Roebling Historic District
The Roebling Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2013, The Gombach Group.
Roebling Village, New Jersey, formerly known as Kinkora, is a particularly successful example of a planned, industrial community. Disclaiming Utopian or altruistic motives, John A. Roebling's Sons' Company President, Charles G. Roebling, and Ferdinand W. Roebling, Secretary and Treasurer, planned and built the town asserting that they were "doing only what we are driven to do by force of circumstances." Nevertheless, not only was every material need of employees provided for, but the plan of the community includes architectural amenities that rival or surpass earlier planned communities such as Pullman, Illinois and Lowell, Massachusetts. The plan for the town reflects in graphic terms the thinking of enlightened, but not progressive, turn-of-the-century industrialists. Since the location of their new plant in rural Burlington County required them to house their entire workforce, the Roebling brothers felt it prudent to build well and for durability. This was the extent of their philosophy — modest yet generous, not exploitative, but by no means Utopian or progressive. The Roeblings kept the sliding-wage scale and the open shop, and offered neither the eight-hour day nor the forty-four hour week. No ideals were being promoted and no novel conditions of industrial relations were being tested. The company issued no scrip, paid the employees in cash, and charged cash at the stores. The Roeblings desired to avoid the pitfalls of earlier company towns which they called "paternalism" and they professed non-interference in the social affairs of the town. By all this they desired to avoid future labor unrest. This purpose, along with the desire of insuring themselves a good supply of skilled labor in a remote area, seems to explain their unusually low rents, high wages, and their willingness to accept the annual deficit in the operation of the town, as Charles Roebling put it: "as good business."
The combination of several economic factors first produced the decision to build in Burlington County. At the beginning of this century, open-hearth steel was starting to dominate the steel industry.
The Roeblings became convinced that in order to maintain a competitive position in the industry, their company would need to make its own open-hearth steel. Steel making was a new proposition for the Roebling company. Formerly, they had bought all of the steel rods required for the manufacture of their wires and cables, but sources had become expensive and unreliable. However, making their own steel meant doubling the plant and the workforce. There was no room for this expansion in the area of the Trenton plant, and acquiring any more land in Trenton would have been prohibitively expensive. Instead, a 237-acre tract of land was purchased in 1904, situated a mile below the hamlet of Kinkora in Burlington County. This location was chosen because access to both water and rail was readily available. The industrial plant as built in 1905 consisted of one steel-making mill and two rod mills, with shops for the other, supportive processes and conveniently sited rail loading facilities. The railroad transported the steel rods made in Roebling to the finishing plants in Trenton on specially purchased cars pulled by company owned locomotives. Delaware River frontage was improved to enable receipt of raw materials by water. River water, filtered at a company plant, provided the industrial and also the municipal water supply. It is remarkable that all of the industrial, commercial, and residential designing and engineering was done entirely by the office force of the Roebling company.
The town buildings themselves reflect no original architectural solutions to the question of workers' housing. They are interesting, however, in their reflection of the company hierarchy and the various income and social levels of their occupants. The dwellings in the Roebling Historic District include rowhouses and two-family homes principally. However, three hotels for single employees were also provided. Company-provided amenities included free water, sewage treatment, street lighting, and street, yard and home maintenance. Rents were small and merely satisfied the interest on the $4 million investment made by the Roebling brothers. A company-owned club was set up with a liquor license to accommodate the workmen's propensities to drink. A park overlooking the Delaware River was provided and a baseball field was added. Shade trees were planted everywhere along the streets which remain today, and the fruit trees were planted in the backyards. Although the properties are now privately owned and the company no longer serves as the economic base for the town, these planning amenities continue to preserve this area as a viable, indeed desirable, residential community. The low turn-over rate reflects this community's stability.
An important part of Roebling Historic District's history lies in the experiences of its people. The town attracted immigrant workers from many central European nations, and became a cultural melting pot. A group of Swedes were among the first to arrive. They had steel making experience and helped to fashion the mills into working plants. Then came immigrants from Russia, Romania, Hungary, Poland, Ireland and Lithuania. They organized and built the several churches which stand on the outskirts of the commercial district. These include St. Nicholas Byzantine Church, St. Mary's Catholic Church, and the Hungarian Reformed Church. Pride in a job well done seems to be a common denominator among these workers. Many of the older workers are still quick to mention that the wire rope they helped produce is supporting the George Washington Bridge in New York City, the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, and the Bear Mountain Bridge on the Hudson River.
New York Herald, "Kinkora," April 22, 1906.
Schuyler, Hamilton, The Roeblings 1831-1931, Princeton, 1931, pp. 360-365.
Steelmakers, Produced for N. J. Public Broadcasting, by Scott Neilsen and John Tyson, 1974. (Ken Stein, Executive Producer)
Trenton Times, 11/9/64.
† Michael Mills, Architectural Historian for Burlington County Cultural and Heritage Commission, Roebling Historic District, Burlington County, New Jersey, nomination document, 1976, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.