This past November, my daughter and I found ourselves in Elizabeth, NJ searching for a soccer field, and I quickly discovered that although it’s just a few miles from my suburban home of 18 years, I knew almost nothing about the area. Passing through streets along the waterfront, I saw beautiful 19th and 20th century factory buildings that had signs of past glory, but were now generations removed from their original purpose. One such building caught my attention due to its immense size and architectural style, which intrigued me enough to seek its past once I got home.
It didn’t take much searching on the web to uncover that the building that peaked my interest was once the Singer complex, formally called the Elizabethport Works of the Singer Manufacturing Company. Having outgrown its New York City facility due to the success of their patented sewing machines, Singer sought a suitable site to start a new factory and found it across the harbor in Elizabeth. Ideally situated on the water and adjacent to the Central Railroad of New Jersey mainline, construction started in 1873 on the first buildings.
The main assembly building was nearly a half-mile long and extended almost to the waterfront. On the opposite side of the site, a forge and foundry building equally long was constructed and together they enclosed a large interior yard that contained a rail yard and engine house. The Singer railroad had approximetly six miles of track at it’s peak which served both intra-plant and interchange use. Eventually, the plant outgrew its original site and expanded across the street to eventually cover about 100 acres.
As the plant expanded, and so did its need for skilled workers and the city of Elizabeth grew up around it. On the eve of WWII, the complex employed close to 10,000 people, giving Singer tremendous clout within Elizabeth, while serving as a pillar of civic pride. The company was an economic stalwart for generations of ‘Singer families’ who knew that employment there would give them a long term steady job with a decent working class salary.
Initially I was attracted to the building for it’s architectural style, but as I learned more about its history, became enamored in its role within the industrial manufacturing system and how it effected the surrounding community over the years. Over a period of 4 weeks, I came by many times to view the complex in differing light and to see if I could learn more about why Singer closed the door here.