South Jersey Heritage: A Social, Economic and Cultural History - R. Craig Koedel
Throughout much of the 19th century, the stream banks of South Jersey echoed with the noise of hammers driving nails into oak beams and boards, as the hundreds of hulls of schooners and sloops took shape on the stocks. The air was acrid with the smell of lampblack and turpentine. Here and there, canvas lay about, waiting to be bent on to the spars of finished ships.
South Jersey shipyards were plentiful and busy during the era of great sailing vessels. A variety of sloop-rigged craft and schooners with two, three, and four masts were commonly built, alongside the humbler cat boats and barges. The timbers of oak and cedar needed for their wooden parts were cut and hauled to the shipyards from nearby forests. In the clay and loam soils of these forests, as Thomas Gordon wrote in 1834, "oak grows abundantly; frequently of great size, and of quality much valued in the construction of ships." As the supply of tall, straight trees diminished, masts were imported. In the years of South Jersey’s iron industry, nails and fittings for the craft came from the furnaces of Burlington and Atlantic Counties.
With few exceptions shipbuilding, which was a major industry in South Jersey from 1830 to about 1880, was concentrated on the broad, larger rivers, with deep channels and unobstructed access to open water. In Atlantic County, where more than 200 vessels were built during the century, the Great Egg Harbor River and its tributary streams were the center of the industry. The shipyards at Mays Landing and the surrounding area produced at least half of the county’s output.
George May built ships at the Landing during colonial times. However, the site rose to prominence in the 1830’s when George Wheaton, a pioneer shipbuilder of the 19th century, turned out the first of his two dozen schooners at the mouth of Babcock’s Creek. Other Mays Landing shipwrights were Samuel Gaskill, credited with eleven schooners, James and John Clark, who built twenty-two schooners, and Nicholas Lane, a builder of schooners and barkentines. The larger vessels, four-masters of 1000 tons burden, were towed to deep water. The Taulane, last of the Mays Landing vessels, slid down the ways in 1885. In later years, only the hulls were made; they were outfitted with masts and rigging at Philadelphia, where they had been towed.
The Landing was Weymouth’s port; so quantities of the iron furnace’s products made their way downstream and along the coast on vessels of Mays Landing construction. Likewise, schooners laden with charcoal and cordwood left the Landing for calls at New York, Philadelphia, the ports of Virginia, and elsewhere.
Also along the Great Egg Harbor, sloops and schooners were turned out in quantity at Somers Point until 1890. Construction along tributary Patcong Creek began in 1800, when Christopher Van Sant built a full-rigged ship at Joel’s Landing, and continued until 1868, when the schooner, L. A. Rose was completed. Fifteen schooners and smaller craft were attributed to Israel Smith’s shipyard at English Creek. Both Leedsville (Linwood) and Bakersville (Northfield), where two-masted schooners of thirty tons capacity were built, contributed to Atlantic County’s output of sailing vessels during the 19th century.
Absecon Creek, a small stream with a deep channel in shipbuilding days, was a major center. Between 1858 and 1879, twenty-three ships of Absecon construction were registered at the Port of Great Egg Harbor. Seven of them were three-masted schooners over 100 feet long. Other vessels were smaller schooners, sloops, and a cat boat. According to a government list, nineteen Absecon ships were afloat in 1893. Although engaged primarily in the coasting trade, these ships frequented the West Indies as well, and called, on occasion, at South American ports.
Shipyards dotted the banks of the Mullica River, at Green Bank and Crowleytown, for example, and the tributary Bass and Wading Rivers. At Port Republic, the Van Sant yards stood along Nacote Creek. In addition to its other industries, Batsto was something of a shipbuilding center. Not all the vessels engaged in Batsto commerce were constructed at the village; however, that there were stocks at Batsto is shown in the example of the schooner Frelinghuysen, which was launched there in July, 1844. Several years before, the schooner Batsto slid down the ways.
