By Karen Zautyk
Recently, I was driving west on Rt. 280 through Harrison when I glanced to the south and saw a riveting sight: A huge piece of construction equipment was chewing away at the top floors of old factory building.
A demolition was nothing new, but to see a structure being demolished bite by bite was exceptional.
Besides, I realized that I was witnessing more than the end of a building. It was also the end of an era, an extraordinary time when Harrison was defined as a preeminent factory town, or in the words of President William Howard Taft, a “Beehive of Industry.”
(According to Ray and Karen A. Floriani’s 2003 book, “Harrison”–part of the Images of America series- -that slogan, coined by Taft during a campaign speech in the Harrison, was actually an accidental rephrasing. The President had been told by a councilman that the town was “alive with industries,” but Taft misheard him. Such is the role of misperception in history.)
Harrison had actually been welcoming industry since the 19th century. The Floriani book contains an example, an 1890s lithograph of the Stumpf Tanning Co. complex at the corner of Jersey and Dey Sts., destroyed, alas, by fire in 1898. But more factories were to come.
By 1939, when an aerial photo (see Observer p. 9) published in the book was taken, it depicted a “Beehive” panorama showing the industrial complexes of: Driver-Harris, RCA, Crucible Steel, Worthington Pump, Hyatt Roller Bearings, Reuther Foundry, Campbell Foundry, Otis Elevator, Newark Barrel Co., Schrivers’ Foundry, Allcraft Corrugated and the Kullman Dining Car Co.
They had joined, or were to be joined, by others, including: Edison Lamp Works, the Peter Hauck Brewery, Remco Industries, Nopco Chemical, Hartz Mountain, Ringgold Paper Co. and Guyon Steel.
All this within a 1.3-square mile town.
To put it in perspective, Harrison Councilman Larry Bennett told us that, back at the zenith of his hometown’s industrial strength, its nighttime (residential) population was about 14,000, but at the height of the workday, it was 100,000.
The town reportedly reached its peak during World War II, but factories continued to thrive into the 1960s before the long decline of industry–throughout the U.S.– began.
Bennett explained that RCA met its demise when the radio tube was replaced by new electronics, Otis was bought out by another company, the steel industry started to collapse when companies began buying the metal from Europe, Hartz moved to Secaucus, Hyatt (which Bennett noted had made all the bearings for American tanks in WWII) moved to Edison, other companies moved to the South, and Worthington moved to Wales.
When Harrison’s factoryland was still healthy, I was growing up directly across the Passaic River in Down Neck, Newark. Our apartment was on Raymond Blvd., facing the river, and from our fourth-floor windows we had an unobstructed view across to the meadows and the rail lines and the Industrial Revolution architecture.
Sometimes at night, if its doors were open, you could see glowing vats of orangered molten metal being poured at Crucible Steel. It was like getting a glimpse of Dante’s Inferno–and more than a little frightening.
We could also watch the river traffic of tugs and barges and tankers and freighters— which, along with the railyards, were the reason for Harrison’s phenomenal industrial growth.
The largest ship by far to ply the waters was a massive ocean-going German freighter called the Stern (Star) which would make its way upriver once or twice a year. Where it was going was a mystery that I hope will soon be cleared up.
Considering the depth and narrowness of the upstream Passaic, the Stern was too big to have sailed much farther than just around the bend to Newark or Harrison. I have asked Bennett to investigate and perhaps find out where the heck there had been a dock sufficient to serve the vessel.
(Personal story: The sight of the Stern, which must have frequented exotic ports and seemed to take up the entire width of the Passaic, was thrilling, but I got an even bigger thrill one day.
My uncle Bill Chiara, a port superintendent for the United Fruit Co. in Havana, was visiting us from Cuba and I was watching from our windows as he and my father walked to their car in the parking lot on the riverbank. And what should I see coming upstream but the Stern. Uncle Bill saw it, too, and stopped in his tracks. When the ship came near, I could hear shouting. The crew, who recognized him from their Cuba calls, were hollering their greetings! What were the odds? I was flabbergasted.)
Though I never lived in Harrison, I had friends there and eventually commuted through it daily, and I was developing what I now recognize as a deep affection for the Industrial Revolution factories and their architecture. This came into clearer focus when, after living for years in New York, I returned to this area and saw that they had become empty hulks.
Even as the Red Bull Arena was going up, I had hopes that perhaps one or two of the structures to the north might be preserved, converted to condos or apartments. This was not to be. The building I saw being chewed to the ground was one of them, the last remnant of the Hartz Mountain complex.
Aside from what remains of the former Ringgold Paper building on Essex St., the Hartz factory represented all that was left of a bygone era.
Which is why seeing it disappear was so sad. But I feel better about what I saw after speaking with Jeff Milanaik, president of Heller Industrial Parks, which is developing the old Hartz site.
Milanaik, who noted that his company had been working on plans for the 10-acre plot since 2003, said, “Originally, we hoped we could perform an adaptive reuse [perhaps residential] for the site.” However, “because of the prior industrial uses,” it took a considerable amount of time “to determine what impact those uses had on the structures,” some of which dated to the early 1900s. In all, there were eight buildings, comprising 800,000 square feet.
The Heller firm worked with the Department of Environmental Protection and the Environmental Protection Agency, and it was decided that the most prudent plan was to take the buildings down.
Demolition of the final one, a concrete behemoth dating to 1911, began in April and was completed a few weeks ago. What I saw that day on Rt. 280 was the concluding work.
Milanaik’s company will be developing the site in six phases, starting this summer. The new buildings will be a combination of retail space and rental housing, with some 750 apartments.
And, to my delight, he noted that the project will incorporate both modern architecture “and the Industrial Revolution look that existed there before.”
“We want to mirror that to some degree, with some exterior details,” he said.
It won’t be a duplication, but tribute will be paid to Harrison history.
Harrison has been successfully redefining itself in recent years, turning industrial ghost sites into commercial and residential and sports magnets.
All things change. Progress cannot be stopped. But some of us, while marvelling at the new, will always hold what used to be in fond memory.