Roebling: A Memorable Company Town

Workers at the Roebling steel works in New Jersey. Courtesy: Roebling Archives.

Hundreds of company towns were created in the United States at the turn of the 20th century. One of these was Roebling, New Jersey, created by the Roebling steel company.

The Roebling family, which built the Brooklyn Bridge, had a works in Trenton, N.J., but there was no space in that town to expand. Company executives found land 30 miles from Camden, N.J., where they purchased 250 acres. There, they would construct a line of open-hearth steel furnaces .

But back then, 30 miles was seen as an impossible commute. So, the company built a “model town” on the site with a general store, a variety of other merchandisers,  a water system, utilities, a police force, and a public school. (But no churches!) They built houses that were rented to workers at “reasonable” rates. Within a short time, 750 such dwellings were built for 3,600 inhabitants–up to 200 other workers had to commute.
Like other steel towns, Roebling was not intended by its builders to be a “philanthropic” enterprise: “We are certainly not posing as idealists or reformers” said Charles G. Roebling. The houses were built of brick with gas and electric laid on. Unlike some company towns, workers experienced no requirement that they buy their necessities at the company store, but they got their wages in the form of cash or credit at the company store.

Like in the ill-fated, much larger development of Gary, Indiana, company executives expected Roebling, NJ to “pay its own way.” And unlike the Ford Motor Co. town of Dearborn, Mich. or even Hershey, Pa., there was no attempt by company management to oversee the lives of the workers. “They will be under no obligation to us nor we to them as far as life in the city is concerned,” announced the company.

Steel is no longer a going industry in the U.S., of course. But you can still visit Roebling. I will be speaking there at the formal opening of the town’s history museum in April, 2011.

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