One hundred ago Trenton was a center of innovation, entrepreneurship, and skilled employment, and a new exhibit at Ellarslie, the City Museum in Cadwalader Park, highlights the accomplishments of the City’s greatest enterprise – the John A. Roebling Son’s Company.
The exhibit features many rarely seen artworks, publications, and objects illustrating the vast scope of Roebling products for national and international markets.
The most notable artwork is an 1898 ink and gouache painting from the collection of the New Jersey State Museum of the Roebling Works on South Broad Street and the Delaware and Raritan Canal. The Roebling brothers, Washington, Ferdinand, and Charles, commissioned the painting to capture the tremendous growth in the fifty years since their father, John A. Roebling, founded the factory with a single wire rope shop in 1848.
Expertly rendered by H.B. Longacre, a Philadelphia artist about whom little is known, the painting illustrates the tremendous investment, employment, and productivity in Trenton during the height of America’s industrial age. From that first rope shop in 1848, the Roeblings expanded their works over three city blocks with dozens of mills and shops, including the first of several four-story mills. Longacre meticulously and precisely depicted the incredible bustle at the Works, with numerous billowing smokestacks and steam vents, and with workers, horses, steam locomotives, canal boats, and electric trolleys in motion.
In the center of the painting the house that John Roebling built in 1855 for his family at the intersection of South Broad Street and the D&R Canal presides over the Works as the Roebling General Office. Today the building is part of the Mercer County Administration complex in the former Roebling offices that the County acquired in 1969 as the Works gradually shut down.
According to Jenny Martin-Wicoff, the State Museum’s Registrar of Fine Art, the Museum acquired the Roebling Works painting from a couple in Louisiana in 1983 with funds provided by Ferdinand W. Roebling III. The painting was temporarily exhibited around that time, and in 1989 it was briefly exhibited at the Squibb Gallery in Lawrenceville. The Roebling exhibition at Ellarslie provides a rare opportunity for the public to see this marvelous representation of Trenton’s industrial power. The Trenton Roebling Community Development Corporation reproduced the painting with the permission of the State Museum in 1992 and with support from Leigh Photographics, today’s Leigh Visual Imaging in West Windsor. Prints are available at Ellarslie.
Richard Willinger, the Curator of the Roebling exhibit, has included four large paintings that the Roebling Company commissioned for its display at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The paintings include two iconic bridges in the Roebling legacy – the Brooklyn Bridge, completed in 1883, and the George Washington Bridge, completed in 1931 – and two scenes within the Roebling rope shops. When Mercer County purchased the Roebling offices, County workers found seven Roebling World’s Fair paintings in the basement, and the County donated them to Ellarslie in 1982. A donor recently paid for the cleaning of the George Washington Bridge painting, and Ellarslie is looking for a donor to support the cleaning of the Brooklyn Bridge painting. Two of the paintings are on loan to the Roebling Museum in Roebling, N.J. where the Roeblings built a steel mill and a company town in 1906.
The exhibit includes a watercolor of the Roebling Works by Tom Malloy, Trenton’s beloved artist who compellingly documented the City’s buildings, monuments and streetscapes over several decades. Tom worked in the Roebling wire mill during World War II and shared his experiences there in a 1993 oral history.
Besides producing wire and wire rope for landmark suspension bridges, including the Golden Gate Bridge, Roebling manufactured “unthinkable” miles of wire rope in Trenton for elevators, cable cars, tramways, airplanes, shipping, mining, construction, and ski lifts – and it made wire for electrical lines, telegraphs and telephones, wire cloth and screens, and prestressed concrete. The exhibit highlights the scope of Roebling innovations and production with wire and wire rope samples, Company brochures, and hand-made wooden patterns of machine parts.
At its height during World War I the Roebling Company employed 8,000 workers in Trenton and Roebling. Many employees were immigrants from eastern and southern Europe, and the steady work at Roebling fostered their assimilation and enabled them to raise their families within the American dream. When John Smith got a job at Roebling at the age of 19, his mother told him, “Now you’re set for life.”
But the challenges were great a century ago, as workers struck Roebling and other Trenton manufacturers for better wages and working conditions, and huge fires suspected of being arson or sabotage destroyed several Roebling mills. The Roebling plants were finally unionized in 1941 just before the U.S. entry into World War II. After four generations of family ownership, the Roeblings sold their plants to the Colorado Fuel & Iron Company, which operated them into the 1970s. Today, thousands of residents in Trenton, Roebling, and surrounding towns count former Roebling employees among their ancestors.
And today, the town of Roebling and the Roebling Museum are thriving, former Roebling buildings in Trenton’s Chambersburg section house offices and senior citizens, and the Roebling Market is bustling with the City’s latest immigrants from Central and South America. Artworks’ Art All Night event at the City-owned Roebling Machine Shop annually attracts an incredibly diverse regional audience numbering in the tens of thousands. And HHG Development, a Trenton enterprise, is poised to start converting the four-story, 148,000 sq. ft. Roebling Rope Shop 101 into 138 loft apartments. Although it’s taken longer than expected, the redevelopment of the Roebling Works in Trenton is gradually fulfilling the mixed-use plan that I envisioned as a graduate student in 1984 and that the Trenton Roebling Community Development Corporation started promulgating in 1985.
The John A. Roebling Son’s Company exhibit at Ellarslie runs through December 6.
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