Huge flywheel out front of the Roebling Museum

I have lived in Trenton for 24 years but never made it to the town of Roebling, the factory and company town built by the Roeblings in the early 20th Century, barely 10 miles south of Trenton. I remedied this omission recently, on a beautiful spring day. Rode my bike to the River Line light rail, then took a brief and scenic ride to Roebling.

The Roebling Museum is a well-designed and informative small museum, housed in the nicely renovated former gate house to the Roebling Kinkora Works. It is one of the few factory complex buildings still standing, and this is one of the museum’s main incongruities, that you need to use your imagination to conjure the massiveness, the monumental scale that characterized the Roebling steel works here. The hanger-like buildings are gone, and the 200 acre site spreads out before you, calm and grass-covered, a far cry from when dirt, noise, heat, and workers tending monumental machinery as far as the eye could see prevailed.

There are hints of the huge scale of the former factory, most notably in the massive iron wheel set amid the metal skeletan of what must have been a long gantry, at one end of a field by the museum. Several big cupolas are sited there too. Also, inside the museum entrance stands a Roebling-size wrench, taller than I am.

And that is what is amazing about the John A. Roebling’s Sons Company, the size and scale. Of the projects it took on, building bridges that are some of the biggest man-made structures on earth. And of the factories in Trenton and Roebling from which issued the component parts for those projects.

If you wanted something big done, Roebling was your company. Engineer the transport of the 71-foot, 244-ton Cleopatra’s Needle Obelisk from Alexandria, Egypt to New York then construct a device that would cradle and install it upright in Central Park? Build and install huge steel mesh curtains across American harbors to keep out enemy submarines during World War II? Roebling did it.

I was the lone visitor that afternoon. I had a nice talk with the volunteers. One of them had worked on the railroad at the Roebling factory (yes, the plant had its own private railroad). He told me the massive object out front was a flywheel for the huge machine that extruded the near-molten steel ingots into ever smaller and longer pieces, the first step in making wire.

“Sometimes the ingots weren’t hot enough and they got stuck. That wasn’t a good thing,” he said. “They had to be cut away.”

The man told me the huge wrench was built for a single nut, which anchored an assembly on the factory floor. Regularly, the steel assembly would grind down until it was unusable and had to be replaced. Another was put in place and bolted down by several men using that wrench.

In this huge industrial scheme, the thousands of workers were simply cannon fodder, so it is interesting that many former workers speak about their company years with loyalty, pride and satisfaction. The Roeblings did things well, that was how they did business, so they housed workers well too. That was just good business, not altruism.

Likely in part because of the participation of Roebling descendents in the museum’s founding, and it’s municipal ties, which seek more to promote the “Model Town” paternalism of Roebling than anything else, some basic facts aren’t evident at the museum. The expansion out of Trenton was a purely business decision, to free Roebling from reliance on huge steel cartels of the time, and also made in part so the company wouldn’t have to deal with Trenton’s Italian workers, who had a reputation for agitation and union organizing at Roebling’s Trenton factories. Italians were reportedly barred from the new town and factory.

The Roeblings sold out in 1952, and everything was closed in 1974, leaving the Kinkora Works so contaminated it was later declared a federal Superfund site (the site is now a Brownfield and the town of Roebling is seeking developers).

There is something forlorn about the town of Roebling today. The company town still appears very much as it must have when the factory operated, solid brick row houses along wide avenues, yet it has gone to seed somewhat. Even so, from the edge of town the view out over a wide bend in the Delaware River is expansive and beautiful, and the park overlooking the river still hosts families and kids playing, likely just as it did a hundred years ago.