Bayonne Makes, the World Takes

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Photo by J. Krempa
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Former factories and oil tanks in downtown Bayonne
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Thousands of Bayonne residents worked at the Western Electric plant in Kearny.
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Thousands of Bayonne residents worked at the Western Electric plant in Kearny.
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  1 / 5 
Photo by J. Krempa
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Former factories and oil tanks in downtown Bayonne
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Thousands of Bayonne residents worked at the Western Electric plant in Kearny.
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Thousands of Bayonne residents worked at the Western Electric plant in Kearny.

When John D. Rockefeller purchased Prentice Oil, it had 20 employees and produced up to 600 barrels of oil a day. Over the next 40 years, the Bayonne Refinery of Standard Oil became the largest refinery in the world with 13 piers spread over 650 acres, employing 5,500 people and processing 77,000 barrels of oil daily. By 1914, more than half of the city’s wage earners worked at Standard. It seemed everyone had at least one family member working there. My family was no different; both my grandfathers and three uncles retired from Standard after many years of working at “The Hook.”

Standard needed workers; many flocked to Bayonne from nearby Ellis Island. The population soared from 4,000 in 1870 to 70,000 in 1920. Originally, these workers were mostly German and Irish immigrants. Due to an active hiring clerk, Standard was jokingly called O’Donnell’s Oil Works in Donegal, Ireland, by those moving to Bayonne. But by 1915, the foremen were second generation German and Irish but the laborers were mainly newly arrived Slovaks, Italians, and Polish. Roughly 30 percent of the employees could not read, write, or speak English. The company tried to hinder labor organizing by mixing the various nationalities in labor crews. Average annual earnings were $818 while the company seemed to be prospering greatly. The low wages and substandard working conditions led to a series of strikes in 1915 and 1916 that tore apart the city and left 14 workers dead. The mayor at the time, Pierre Garven, was also a lawyer for Standard, taking a pro-company stance throughout the days of violence.

Following the strike, Standard began to move some refining operations to Bayway, a newer and more efficient refinery.

Black Gold

However, Standard’s wax-making production increased, making the Bayonne plant the largest wax producer in the world, accounting for 20 percent of the wax produced in the country. When the new hospital was built in 1927 at the then staggering cost of $600,000, Standard and its employees contributed $72,000; John D. Rockefeller contributed $75,000 ($1.04 million today).

Standard’s success in Bayonne lured other oil companies, such as Tidewater, Gulf, Asiatic, and Texaco; hence Bayonne’s nickname, “The Oil City.”

Tidewater arrived in 1878 and built a 288-mile pipeline from Bayonne to Pennsylvania. For many years Tidewater was the second largest taxpayer in the city and the employer of 2,100 workers, mostly Bayonne residents. The company had ongoing labor, tax and efficiency issues through the 1930s and ‘40s; it left Bayonne in 1953, leaving 1,200 employees out of work.

Making Stuff

Being on the water and close to major population centers made Bayonne attractive to companies that manufactured everything from cable and wire to PT boats, mayonnaise, and bras. In 1896, Safety Wire and Cable Company set up a plant on the Kill van Kull near Avenue A. In 1927 it merged with a number of companies to become General Cable. Much of the wiring and cable used by the military in the two world wars was produced in Bayonne. By the end of World War II, the company employed more than 800 here and shipped most of the cable from its own pier on the Kill. As a result of a large fire in 1969, many employees were laid off or moved elsewhere.

In 1900, Elco opened a large shipyard on Avenue A. A few years after opening, it built 120 mine planters for the U.S. Navy in just 120 days. During World War I, the company constructed a large number of submarine chasers for the British Navy. It switched to pleasure and commercial craft during the years between the wars but made its greatest contribution during World War II. The plant ran 24 hours a day, constructing 399 PT boats, including PT 109, captained by President John F. Kennedy. At the same time, its sister company, Electro Dynamics on North Street, made electric motors for naval vessels.

