South Jersey Heritage: A Social, Economic and Cultural History - R. Craig Koedel
Except for its two cities, Camden and Atlantic City, and a handful of large towns such as Woodbury, Salem, and Vineland, South Jersey was a rural society going into the 20th century. Seventy years of growing industrialization, improved highways and methods of transportation, speedier communications, and technological advances of all kinds, mixed with the trauma of war, a shifting of vocational goals, and a rearranging of social and personal values have altered the complexion of most of the region.
The transformation from a rural to an industrial region began along the Delaware River as the 20th century dawned, when the manufacturing of explosives was introduced to Gloucester and Salem Counties, and the gigantic New York Shipbuilding Company was located at Camden. With the coming of the war in 1914, these nascent industries burgeoned, bringing in new people by the tens of thousands. At the same time, local farmers abandoned their fields to take up lucrative jobs in the factories.
Sleepy riverside villages, like Penns Grove, bulged with a population that quintupled inside of five years. Hundreds of frame houses were hastily erected at Carney’s Point and Deepwater, while Pennsville, Woodstown, and Salem tried to absorb the overflow of workers and their families who were seeking housing. Fenwick’s Colony ceased for all time to be a purely agricultural community. After the war, new industries replaced the defunct powder plants; most Salem Countians did not return to the soil.
Along the river bank, northward toward Camden, the same conditions prevailed after 1914. Nineteen thousand employees of the New York Shipbuilding Company, with their families, streamed into Camden, creating a mammoth housing problem. The huge Victor Talking Machine Company converted to wartime production, hiring thousands of additional workers. Another 6500 employees took up jobs at shipbuilding factories in Gloucester City. Government-subsidized housing was quickly and often poorly constructed in such developments as Yorkship (now Fairview) Village and Noreg Village.
The interior regions of South Jersey did not escape the frantic industrialization brought on by the First World War. Bethlehem Steel set up a shell-loading plant outside Mays Landing. The quiet, county seat of under 2000 people was inundated with 6500 industrial workers and three times that number of dependents. The settlement of Belcoville accommodated them. Near Hammonton, construction began early in 1918 on the town of Amatol, planned for a possible population of 25,000. It was a community intended to house the families brought there by a shell-loading firm, the Atlantic Loading Company. Unlike the communities along the Delaware, however, the Atlantic County towns suffered few permanent effects from the industrial intrusion. Belcoville today is little more than a crossroads village, while Amatol is nonexistent. Only a historical marker, recently placed, and a sandy road or two give the passer-by a clue that it was there less than sixty years ago.
During the years of the 1914-1918 war, the streets of Cape May were crowded with upwards of 15,000 men who were stationed at the Camp Wissahickon Naval Training Barracks. They were there to guard the merchant ships, troop carriers, and submarine chasers docked at Cold Spring Harbor.
The thunder of guns from submarine warfare out on the water rolled back to the beaches. There was a flourish of patriotism expressed in Liberty Bond parades, victory gardens, patriotic songfests, and the home guards, organizations of men too old to go to the front. Late in the war, troops from all over South Jersey boarded trains bound for the ports of embarkation to the battlefields of France, while patriots sang songs to reassure the countrymen of Lafayette that, "we’ll be over, . . . and we won’t come back ‘til it’s over, over there."
The "war to end all wars" over, South Jersey entered upon the Roaring Twenties. It was a brief era of euphoria for Atlantic City. The Boardwalk was a second Broadway, where shows destined for New York were tried out first before resort audiences. With the shows came a cavalcade of famous stars and wealthy first-nighters. Opera singers were at the Victor music hall, listening to their own voices recorded on discs at the Victor studios in Camden. The first Miss America paraded down the beach in 1921. A promotional scheme to extend the summer season by another week, the Miss America Pageant was moved to the Boardwalk in 1922. The decade ended with the dedication of the Atlantic City Auditorium and Convention Hall in May, 1929, concurrent with the city’s Diamond Jubilee.
Although the stock market crash was still five months in the future when the giant hall was opened, a pall of financial worry was already hanging over Atlantic City. Property values at the shore, having risen sharply when construction was begun on a Delaware River bridge (formerly the Camden Bridge, now the Benjamin Franklin Bridge) early in the 1920’s, plummeted sharply at the end of 1926, when the prosperity anticipated with the opening of the bridge failed to materialize. The entire beachfront, from Brigantine to Cape May, suffered from the collapse. The Miss America Pageant, created as a money-making device, was discontinued after the 1927 production, which went into debt to the tune of 79,000 dollars. The financial crisis brought on by the crash of October, 1929, merely exacerbated an already critical situation along the South Jersey shore.
The seashore tourist industry was begotten by a railroad; the railroad, it seems, continued to be the artery that nourished it with a flow of health and well-being. When the railroads were supplanted by highways in the years after the First World War, as Americans took to their private automobiles, the life line of the shore in its halcyon days was cut off. It began to die slowly of anemia. Air travel in the post-Second World War era was the fatal blow.
The increased use of roads necessitated the building of a highway link between South Jersey and Philadelphia. Unfortunately, the heart of old Camden, in some respects its best part, was demolished to make way for the approaches to the Delaware River bridge, while the city itself was cut in half. Under construction for four and one-half years, "The Bridge," a name for the span still spit out in contempt by those Camden residents who look back upon better days, was dedicated in 1926 by President Calvin Coolidge in time for the Philadelphia Sesquicentennial Exposition. Philadelphia businessmen looked across it for the crowds of Jersey people who, they hoped, would come to their birthday party. Residents of South Jersey, on the other hand, thought this longest suspension bridge in the world would be a conduit bringing them greater prosperity.
