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Building American Mobility At Roebling Museum

Family history as far-spanning as their bridges detailed at former company town facility.

America's financial fortunes and its place in the world are, in many ways, thanks to products that didn’t innovate as much as they made it easy to move innovations from one place to the next.

Think about the ease with which products are transported by roadways and over bridges. That convenience is attributable in part to John A. Roebling and his children.

Roebling was a German-born American civil engineer. He is famous for his wire rope suspension bridge designs, in particular, the design of the Brooklyn Bridge, during the construction of which his toes were crushed, debilitating him and ultimately bringing on his death due to tetanus. The bridge was one of many of his designs (alongside the high-tensile steel cables that are so closely associated with bridge-making now) and was subsequently completed by son Washington Roebling and his daughter-in-law Emily Warren Roebling. Son Ferdinand expanded the wire rope business, and son Charles Roebling designed and invented a huge 80-ton wire rope machine and founded the town of Roebling.

That company town now is home to the Roebling Museum, 100 Second Ave., Roebling, New Jersey.

“We’re in the gatehouse of the former Roebling steel factory, so it is a historic building. It’s a beautiful building. The building once had payroll offices in it, a safe, an infirmary, a jail, and a telegraph,” said Patricia Millen, executive director of the Roebling Museum. “It was a working office for the years that the steel plant was open. It served as a gateway where all the workers would come through each morning, punch their timecards, and then report to work at the mill.”

“It’s been restored for gallery space, so it’s an alternate-use space, so the inside of the museum is beautifully restored and we have exhibits relating to the early history of the company, with a timeline that shows John A. Roebling from birth, through the story all the way up to the closing of the plant in 1973,” Millen said. “We have a gallery on the engineering innovations of John A. Roebling, which includes family history and a little bit about the family in Trenton, and the pictures of the homes that they had in Trenton. Then we have a gallery on the company itself, the workers, and the different products they made. We produced flat wire for the Slinky (toy) company…there are all kinds of interesting things like that which people learn that they may not have known before.”

There’s so much more to learn about this family of original thinkers. That's why we've picked the Roebling Museum for this installment of Day Tripper, a weekly look at destinations that are out of town, but in reach, and worth the trip.

DAY TRIPPER DIGEST                                          

Estimated Travel Time: 1 hour, 22 minutes

Why it’s Worth the Trip: In many ways, the Roebling Family made what America ultimately became, and their history is detailed in the exhibitions found at their namesake Museum.

How to Get There From Here: Detailed driving direction.

You’ll Probably Get Hungry: Closest to the Museum is Palermo’s II Italian food and Pete’s Pizza, as well as live music venue Dr. Lou’s. A short drive gets you to Kalman’s Bakery and The Corner Deli.

While You’re in the Area: If the weather permits, get aerobic at the Roebling Park, J.A.R. Memorial Park, or Nyikita Field. If you want to make the day out a tour-of-history event, don’t hesitate to also visit the Old Barracks Museum and the William Trent House in Trenton, then cross the river to the Margaret R. Grundy Memorial Museum and the Pennsbury Manor in Pennsylvania.

The village of Roebling was a company town, and founder Charles Roebling helped build every house in it.

“They faced a dilemma here when they opened the steel plant in Roebling,” Millen said. “It was all farmland here so there was nowhere for the workers to live. So they set out to build what they called the ‘model company town.’ We have the history of the village and the design of the village and the different types of homes, the different communities and ethnic blending of those who came here [on display].”

In terms of which exhibitions get the most recognizability and interest, Millen cited the artifacts and stories regarding the Brooklyn Bridge as a mainstay.

“It is John A. Roebling’s most famous bridge, and certainly most well-known all over the world,” Millen said.

“The amount of product that was produced here … when the docents give the tours, I think that’s what really strikes people. The Roebling Company in Trenton and Roebling at one point in time, in World War I and World War II, had 70-to-80 percent of the world’s wire-rope market. Everything you could imagine benefited from wire-rope, because (visitors) don’t relate the wire-rope industry to all the things it was used for. As the country industrialized and grew, it was needed in everything – wire-rope for mining, telegraph cable, when the Empire State building was electrified, it was Roebling wire that electrified that building,” Millen said.

She continued: “People don’t think of (all those applications) until they come here, and they say 'Oh, I guess we couldn’t pull this or have the telegraph or elevator cables, or bridges that long unless someone had the wherewithal to manufacture it on this scale.'”

An exhibit called "Spinning Gold—The Roebling Company and the Golden Gate Bridge" opens in conjunction with the famous bridge’s 75th anniversary on May 27.

Next year, the museum is opening an exhibit on Washington A. Roebling II and the Titanic, yet another place in history forever marked with the Roebling name, albeit tragically.

“The Roebling Company was also partners with the Kuser Family in producing the Mercer racecar. Washington Roebling was involved with that, went over to Europe and was touring around in a Fiat, and sent the Fiat back on one boat, and he himself went back on the Titanic (upon which he perished),” Millen said. “There are a lot of stories of him saving people on-board the ship.” 

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