Food and Foundation Garments

Nuccia Margarine opened in Bayonne in 1906 at 99 Avenue A. In 1916 it became Best Foods, opening its first laboratory/kitchen in 1927. It started making Hellman’s Mayonnaise in 1934 and by the 1960s, was also making Mazola Margarine, Skippy Peanut Butter, Bosco, Karo, and Shinola shoe polish. The 500 Bayonne employees primarily made Hellmann’s and Mazola. With a home economist on staff, a product like Mazola was said to undergo 100 quality- control checks before being packaged. Best was acquired by the British/Dutch conglomerate Unilever, closing its Bayonne facility in 2003; 100 people lost jobs.

In 1905, 18-year-old Ida Cohen came to the U.S. and set up a dressmaking shop in Hoboken. She married William Rosenthal, her childhood sweetheart from Russia, and opened a fancier shop on 57th Street in Manhattan. She began making undergarments called brassieres to make her dresses hang better on her customers. A brassiere would be given free with each dress purchased. They became so popular that she began mass producing her “bras.” Her husband joined her in the business; they farmed out some of the production to her sister in law who had a shop here on Broadway and 19th Street. By 1928, they had 18 machines making bras. In 1930, they merged all their shops and moved to a building on Avenue E and 18th Street. By 1984, Maidenform had sold over more than 2 million bras and had factories around the world. The Rosenthal family has been closely affiliated with the Boy Scouts in Bayonne. In 1938, William Rosenthal donated 24 acres in northwest New Jersey to the Bayonne Council of Boy Scouts. The site was named Camp Lewis in honor of their son Lewis, a Columbia University student who had recently died due to pneumonia and meningitis. Since that time, thousands of Bayonne scouts (including me) have enjoyed camping at Camp Lewis.

Is This the Party to Whom I am Speaking?

Following the war, various industries in Bayonne suspended war production and were hiring fewer people. The slack was taken up by Western Electric in Kearny. In those days, no one owned their own phones; they leased them from A T & T, which owned all the equipment including phones, switchboards, and devices connected to its system. This equipment was made by an A T & T subsidiary, Western Electric, which held a monopoly. Western was the largest employer in Hudson County for a time and employed about 4,000 people in its Kearny plant. In the 1950s and ‘60s, a representative from Bayonne High would come to each of the city’s Catholic schools to see how many eighth graders would be attending Bayonne High the next year. So many Bayonne residents worked for Western that the joke was that a Western representative would come to Bayonne High each spring to learn how many Bayonne graduates Western would hire that year. Western closed the Kearny plant in 1983. Working at Western may have been the start of a larger trend, continued to today, of workers living here and commuting to their jobs outside the city.

On the Waterfront

In the late 1930s, Bayonne voters approved a bond to develop the waterfront on New York Bay between Constable Hook and the Long Docks area. Work was done and then World War II erupted. This site was ideal for the U.S. Navy and then Mayor James Donovan lobbied the Navy to use the site. The Navy bought 396 acres and agreed to develop a naval supply center and ship-repair facility. The “Base” hummed with activity during the war. An average of more than a dozen ships called each day. The drydock, the largest on the East Coast, handled aircraft carriers and battleships damaged in combat. At its height, the Base employed 2,500 civilians along with thousands of Navy personnel. It was very common to see sailors in whites walking the streets of the city. Even through the ‘70s, two ships home-ported here, the USS Great Sitkin (AE-8) and the USS Mauna Loa (AE-17). Bayonne was considered good duty, so good in fact that when I was a newly commissioned ensign I requested on my “dream sheet” to be stationed on an auxiliary ship out of Bayonne. Alas, the Navy sent me instead to an auxiliary ship based as far away as possible from Bayonne, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. I never complained to anyone about this.

The Base was renamed MOTBY and taken over by the U.S. Army in 1967. It remained a vast supply center for the military. The drydock was reactivated in 1975 to repair commercial vessels, and continues in operation today.  The Queen Elizabeth II had a 17-day facelift in the drydock in 1977. However, with the end of the Cold War the base was closed in 1999; the city took over the site in 2001.  The closing of MOTBY was another big step in the transformation of Bayonne and its waterfront from heavy industry to a mixed-use mélange of transportation, residential, retail, and recreation. —BLP