Three Cape May County streams, Goshen and Dennis Creeks and the Tuckahoe River, were the sites of shipyards in the 19th century. The Garrison shipyard at Goshen had stocks for the simultaneous construction of two vessels, which, upon being launched, were slipped into the water sideways. Twenty-five ships of record were built at Goshen between 1859 and 1898. Fifty-six ships, as well as smaller boats, were turned out at Dennis Creek between 1848 and 1901, thirty of them from the yard of Jesse Diverty. As at Goshen, these craft, because of the narrowness of the creek, had to be launched sideways, and then were often kedged down the creek to the bay. Shipyards lined the Tuckahoe River on both sides, with centers at Tuckahoe and Marshallville, where at one time fourteen vessels were under construction simultaneously.
Because of their distance from the forested regions of South Jersey, Camden, Gloucester, and Salem Counties were less prominent in shipbuilding during the era of wooden vessels than Atlantic County and northern Cape May County. Nevertheless, three- and four-masted schooners were turned out from the Samuel Tilton shipyard at Camden, and a shipyard at Kaign’s Point was kept active with government contracts during the Civil War and afterward. Vessels were built on Mantua Creek, at Carpenter’s Landing.
At Salem, twenty-four vessels of 650 tons and less, eleven of them steamers and canal boats, left the ways between 1840 and 1846, with eleven vessels still on the stocks during the latter year.
Cumberland County was the scene of several important shipbuilding enterprises in the 19th century. A shipyard at Bridgeton, where two large schooners and sloops were under construction, is recorded in the 1838 census. Rice and Brothers was a later shipbuilding concern of prominence in Bridgeton. Stocks for building schooners with three and four masts stood on the Maurice River at Leesburg, Maurice-town, Millville, and Dorchester. Greenwich on the Cohansey was a site noted for the construction of oyster boats late in the 19th century.
The building of sailing ships was a continuing Cumberland County industry well into the 20th century. The last Maurice River vessel to engage in the coasting trade was a four-masted schooner, built at Leesburg in 1904. Smaller schooners used in the oyster industry were launched from shipyards at Greenwich and Dorchester as late as 1929 and 1930.
To a large extent the oyster fishery in Delaware Bay, which spawned the hundreds of schooners that formerly stood at anchor, deck to deck, under a forest of masts in the Maurice and Cohansey Rivers, was the offspring of the railroads. The oyster business began to grow after the Civil War. Until 1876, when tracks were laid to the Maurice River, oysters from the Delaware Bay grounds were carried to Philadelphia by schooner, or hauled overland in wagons. With the coming of the railroad, the industry and the towns on the river prospered. By 1886, ninety carloads of oysters in the shell were being shipped every week from Bivalve. The demand was so heavy by the later 1800’s that the 300 boats dredging for oysters were inadequate to supply the market. Skip-jacks and bugeyes were brought in from the Chesapeake Bay to augment the Delaware Bay fleet. Until the 1930’s, as a captain from Port Norris remembered it, the bivalves of the bay cast a golden glow upon the Maurice River towns, where the newly-affluent strutted in a manner not unlike that of the lucky forty-niners in California.
Glassmaking at Wistarberg, site of the only such operation in colonial New Jersey, came to an end about the time His Majesty’s colonies were throwing off the British yoke. Why the prosperous factory closed down at a time when, with imported glass being cut off by the war the demand for the domestic product was gaining, remains a mystery, but the pronouncedly Loyalist inclination of the Wistar family was doubtless a factor. Nevertheless, the art introduced into Salem County by Caspar Wistar was taken up, without interruption, by others whose skills and enterprise in the making of glass forged it into a leading South Jersey industry.
Before the Wistarberg complex was put up for sale, in 1780, a similar factory was in operation nearby at Glass House (Glassboro). A German family of glassmakers by the name of Stanger had migrated to Wistarberg in 1768. There they worked in the employ of the Wistar family (the eldest son, Solomon, blew glass at the Stiegel factory in Pennsylvania), until they recouped the fortune they had lost in Germany, and purchased 200 acres in Gloucester County in 1779. Soon, they built a furnace at the site, called Glass House, and began manufacturing glass.
