The days of factories and shipbuilding Catching a glimpse of Hoboken’s industrial past

The Reporter’s “Tuesdays in Hoboken” series explored northwest last week, through the city’s industrial area near the western border with the Palisade hills.

There were hints of the city’s former heyday as a shipbuilding haven and remnants of the city’s more interesting past employers, from coffee brewers to cupcakes and Tootsie Roll makers. There were also examples of conversions from factories into housing.

A little background

The beginning of last century saw an industrial renaissance that brought more than 250 companies to Hoboken. Major industrial giants such as Maxwell House, Standard Brands, Lipton Tea, Hostess Cakes, Tootsie Roll, Bethlehem Steel and dozens of smaller specialized companies, including Keuffel & Ester Instrument Co. and Ferguson Propeller, called Hoboken home. In 1889, there were just over 3,000 manufacturing employees in Hoboken; by 1909, that number increased threefold.

As the 19th century became the 20th, Hoboken was a hotbed of industrial activity. This was due in large part to the planning of Hoboken’s “founding family,” the Stevens family. In the early 19th century, Hoboken was essentially a weekend playground for wealthy New Yorkers to get away from the bustle. But in the second half of the century, the Stevens family, through the Hoboken Land and Improvement Company, began hearty development, building most of the city’s characteristic brownstones.

At this time, the family also began selling land to industrialists, forever changing the face of the city.

The primary industry during Hoboken’s days as an industrial capital was shipbuilding, but at various times the city was home to industries that created a variety of other products that have since become household names. These included Maxwell House and Lipton Tea, as well as snacks and household products that were invented or first produced here, including the Tootsie Roll, slide ruler, the zipper and the ice cream cone.

Today, Hoboken has evolved into a prominent professional community whose skyrocketing real estate prices and lack of open space for expansion have forced the city’s historic industrial employers to disappear one by one. The blighted and unused factories have given way to popular luxury condos with high ceilings, awesome views and urban charm.

Beginning on the waterfront

This past Tuesday was a brilliant day. A crisp fall-like breeze was blowing from the north, signaling that autumn is emerging.

The walk actually began on the city’s east side, since Union Dry Docks, a company that repairs and cleans barges by lifting them completely out of the water, remains on Hoboken’s northern waterfront, on Sinatra Drive. It is the last active maritime industry there.

On Tuesday, a few workers were toiling away, repairing a barage that was docked in the dry dock. Recently, Union Dry Dock and Repair has been the center of rumors. Stevens Institute of Technology has expressed its desire to purchase to the property, but as of yet no deal has been struck, and business goes on as usual, as it has for most of the past century.

Why did this once-bustling port city become nearly devoid of industry? There were really two major occurrences that forced waterfront industries to leave town. The first was World War I. Before the war, Hoboken’s boat slips were a commercial juggernaut teeming with German luxury liners and other commercial vessels. But then came the war and the government froze Germany’s assets on the piers, which devastated the city’s economy.

Not only were waterfront industries affected, but also there was a secondary effect on industries in the city’s interior, which no longer had convenient means to transport their goods out of the city.

But after the first war and the Great Depression, those industries that remained rebounded and many were successful until the 1960s and the invention of shipping “containers” – those orange and red train car-like structures that pile up near the Elizabeth part of the Turnpike; the intermodal shipping units that caused the piers of certain port cities to fall into ruin, including Hoboken’s. Once containers could be taken from trucks to ships without the use of dock workers to move the goods, the industry moved elsewhere. Now only Union Dry Dock remains a reminder of what used to be.

Good to the last drop

As Tuesday’s walk turned north, up Sinatra Drive, directly abutting Union Dry Docks on the eastern waterfront was the old Maxwell House Coffee Plant. The Bauhaus-style Maxwell House, which opened in 1939, was the largest coffee plant of the world. This oversized symbol of Hoboken closed down in 1992.

The move to Hoboken of General Foods coffee, Maxwell House, prompted the Jersey Observer in 1939 to note that the company’s efforts were “The greatest single factor in Hoboken’s amazing industrial boom”.

The factory, for over 50 years, was the largest supplier of blue-collar jobs in Hoboken. Still, even though it is no longer open, the 11-building complex is the largest in the city. Until its controversial closure in March 1992, the factory scented the city’s air with the constant and recognizable smell of roasted beans.

Since its closing, the former industrial building has been home to local artists, a brewery, and even local law firms and other professionals. Local developers recently gained approvals to raze the old factory and build 832 units of housing.

While condos are ready to rise at the Maxwell House site, luxury condos are already built and filled at the former industrial site directly north on Hudson Street.

As the walk continued north, it turned to the luxury dwellings of the intricately finished and modernized Shipyard development on the northern waterfront. The development lies on the former site of a World War II shipyard.

The old shipyard’s machine shop, built by the W. & A. Fletcher Company in 1891, then acquired by Bethlehem Steel, was at the center of the region’s vital shipbuilding and repair industry. During World War II, Bethlehem Steel employees were reported to have worked on more than 4,000 ships, say Hoboken Historical Museum officials. Now, the museum is in the former machine shop building.

