Saturday, June 7, 2008

A PARTIAL HISTORY OF PLAINFIELD MANUFACTURING.

Once upon a time Plainfield was a split personality town. A significant portion was “white collar”. It was a New York City Bedroom Community. The four local train stations were crowded during the commuting hours. Railroad and Wall Street executives lived here. The Netherwood station in the 1890s up to WW I was the specific designation for New York celebrities coming to spend time at the resort Netherwood Hotel.
Likewise, the 1st and 4th Wards were the dwelling place for Plainfield’s large Irish, Italian and Polish “blue collar” working class. There was also a significant Afro-American population that lived mostly between Plainfield Ave and Grant Ave on West 2nd and 3rd Streets, among the other working population.
The Queen City area was the location of the country’s three major printing press manufacturers. Plainfield boasted Wood’s along the railroad tracks from Grant Ave east. Next to the tracks on South Ave. was the Scott’s plant which is still standing but used by other industries.
In Middlesex, bordering Dunellen was the Hoe’s printing press works. All had a foundry as part of the assembly plant. After World War II, these plants became outdated due to changes in the technology of printing the factories that produce the printing presses closed down.
In the West End law between Grant Ave., and Clinton, The Mack truck factory occupied both sides of the railroad. During WWI this plant was the leading supplier for heavy duty trucks. Interestingly the rear wheels were chain driven and of course the trucks were not speedy. By the end of WWII this plant which had grown like topsy became inefficient to operate. Mack trucks in a move to escape a strong union in an outdated plant transferred some of its operations to Allentown Pennsylvania. Truck production was relocated to a new modern facility in Hagerstown, Maryland. Since this was rural farm country, labor costs were much lower than here.
Thereafter, Plainfield had no heavy industry to produce a major source of personal and taxable income.
Between Roosevelt and Berkman north of the tracks was a railroad engine house with a turntable and storage tracks plus a still standing warehouse. Further east of Berkman on the north side of the tracks, was the large electrical motor manufacturing factory, Howell. There was also the large Samoset Laundry building which was destroyed by fire long after it had been abandoned.
Because of the availability of excellent road networks, the railroads no longer were an absolute necessity for the manufacturing and transportation of goods.
The Pennsylvania coal mines lost importance for several reasons. Anthracite (hard) coal was more difficult to use than the soft bituminous coals from West Virginia and the western states. Pipelines made oil and natural gas cheaper and cleaner sources of energy.
In the east all the railroads were no longer financial viable industries.
Other industries that closed within a little over a decade after World War II included the Bronston’s Hats\. This manufacture of men’s hats was a victim of the change in fashion.
Another casualty, although not manufacturing, was the large manufactured gas storage tank by the railroad tracks off Watching Ave. A parking lot now occupies that spot.
In South Plainfield the buildings of the sprawling Spicer plant along the Lehigh tracks at Hamilton Ave became an Industrial Park. Today its revitalization is complicated by the grossly contaminated soil.
Harris Steel was once one of the major structural steel plants in the East. There are other smaller companies occupying the plant space.
Dunellen’s Art Color plant, once one of the largest producers of magazines and catalogs in the country, became a victim of the n ewer technologies and closed.
Plainfield was no longer a major manufacturing town. The loss of revenue from those factories would never be recovered. Unlike the other towns which had available land for commercial development Plainfield and Dunellen suffered from the shifts in economic enterprises.
What has this 1980s train in the Pyrenees Mountains of France along Spain's border have to do with factories? Nothing what so ever! Perhaps it is symbolic of the aimless course Plainfield has been on for the last three decades. You can not tell whether it is coming or going, since there is no engine, each car is self powered through a third rail. The cars are wooden. Accept it as just a picture I liked.

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