Left Behind in Elizabeth – The Singer Manufacturing Company, Part 1

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 illustration caption reads: Main building 1100 ft frontage & 50 ft wide. Forging shop 700 ft long & 50 ft wide. Foundry 600 ft long & 100 ft wide. Cabinet shop 200 ft long & 50 ft wide. Packing Box Shop 200 ft long & 50 ft wide.Yard contains five miles of railroad tracks. Entire works emply 3000 men. Capacity of works to make 6000 machines per week.

This portion of the Sanborn map shows the original complex and ironically, the area that still stands today. The 3-track engine house and all other buildings have been re-purposed.

From a Sanborn map of 1922, the Singer complex is shown at its peak. The multi-track railroad is the CNJ mainline. The area south of The Singer Manufacturing Company map label has all been demolished to make way for new factories, but all the other buildings stand and are used..

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.

Singer’s name still proudly graces the former storage building along the waterfront.

The complex is now leased to a variety of small manufacturing and warehousing companies. The low building in the center is the Locomotive House.

The former engine house was the headquarters of the industrial railroad, but now houses a small furniture factory. At one time, Singer had 5 steam locomotives working here. Their last locomotive purchase came in 1946, with a brand new GE 50-tonner.

This Whiting 7TM trackmobile is of a mid-60’s vinatge and I’m speculating that it served the complex to the end and has remained here since.

An inter-company delivery man walks past the former ‘New Foundry’ building, one of the last new buildings constructed within the complex.

A window into the original 1873 main building shows its present use. The gate below controlled the railroad access into the complex interior.

A light from the Hardening & Annealing Dept. building competes with the moon to illuminate the original Forge building.

A jet taking off from nearby Liberty International Airport is the only roar heard in the Singer Building at night.

5 Comments

  1. Eric, absolutely fantastic! You leave me wanting more from part 2. Such an awesome concept and storyline, as well as your ability and willingness to explore what is in our own backyards. You found a real gem with this former Singer facility; I’d really like to know the disposition of the five steam locomotives that once worked the grounds, as well as hopefully some interior shots. (hint hint!)

    In your ‘About Me’ section of your website you state: “While most photographers of railroads take a documentative approach, I‘m interested in pursuing a subjective and emotional response and push the genre of railroad photography into the realm of fine art photography”. This statement is so clearly evident in this part 1 of the Singer Manufacturing Company!

    Now hurry up and release part 2…

    1. Eric Williams

      Matthew, thanks for your comments!

      When I have time to shoot, I always want to head out on the road to somewhere more interesting than my “backyard”, but I’ve obviously been missing things that are right in front of me. I ran across this building by happenstance and now wondering what else is here for me to discover.

      During my brief bit of web research, I found references to 0-4-2T’s and 0-4-4T’s owned by Singer made by Baldwin, Pittsburg and Burnham builders, but only one photo from Baldwin. I’ll keep looking as I’m intrigued to find out more. The locomotives were lettered N.B.S.L., which must have been their railroad code, but is also a mystery as of now.

      Eric

  2. N.B.S.L.
    NB = North Bergen?
    SL = Short Line?

    I do not have any documentation to back this up – merely a wild guess…

    1. Eric Williams

      Matthew, a reasonable guess that may prove to be right!

      If you’re interested in more info on Singer, the Historic American Building Survey (HABS), https://loc.gov/pictures/item/nj0983/, documented the part of the complex that was demolished in 1984. This group of newer buildings was where Singer finished their operations, having sold the original complex that I shot in 1959 to a private company. The data page contains additional maps and history of the complex. A fascinating place!

      Eric

  3. https://cdn.loc.gov/master/pnp/habshaer/nj/nj0900/nj0983/data/nj0983data.pdf

    Look at page #14 of the PDF.
    The complex is bounded on the east by Newark Bay.
    N.B.S.L = Newark Bay Short Line? Newark Bay Singer Line?

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