Unfortunately, the Stangers were impoverished a second time by the post-Revolution depression. They were forced to sell their holdings which, by 1786, were in the hands of two Revolutionary colonels, Thomas Heston and Thomas Carpenter. Some of the Stangers stayed on at Glass House as managers and blowers; others left to operate new furnaces in the surrounding area. Out of the Heston-Carpenter business union and the descendents of each emerged 19th-century Glassboro, with such prominent companies as the Olive Glass Works, the Harmony Glass Works, and one that became a leading bottlemaking plant in America, the Whitney Glass Works, which was in production until the First World War. Throughout the 19th century, at the Whitney works bottles were turned out in such shapes as an Indian Queen, ears of corn, fish, log cabins, and the renowned Booz bottles.
The Stangers assisted two half-brothers, Thomas and James Lee, in establishing a glassmaking concern, the Eagle Glass Works, at Port Elizabeth around 1799. In 1806, James Lee set up a glass furnace at Millville. The Stangers were involved, too, in founding a Cape May County glassworks at Marshallville, on the Tuckahoe River, around 1814. Other pre-1820 glass furnaces were located at Malaga, Clementon, and Hammonton, a village named after the glassmaker’s son, John Hammond Coffin. By 1820, an estimated eleven South Jersey glass firms were in operation.
The industry’s advance during the 1820’s has been mentioned in connection with the laying of the Camden and Atlantic Railroad. A listing of other glassmaking centers, in addition to those named elsewhere in this book, will serve to impress upon the reader the extent of glass manufacturing in South Jersey during the 19th century: New Brooklyn, Estellville, Williamstown, Nesco, Camden, Tansboro, Quinton’s, Fislerville, Minotola, Clayton, Woodbury, Salem, Elmer, Janvier, Fairton, Vineland, and Swedesboro. Millville, Camden, Glassboro and Salem each had several factories; Bridgeton, in and about 1889 had twenty. On the Burlington County side of the Mullica River were Crowleytown, Bull Town, Green Bank, and Hermann City, where an ill-fated enterprise of six -months’ duration specialized in Christmas tree ornaments and glass fruit.
Batsto, if only because of its recent prominence as a restored iron and glass village, deserves special mention. Anticipating that the profits from ironmaking would continue to diminish, Jesse Richards followed the example of his brother, Thomas, at Jackson and introduced the manufacture of glass at Batsto. The first of two furnaces was ready for production on September 6, 1846, a second in 1848. For a time, the demand for Batsto’s output was heavy, especially for glass panes that East coast cities were then installing in their municipal gas lamps.
Glassmaking, however, was never the success at Batsto that ironmaking had been. The furnaces were subject to recurring fires that put them out of commission for months at a time, even for as long as a year in the fire of 1856. Deficiencies in the quality of glass, too, were harmful to Batsto’s reputation, and so to its prosperity. Customers complained in 1851 that window panes were cut shorter than the specifications, that their corners were broken because of improper packing, and that they were not of uniform quality. The larger panes were too thin and not well flattened.
Although the Batsto glass business was declining noticeably by 1861, the Civil War years were generally prosperous. When the workers struck for payment in cash instead of company scrip in 1867, Batsto was dealt a crippling blow from which it did not recover. When their demands were met, the men returned to their jobs, but within less than three months the Batsto works closed down, never to reopen. The furnaces and most of the other buildings of the village, abandoned and dilapidated, were consumed by fire in 1874. There remained the mansion, with its outbuildings, a few workers’ cottages, the store, and the mill that are standing today, but nothing of the glass factory and its related buildings, nor of the iron works, which had preceded the demise of the glass industry at Batsto by twenty years.
The most, by far, of the marketed products from the 19th-century South Jersey furnaces were window glass, bottles of various sorts, pictorial and historical flasks, and jars. Nevertheless, what has become most famous as South Jersey glass were the whimsies, such as glass canes and rolling pins, among other items of doubtful practicality, and the "fine" glass pieces such as pitchers, vases, and bowls that were turned out by blowers during spare moments at the end of the day, when they had the leisure to express their creative urges. Millville and Vineland paperweights were notable works of early 20th-century art glass from South Jersey.
