The Tiny Town That Rewired History
Walking among the slate-roofed brick homes of Roebling, New Jersey, along the banks of the US East Coast’s Delaware River, it’s strange to think that so many of the world’s best known transportation structures and mechanisms – from the lifts in the Eiffel Tower to the ski lifts in Lake Tahoe, California – stem from this small, self-contained company town.
Less than a century ago, kids here jumped into the river’s free-flowing waters on sweltering summer days, while their fathers and uncles went to work melting and stretching steel in the nearby factory mills – and where their mothers and aunts would soon replace them in the 1940s when their husbands went off to war.
Roebling is barely a blip on the map when it comes to tourism, but the mark it has left on the world is profound.
“Otis elevators, ski lifts, and some of the world’s most iconic bridges, including the Golden Gate and Brooklyn bridges – they’ve all used Roebling cables,” said Lou Borbi, 75, a retired schoolteacher and life-long resident of Roebling, the riverside company-community-turned-dormitory town located between New York City and Philadelphia.
“If you go into the Cable Car Museum in San Francisco, you’ll see that the city’s first cable cars used Roebling cables to pull them up its steep hills,” he added.
In fact, Roebling crafted every control cable, spark plug and electrical wire on aviator Charles Lindbergh’s iconic Spirit of St Louis, which the American aviator and explorer used to complete the world’s first solo non-stop transatlantic flight, as well as all the cable stays on the first aeroplane belonging to the Wright brothers, who changed the course of aviation.
Without Roebling, it seems, some of our greatest modes of transport may not even exist.
The history of Roebling started with German-born family patriarch John A Roebling, who made Roebling a household name with his innovative wire-rope cable. This paved the way for some of the country’s most extraordinary suspension bridges, though it was John’s third and youngest son, Charles, who founded the New Jersey company town.
At the start of the 20th Century, John A Roebling’s Sons Company already ran a successful wire rope plant in the manufacturing hub of Trenton, approximately 18km up the Delaware River from where Roebling is today. But to complete with prosperous firms like US Steel and Bethlehem Steel, Charles knew the company had to begin producing its own raw material. In 1904, he secured more than 240 acres of central New Jersey land – much of it former peach orchards – and constructed a new steel- and wire-making plant comprising more than 70 buildings. Charles then built Roebling village to house the company’s employees.
Like many others, Borbi’s grandparents emigrated to the town of Roebling from Eastern Europe – in their case Hungary, in what is now part of Romania – to work in the company plant, where they transformed giant blocks of molten steel into fine strips of wire, galvanised metal, and cast and produced billets (bars of metal) in the mills.
Each morning, his father and uncles walked from the front doors of their row homes in the part of the village dubbed ‘Gypsy Town’ for its predominantly Eastern European immigrant population (American-born residents and Swedes first brought over to build the village lived in single family homes beyond 5th Street) to Roebling’s Main Gate Building, where they clocked in for work.
“At one point, I had 54 relatives living here,” Borbi said, a number that wasn’t all that uncommon, since Roebling offered its employees fair working conditions and a good standard of living.
“As far as company towns go, there aren’t many that are still intact today, let alone ones that have the community feel of Roebling,” said Varissa McMickens Blair, executive director of the Roebling Museum, which opened in the community’s former Main Gate Building – a connector between the village and the mills – in 2009.
“Residents lived in proper homes – not shared houses or bungalows – and unlike the majority of worker villages, Roebling paid their employees in real cash, not company scrip. If your spouse was working at the plant and died, you didn’t have to move. You were already part of the family.”
The self-contained community – laid out in a rectangular grid of wide streets lined with more than 750 red brick houses, of which many are still standing – had pretty much everything, from a general shop where residents could purchase whatever they needed, whether it was meat for the freezer or a piano for the living room, to an inn whose proprietor would bottle his own beer from kegs in the cellar and that drew long lines during US Prohibition. Roebling family members made frequent appearances in the mill, addressing many of their employees by name, and while other company towns outlawed drinking and gambling, Roebling welcomed them. According to Borbi, many Roebling residents – especially those in Gypsy Town – would even make their own moonshine.
“Blacksmiths would make the distils at the plant, then break them down, bring them home and set them back up to make home-grown spirits.”
These unusual offerings for a company town attracted a skilled workforce and led to a camaraderie both between the employees and with the Roebling family – which all contributed to keeping the plant running smoothly and efficiently. As did some shrewd thinking on the Roeblings’ part.
“Charles Roebling was all about smart planning,” McMickens Blair said, including building the town near the Camden and Amboy Railroad, which connected two of the country’s most prosperous cities, New York City and Philadelphia – a boon when it came to transporting their product to the masses. With this ability to manufacture their own steel, transform it into wire on site and then deliver it, the company’s production soared.
During the 1930s and ‘40s, Roebling became one of the US’ top employers, producing aircraft control wire for bomber planes and steel for anti-submarine nets (including a massive one protecting New York Harbor), and doing their part to literally ‘rewire’ the course of history. But when the end of World War II led to a reduced need for such materials, the company decided to sell its homes to village residents, and for the first time allowed outsiders not associated with Roebling to purchase property in town. Maintaining just a few managerial roles, in 1952 they sold John A Roebling’s Sons Company to Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, and in 1974 both the Trenton and Roebling plants closed.
While it’s been more than 50 years since Roebling’s peak, their contribution to 20th-Century industry is unmistakable. Whether you’re boarding a plane or driving across a suspension bridge, Roebling has had a hand in that history, and a visit to the town’s Roebling Museum shows just how expansive their reach has been.
Here you’ll find original pieces of Roebling cable from both the Golden Gate Bridge (which is celebrating 85 years since construction began) and George Washington Bridge, which stretches between Manhattan and northern New Jersey. There’s an exhibit on Mercer Automobiles, the Roebling’s own early 20th-Century auto manufacturing company that was creating sports cars at the same time the Ford Motor Company was promoting the Model T; and a gallery devoted solely to the building of the Brooklyn Bridge.
This latter is where you’ll find what is undoubtedly one of the museum’s most fascinating stories: that of Emily Warren Roebling, the wife of Washington Roebling, who was chief engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge’s construction.
“When Washington developed caisson disease – also known as ‘the bends’ – and nearly died, Emily actually taught herself the principles of engineering [from learning the principles of stress analysis to how to construct a cable] so that she could step in and help,” said McMiekens Blair. An educated and smart woman, as well as Washington’s closest confidant, Emily was then able to convince local politicians to allow Washington to retain his role as chief engineer while she took over the day-to-day duties. Emily became one of the world’s first female field engineers, paving the way towards gender equality while completing one of the US’ most iconic architectural structures.
The museum also boasts a small gift shop stocking recipe books from Roebling’s founding immigrant groups and even the stair-walking Slinky toy, engineer-designed and originally made using Roebling wire.
As for Borbi, he just finished writing a book on Roebling town history compiled from more than four decades of research. Growing up, Borbi said, he really didn’t realise how special the place was, just that he loved living here.
“Roebling took care of its people,” he said, “while they were also busy taking care of the world.”