The machine shop was in use around the clock, employing as many as 11,000 workers. The shop closed in 1984.

Also in that area was the Todd Shipyards Corporation, started in June 1916 with the backing of the three financiers: Bertron, Grecisms & Company; White, Weld & Company; and William H. Todd.

Todd Shipyards held many valuable military contracts. The shipyards especially prospered during the onset of World War II.

According to historical records, Hoboken handled more than 8,000 ships and 34 million tons of cargo during the time from World War I to World War II.

But Todd Shipyards closed its Hoboken location Sept. 1, 1965.

Adaptive reuse

As the walk left the piers and headed west via 14th Street, the most prominent building was the Hudson Tea Building. Visible throughout the length of Washington Street, the large condo building used to house the Lipton Tea Company and Standard Brands. In fact, Sir Thomas Lipton became a member of the Hoboken Chamber of Commerce in 1919.

What is most interesting about these buildings is that they were converted from a boarded-up factory to one of the city’s most prestigious addresses.

Adaptive Reuse is a process that adapts buildings for new uses while retaining their historic features. The trend of Adaptive Reuse can be seen throughout Hoboken’s west side, where developers continue to look for innovative ways to develop formerly industrial areas.

Another example of Adaptive Reuse is the former U.S. Testing Co. building on Park Avenue and 15th Street, which has been converted into a multi-level parking garage called Park on Park.

Northwest factories

Across the street from Park on Park, between Park and Willow avenues near the central part of the city’s northern boarder, there are still several industrial survivors. One of note is the Stahl Soap factory, which is open and still produces custom soaps for hotels and large-scale businesses.

Stahl is a family-run business that was founded in Vienna over 50 years ago. At just after 4 p.m. Tuesday, about two dozen workers were hopping in their cars there after a long day’s shift.

Just one block north of the soap factory is the former Tootsie Roll Factory. In 1896, Austrian immigrant Leo Hirshfield brought his chewy candy recipe to New York City and gave it his daughter’s nickname, “Tootsie.”

As the popularity of confection grew, the company outgrew its New York digs, and after the depression, it moved to from its 35,000 square-foot space in New York City to a 120,000 square-foot plant in Hoboken. During its time in Hoboken, the candy was included in World War II rations, and its popularity skyrocketed. Today, that same warehouse is home to the Macy’s Day Parade Studio, where the floats and balloons for the Thanksgiving Day Parade are designed and created.

Keeping on the topic of the sweet-tooth, no more than a couple feet away from the former Tootsie Roll factory used to be a huge Hostess Cupcake factory, but that factory closed long ago.

Across Willow

Across Willow Avenue is the one section of Hoboken that is still relatively undeveloped. Heading west on 15th Street toward the Palisades, there are several vacant and parking lots. To the right was the rather unappealing North Hudson Sewerage Authority. On both sides of the street were four city blocks made up of the Academy Bus Lines central storage facility.

Mayor David Roberts has talked in the past about consolidating the Academy property and using the leftover space for ball fields, but little has been mentioned about this plan in the past year. And many of the lots that are currently vacant are part of the city’s Northwest Redevelopment Area, which is the city’s attempt to make better use of underutilized land. Couple this with the coming of the light rail train, which will hug the city’s west side, and there are promises of new, mostly residential development in the former industrial area within the next couple of years.

At 15th and Madison streets, the city’s western terminus, the walk turned left and headed south. While their numbers have diminished, there are still several businesses that are still doing well. Universal Folding Box, at the corner of 13th and Madison streets, is still going strong. With amazing hand-painted murals of Hoboken’s brownstones and the train terminal on the side, this otherwise modest factory is still churning out thousands of cardboard boxes daily. The company has been in Hoboken for the past 93 years.

While Universal Box has survived, many companies find that industrial factories are no longer wanted or feasible in Hoboken. One block to the east of the box company is now the vacated Cognis Chemical Plant. Many long-time Hoboken residents still call the plant at 1301 Jefferson St. Henkel Chemical, after its former owners. The plant recently closed its doors.

The success of Hoboken as a fast growing urban residential community hindered the chemical company’s ability to expand and forced it to close the plant after over 80 years of service.

Also on the west side, there are still reminders of the city’s days as a shipbuilding city. South of Adams Street near the corner of 11th Street, there were the Atlantic Steamers Supply and Atlantic Ship Agencies, which are, respectively, an equipment wholesaler and boating technology company.

Just two blocks west of these companies at 1132 Clinton St. is the former home of Ferguson Propeller, the Hoboken-based company that made the propellers for the Titanic. Now there are condos on that site.

Want to learn more?

To learn more about the city’s industrial areas, Join Hoboken Historical Museum Trustee Terry Pranses on Sunday, Oct. 12, at 2 p.m. for an expedition across Hoboken’s northern and western perimeter, looking for the city’s proud turn in the Industrial Age. The tour costs $10 for museum members and $15 for non-members and will travel roughly three miles, taking two hours and 20 minutes.

The next installation of “Tuesdays in Hoboken” will focus on the city’s far western border, as the Reporter walks where the Hoboken Housing Authority projects were built and the new light rail train will run.


© 2000, Newspaper Media Group