The early South Jersey style of glass was made until the mid-19th century in southern New Jersey. Its influence, by that time, extended to glassmaking in New England, New York State, and in places as far removed as western Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Kentucky. The style mirrored the German origins of South Jersey master glassblowers, but it evolved a number of uniquely American features as well. The characteristics of South Jersey glass are clearly distinguishable. All of it is hand made, free blown from window or bottle glass, and manipulated into various shapes by tools. (Molds were in use at the time, and later pressed glass was manufactured in South Jersey, but experts tend to deny the appellation "South Jersey Glass" to pieces made in this manner.) Swirls, known as "lily pad," were applied for decoration; the feet of vessels and their handles, often double-strapped, were ornamented with dents or flutes, called "crimping." Pitchers and vases sometimes were made by fusing glass loops of two or three contrasting colors into a whorled or waved pattern.
Another industry that sprang from a South Jersey natural resource and flourished for a time was the making of paper. Paper manufacturing was first introduced to the area at Harrisville, in Burlington County, where William McCarty had a double paper mill in operation by 1835. Utilizing the salt grass from the marshes for his raw material, McCarty could produce up to a ton of paper a day from one of his mills. It was a heavy-grade, yellowish-brown paper, quite strong, that was useful primarily as wrapping, or "butcher’s," paper.
McCarty’s primitive manufacturing process was updated by Richard Harris and his brothers, who bought the factory in 1851. For a time, the enterprise prospered, but competition from even more refined processes elsewhere and the necessity to export the finished product by mule- or ox-drawn wagons to a railroad station ten miles away reduced the business to bankruptcy before the end of the century. The abandoned village of Harrisville, once a thriving town with steam heat and gas-lit street lamps, fell victim to fire, vandalism, and the encroaching Pine Barrens.
A papermaking center in Atlantic County, at Weymouth, succumbed to poor management and bankruptcy about the time of Harrisville’s expiration. A paper mill had been built near the charred ruins of the defunct iron furnace in 1866. Manila paper and waterproof roofing paper, placed on display at Philadelphia’s Centennial Exhibition in 1876, were the chief products of Weymouth. Still in full production in 1886, the company declined shortly afterward and was bankrupt by 1887. Attempts to reopen the mill after a sheriff’s sale in 1890 met with failure. Today the ruins, the site of a small park, are being protected by the county from annihilation.
Of more enduring success was a papermaking enterprise at Pleasant Mills. A cotton mill, about which little is known but which apparently was of considerable size and quantity of output, was erected there soon after the Richards family gained possession of the village in 1798. The victim of a series of fires, the factory went out of existence in 1855. The industry that replaced it, after possession of the tract passed out of the Richards’ hands in 1860, was the making of paper from salt grass. By the 1870’s the factory and the town were prospering.
Fire was a continual threat to the paper mill, as it had been to the cotton mill before it. Destroyed by an 1878 fire that roared through the village, sparing only the colonial mansion and a few houses, the mill underwent several years of reconstruction. Modern machinery was installed, an improvement that brought a doubling of production, while better firefighting equipment was set up close at hand. Barely escaping destruction by fire in 1900, the factory was rewired.
In full production until the First World War, turning out quantities of wrapping paper, documentary paper for the U. S. Government, and a base for sandpaper, the Pleasant Mills plant was shut down in 1915 by the widow of the late company president. The war, with its shortages and restrictions, doomed an attempted reopening by a new owner. The abandoned old mill, in ruins, was converted into a summer playhouse in 1953, but the theater in the Pines was a short-lived and unprofitable venture in art and culture at the doorstep of Elijah Clark who, two centuries before, had been the most cultivated denizen of the Egg Harbor country. Today a tangle of vines creeps up and over the darkened playhouse.
The manufacturing of textiles was on its way to becoming a leading South Jersey industry by the end of the 19th century. Besides the pre-Civil War cotton mill at Pleasant Mills, a cotton factory was in operation at Lambtown (Almonesson) for a short time after 1830. A mill was built at Millville in 1848 where, until modern times, the entire process of spinning thread from raw cotton, weaving, bleaching, dyeing, and finishing for over-the-counter sale was carried through at one factory. In 1865, in order to utilize the waterpower of the Great Egg Harbor River, three partners built a cotton mill at Mays Landing where, until 1949, it was the chief industry. The Washington Mills at Gloucester City, established in 1844, was carrying 700 workers on its payroll by the mid-1870’s. Silk manufacturing, dreamed of since Revolutionary times as a potential South Jersey industry, was being conducted by 1880 in Camden, where woolen mills also were in operation. In fact, with its 125 factories in 1870, among which were iron, nickel, pen, oil cloth, and chemical plants, and a cannery, Camden had become the industrial center of South Jersey.