A measure of prosperity did come, in the form of more industry, suburban development, and closer ties with Philadelphia. However, with the bridge came also clogged roads, traffic jams, polluted air, and to some extent the decay of Camden’s inner city. Business, money, and the people who could afford to moved to the more attractive outlying areas of the county.
At the end of the 1930’s, emerging slowly from the debris of the Great Depression, industrial South Jersey was injected with new vitality when the impending war in Europe triggered increased production along the Delaware. Camden was the first to feel the effects. In December, 1938, under a contract from the Navy Department, construction was started on the South Dakota at the yards of the New York Shipbuilding Company. As aid to the Allied powers was intensified, and as America’s own defenses were being reinforced, production surged.
With America’s entry into the Second World War, thousands of new workers poured into the shipbuilding factories of Camden County in a mad rush to fill Navy contracts for battleships, cruisers, aircraft carriers, destroyers, and landing craft. At the New York Shipbuilding Company alone, 35,000 employees worked to turn out every conceivable type of modern warship. The R.C.A. plant shifted into war production in 1942, manufacturing electrical equipment critical to the prosecution of the war. The Campbell Soup Company took up the processing of C-rations for the Army. In all, 14% of New Jersey’s industrial war effort between 1940 and 1944 came from Camden County.
In Salem County, the Du Pont Company manufactured chemicals, ammunition, and gunpowder. Toward the end of the war, scientists at the Deepwater installation were among those in the country working on the Manhattan Project. Wartime activity in Cape May County centered around the Naval Air Station and the Coast Guard base. A plant for making incendiary bombs was erected in Atlantic County, while the cotton mill at Mays Landing filled government orders for flags.
Atlantic City and other beach communities were transformed from pleasure resorts into armed camps. The large Boardwalk hotels, leased by the government, were converted into housing and other facilities for the soldiers and airmen who trained on the beaches. In June, 1943, Convention Hall was leased to the government for $75,000 a year. Mid-way through the war, when other accommodations were constructed for the trainees, the hotels and Convention Hall became convalescent hospitals for sick and wounded soldiers.
Meanwhile, strict blackout regulations were enforced to prevent the city’s lights from making American warships, silhouetted against the skyline, convenient targets for enemy submarines. German U-boats came within three miles of the beach. As in the First World War, the sound of battle at sea reverberated on the shore.
The multiplication of highways and bridges, industrial development in some areas and stagnation in others, an eroding of agriculture and tourism as economic staples -- these have been the continuing story of South Jersey since the end of the Second World War. The New Jersey Turnpike, the Garden State Parkway, the Atlantic City Expressway, and the Interstate Highways criss-cross a region that was held together by plank roads a century ago. Alongside the 1926 bridge over the Delaware are four others, more impressive than the first, and a bridge-tunnel to drain the traffic from the lower tip of the state into the South has been proposed. The Delaware River Port, centered at Camden and Gloucester but stretching from Trenton to Deepwater, is one of the busiest in the world. Scores of new factories line the waterfront in lower Camden, Gloucester, and Salem Counties. By contrast, in the city of Camden the New York Shipbuilding Corporation closed its shipyards in 1967. The yards were leased to ship breaking and salvage firms.
Heavy industry’s gain was the farmers’ loss. The South Jersey farmer, having made the required adjustments in the past to maintain a livelihood, reeled before the onslaught of low farm prices and high production costs in the late 1950’s.
Dairymen’s cooperatives and government milk controls staved off a total collapse of the dairy industry, but a dairy barn is now a precarious object on the South Jersey landscape. Whereas favorable prices doubled egg production in New Jersey between the war’s end and 1958, in that year the prices plunged, turning profits into losses for the egg producers in the Pine Barrens. The number of poultry farms in all areas of the business fell rapidly at the same time. Competition from other states was their nemesis.
Crop growers have suffered less from the dislocations of the last two decades. The net value of livestock feed crops and orchard products has remained fairly steady. Vegetable growers, too, have been less devastated by the declining fortunes of New Jersey agriculture. By mechanization, for instance, they have been able somewhat to circumvent the problem of rising labor costs. The market, and the profits, in nursery and greenhouse products is on the rise.
The tentacles of suburban sprawl reach deeper into Camden and Gloucester Counties, and westward from the shore into the mainland areas of Atlantic County. At the same time, trapped in an ambiance of decay, unemployment, and dilapidated housing, people of the inner cities breed in their midst crime and despair, and scorn for the ways and values of the past. Programs of urban renewal are afoot, but progress is slow. As Atlantic City heralds the advent of its new messiah, casino gambling, the mayor of Camden promises a program for a revitalized city during his next term of office. The coming years will tell whether these are mere delusions and the holding out of panaceas or the true evangel of an impending golden age.
Other perplexities beset South Jersey as it moves into the future. Will nuclear power generators off-shore guarantee unlimited energy or light the fuse of a holocaust? Do the people of South Jersey have the political power to decide whether they will take the risk? On the one hand, the moguls of industry warn the southern counties that a refusal to enter upon the modern world of factories and oil tanks, as North Jersey has done, spells certain doom; on the other hand, agriculturalists and advocates of environmental protection put the rest on notice that, "it’s not our fault if it’s all asphalt." Even the lowly frog in the Pine Barrens is a species endangered by the inexorable steamroller of progress.