The Brooklyn Bridge and the Slinky have something in common: they both exist thanks to steel wire manufactured by John A. Roebling’s Sons Company, once located in Trenton and Roebling.
You can see such great things small and large at the Roebling Museum, newly opened to the public and housed in the meticulously renovated and restored 7,000 square-foot main gate building on the former company grounds in Roebling.
“Yes indeed, Slinkys are made from Roebling flat wire, and we have the original work order here in the archives,” says Patricia Millen, the museum’s executive director. “We sell Slinkys, too, in the gift shop.”
The museum’s board and staff have been working in tandem with Tucker Design of Philadelphia to install its premier exhibitions. Visitors can enjoy the Roma Bank Media Room, featuring the museum’s introductory video, then stroll through the timeline gallery with its overview history of the Roeblings, as well as the Roebling gallery, which tells the story of the Roebling family — in particular, John Augustus Roebling, the designer and original chief engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge. Check out the 16-foot scale model of the elegant bridge.
There is also a gallery on the company’s history and its myriad products. Also on view will be the village gallery with a preview of collections that will be featured in the next exhibition. This will be a special exhibit on the social history of the village of Roebling, one of the most intact company towns in existence, founded in the early 20th century expressly to house the workers when the Roebling facilities in Trenton were bursting at the seams from success.
“This has been at least 10 years in the making,” Millen says. The restoration of the main gate building was part of the federally funded Superfund clean-up of the 240-acre Roebling mill site. The building was turned over to the Township of Florence and the Roebling Museum in June, 2009.
“The federal government asked the community what they wanted here and the community responded by saying that they wanted a museum to tell the story of the company, but especially about the people who worked here and the village of Roebling,” Millen says. “Both the main gate house and the entire village of Roebling are registered national and state-registered historic places. When you come to the museum, you can also take a self-guided walking tour of the village.
“At one time there were 767 buildings in the village, mostly workers’ homes,” she says. “You can see the different styles and sizes of the homes, some smaller, designed for a single man, some larger for a man with a family, (grander) homes for the management. The homes reflected the hierarchy of the company. But they were mostly brick with slate roofs.”
With a fruit tree in each back yard, the rental homes were also well-maintained and got a fresh coat of paint and new wallpaper every two years. In the village of Roebling, there were also schools, stores, athletic fields, a Boy Scout hut, a bowling alley, an auditorium/theater, a library, a bank, an abundance of churches and a plethora of taverns.
The main gate building was the hub of the company, Millen says. “This is where the payroll was done, there was a switchboard operator here, and even a jail house. So it feels right to be in this building. We had a grand opening last year when we took over the main gate building but now it feels good to open our doors to the public, give them something to see and do. We were in a beautiful, but empty facility.”
The Roebling Museum is the most recent stop in a string of museums and historic associations Millen has worked for. She began her museum career at the Thomas Clark House at Princeton Battlefield. “I’ve worked in numerous museums in New York and New York City, but perhaps the largest was the New York State Historical Association in Cooperstown. Most recently, I was at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.”
Millen’s late father was the major history buff in the family. She says he worked for years for the State of New Jersey department of parks and recreation. But history and old movies were his passion. Her mother was a nurse at Trenton Psychiatric Hospital.
“I loved history too, and in fact it was about the only thing I was interested in,” she says. “It’s still the same. History is all I read and all I do. I’ve written two books about 19th century history, one about baseball during the Civil War. “From Pastime to Passion: Baseball and the Civil War” was published in 2007 by Heritage Books, Inc.
After graduating from Ewing High School in 1975, Millen married her high school sweetheart, Brian, and worked at various jobs while raising a family. Then when the children were older, she pursued a degree in American Studies at State University of New York, Albany, graduating in 1997. She also did some graduate work at the College of New Jersey, and from 2001 to 2004 taught at Notre Dame High School in Lawrence.
Husband Brian works in the athletic department at the Lawrenceville School. Daughter Tiffany will soon graduate from Rutgers, and son Brian has a degree from the Rochester Institute of Technology in green and industrial design.
“Both of my kids have always loved that mom works in the museum,” Millen says. “They’ve always loved the special events, and I also make them volunteer.”
Millen, who has been with the museum just about two years, wasn’t quite sure how much wire rope and bridge engineering would appeal to her personally. “The subject matter is still new to me, so right now it’s all fascinating, but I never thought wire rope would be so interesting,” she says. “I’m still learning but this summer I’ll be working on and preparing school programs so I’ll really need to understand it. There’s always new stuff to learn. I’m especially interested in Washington Roebling, John Roebling’s eldest son, because he was in the Civil War, at Gettysburg — and I’m a Civil War buff. I’m sure there will be lots of great side stories to tell.”
The main story, of course, is about the German-born John A. Roebling, who failed at farming when he and his brother first came to the United States, but flourished with the knowledge of architecture, engineering, and bridge design he brought from Europe.
“His most iconic image is the Brooklyn Bridge, but John Roebling didn’t live to see its completion,” Millen says.
He was standing on a pier when a ferry crashed into it, setting off a chain reaction that toppled some logs, which crushed his feet. His toes had to be amputated, but Roebling neglected to have the injury treated (he self-treated with “water therapy”), and he died of tetanus soon after. His son, Washington, and daughter-in-law, Emily, continued the work on the Brooklyn Bridge.
There had been successes before that famous span, all of which owed their creation to Roebling’s famous wire rope, which he perfected just as the nation was becoming industrialized.
“Wire rope was needed for all purposes: telegraph wire, electrical wire, elevator cables, skyscrapers, all kinds of uses,” Millen says. “John A. Roebling’s Sons Company also made the wire rope for the Golden Gate Bridge, the George Washington Bridge, and the Manhattan Bridge. The company made the aircraft cable that went into Lindbergh’s plane.”
Visitors to the museum will see in the timeline what was going on in the nation and how it parallels the story of the Roeblings. “Roebling engineering is in the spotlight,” Millen says.
She is especially excited about a special event coming this fall. Presented jointly by the museum and Pierrot Productions, and written by Lawrence resident Mark Violi, “Roebling: The Story of the Brooklyn Bridge,” will be performed in the village of Roebling’s auditorium. In 2009 the piece played to sold-out audiences at Actor’s Net of Bucks County, PA.
“We asked Mark to bring it here,” Millen says. “It’s especially great that it will be performed in the auditorium built by Charles Roebling.”
The Roebling Museum, 100 Second Avenue Roebling, open July through October, Wednesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Suday, noon to 4 p.m.; and January through March by appointment. Open year round to researchers, by appointment. $5 adults, $4 seniors, and children ages 6 to 12. 609-499-7200 or www.roeblingmuseum.org.
Also, Car Show, Roebling Museum, Saturday, July 17, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Cars, trucks, motorcycles, family entertainment, music by Cruzin Tunes, food, and tours of the museum. $3 admission.