Although industrial growth accelerated during the latter half of the 19th century, in some parts of South Jersey agriculture, employing improved methods, remained the economic base well into the 20th century. Marl, the savior of South Jersey farmlands during the middle decades of the 1800’s, was supplanted by commercial fertilizers before 1890. Meanwhile, the chief cash crops had changed, too, from wheat and other grains to fruits, vegetables, and poultry. New farm machinery and the selective breeding of livestock were introduced. Farms in Atlantic and Camden Counties tended to become smaller and more numerous as the large fields were carved into truck gardens.
In Salem County, the cattle population expanded along with the dairy industry. Gloucester and Cumberland Counties excelled in the production of potatoes, with Gloucester County growing more than half of the state’s crop of Jersey "sweets" at the turn of the century. A third of the state’s grape vines were in Atlantic County in 1899, and another third in Cumberland and Salem Counties.
Tomatoes, said to have been grown in South Jersey for the Philadelphia market as early as the 1840’s, were a major cash crop three decades later. By the wagonload the red fruit, once known as the "love apple" but avoided as food because of its rumored poison, was carried to South Jersey canneries, among them the company begun by Joseph Campbell at Camden in 1869. Others, in huge amounts, were shipped by rail to East Coast cities.
Industrial expansion, whether in iron or agriculture, brings with it an ambiance of exploitation, greed, dehumanization, and the passion to "get ahead" that often erupts in a conflict between labor and management. South Jersey did not escape this turmoil. As has been shown, Batsto was temporarily shut down in 1867 by a strike of glass-workers, who demanded payment for their labor in cash instead of scrip, usable only at the company store. The Batsto dispute was but a prelude to a later series of strikes over the same issue. Company stores were deemed a necessity in the glassmaking villages, far removed from the nearest town or city. It was reasoned that the workers did not need cash when they had no access to outside shopping areas, whereas all they needed could be purchased at the company store with company money. However, they suspected, and the owners knew, that the local prices were ten to fifteen percent higher than elsewhere. Furthermore, a nefarious credit system that involved wage deductions kept the laborers in perpetual debt. Child labor was rife. As a consequence, seemingly hopeless strikes in 1886 (which lasted for two years), in 1893, and again in 1899 almost closed down the South Jersey glass industry. The ultimate tragedy was averted in 1900, when the glass manufacturers and blowers met in Atlantic City to break the hated nexus of company, company scrip, company housing, company-owned stores, and company-owned laborers in the glass towns.
Camden County, in particular, was haunted by the specter of labor unrest in the 1890’s, when labor leaders were arousing the rank and file in nearby Philadelphia. However, albeit Camden laborers, hoping for shorter hours and higher pay, gave an ear to speechmakers of the Knights of Labor and called for strikes in the textile, road construction, and transportation industries, they retreated before the onslaught of threatened dismissal from their jobs, strikebreaking, and the united front of the industrialists. It is paradoxical that one of New Jersey’s most able and vocal union leaders of the late 19th century, Peter J. McGuire, the successful advocate for making Labor Day a legal holiday, was a resident of the city of Camden. Likewise, in Atlantic City, the labor force of the hotel industry was unable to organize in the face of a shortage of jobs and long lines of unemployed who were eager to take their places.
The stooped backs of migrant laborers have been a familiar sight in South Jersey fields since the 1880’s, when Italians were first hauled in from the tenements of Philadelphia and Camden to harvest the vegetables and fruit, especially berries, growing on the area’s flourishing farms. Unlike the industrial workers, they were a silent labor force recruited by Italian padrones from the city ghettos. During the harvest, parents and children bent side by side for ten or more hours a day, seven days a week, over plants and vines, following the ripening crop from spring strawberries to autumn cranberries. Their labors for a season yielded them several hundred dollars, but they lived meantime in miserable shacks, while their children were deprived of schooling. Not until 1940 was child labor legislation in New Jersey extended to agriculture.