaware River, called Kinkora. Then, in 1905, they laid out a model company town for their expanding work force of immigrant workers adjacent to the company’s new mill.
Charles Roebling laid out 750 brick houses on a rectangular grid with main streets 100 feet wide and selected London plane trees to shade the medians. Ten different architectural designs were used, most with slate roofs. The homes were rented by workers at nominal monthly rates. The sizes of the homes and their locations reflected the hierarchy of the plant – the skilled workers had larger homes further away from the noisy mill. People in high positions lived in the largest homes along Riverside Avenue. Along with the workers’ homes, the company built an inn, a bank, a recreation hall, an auditorium, post office, drug store, hospital, jail, bakery, and a boarding house for single workers, all of which still exist. The village was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.
The Roebling Mill flourished through the 1940s, but after World War II production slowed. The Roeblings sold out in 1952 to Colorado Fuel and Iron. Many workers purchased their homes from the company and remain in Roebling. Florence Township now owns the abandoned 200 acre mill site, and in cooperation with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Village of Roebling, and the Roebling Historical Society, agreed on a plan to retain seven acres and the 1907 Main Gate Building and rent it to the new Roebling Museum. The balance of the site is being marketed for mixed use redevelopment.
Following environmental remediation by the EPA and their investment of $6.3 million in rehabilitation, the Main Gate Building to the mill now serves as the Roebling Museum, telling the story of the Roebling family, the town, and the innovations of the company. Volunteers have logged more than 10,000 hours collecting and cataloging artifacts and archival documents, hosting walking tours, raising funds, and facilitating programs. The economic impact of the new museum is already being felt by local businesses, who report creating several new jobs to accommodate those coming to the museum for year round programs and special events.
The Township of Florence and the Roebling Museum sponsored the Centennial Celebration of the Mercer Automobile in 2009. Thousands of people came from all over the country to view these extremely rare automobiles on the museum grounds. Considered America’s first sports car, only 85 are known to still exist, and 23 were featured. The car was produced as a joint venture of the Kuser and Roebling families from 1909-1925.
For more information:
History of Florence Township and Roebling www.florence-nj.gov/history.html
Updated February 24, 2011