Eastern Potash: A Chimney in the Woods
Article by Walter Stochel, President Edison Greenways
As you travel on the New Jersey Turnpike and cross the Raritan river on the Basilone Bridge, look to the south along the Edison riverfront. You will see a large masonry chimney sticking up out of a forest. How that chimney got there is the story of an ambitious industrial project that started during World War I and was never completed as planned. Then World War II took the plant in a new direction.
In 1917 the lower Raritan River in Edison (then Raritan Township) had not changed much since the first settlers arrived in the 1660s. It was still mostly salt hay marshes that flooded twice a day with the tides and a few docks, for clay and sand mines to ship their excavations to brick plants in Sayreville, Woodbridge, and elsewhere.
World War I changed the riverfront in Edison forever. In the winter of 1917/18, the US Army acquired thousands of acres along the Raritan, and built the Raritan Arsenal. The Arsenal property was diked and ditched. A huge dock was built so that munitions could be loaded on barges and ships and sent to France for the American Expeditionary Forces. Upriver, a proposal to build a large industrial complex was announced in 1918 to great fanfare by the New Brunswick Board of Trade. The Eastern Potash plant was to be located off of Meadow Rd on former Callard farm, a 55-acre tract of land in the Piscatawaytown section of Edison.
The Eastern Potash plant was huge. A barge canal 100’ wide and 1600’ long was dug on the north bank of the Raritan to access the site. A $150,000 traveling crane was built over the canal so barge loads of greensand could be scooped out and moved to the plant for processing. The main building was 2 stories tall, 300’ wide, and 600’ long. A powerhouse was built along with 12 digesters. The biggest kilns in America would be in the plant. A brick plant was built on the site to produce bricks for the plant’s other buildings and for sale. Waste sand and clay from potash production would be used to make bricks.
The plan was to produce 1,000 tons of potash daily, using 2,000 tons of lime per day. In October the company expected operations to start by the first of the year in 1919. To access the plant, the Lehigh Valley Railroad laid two miles of track. The freight station at the plant was named “Greensand”. Greensand is a natural soil amendment also known as glauconite and is a great source of potassium that helps plants grow. The greensand that they were going to mine in the Matawan area contained 7-9% potash. Why build this plant at all? Prior to WWI, Germany shipped large amounts of potash to the US. With this supply cut off, American potash sources needed to be developed. In March 1919 ground was broken for the $2,000,000 plant. A man named C.R. Blood was placed in charge of plant construction. Excavators began digging out the canal on the north shore of the Raritan River.
Due to the war and shortages of materials work was slow on the plant. It was not until July 1919 that building supplies started to arrive, and in November 1919 Bethlehem Fabricators were hiring laborers to build the plant at .60 per hour. Little did they know, that the plant was doomed from the start. World War I ended in November 1918, much earlier than American military planners anticipated. When the conflict ended, trade between the warring nations resumed. By 1921 Germany had started shipping potash to the United States at a much lower cost than it took to produce it here.
Potash production at the Eastern Potash plant along the Raritan River required a massive effort of transporting tons of greensand by barge from downriver and tons of limestone by rail from North Jersey, then unloading and processing all of it. When the process was complete, bricks would be made from the tons of waste from the potash production process. A powerhouse with a large chimney was built in order to power potash production. The original plan was to bring in tons of coal, but the new rail line lacked the capacity to move the coal to the site, in addition to the limestone, and ship back out the finished potash. So, the developers of the plant came up with the idea of using oil to power the plant. An oil tank farm was built further up Meadow Road behind the plant, and tankers full of oil from Mexico would dock at the plant and unload. This operation became known as the Raritan Refining Company, a subsidiary of Eastern Potash. However, the Raritan River was not deep enough for the tankers. So, they had to dock at Bayway on the Arthur Kill, and oil was to be barged to the plant.
Billed as the “largest potash plant in the world,” the plant was highly touted in the New Brunswick newspapers with 58 articles mentioning the plant in 1920 alone, including large advertisements asking New Brunswick residents to invest, and promising their investment would yield heavy returns on stock. Artistic renderings of the plant were shown. Shortages of housing for workers were projected. Construction of the plant was progressing, with opening promised in mid-year, then late year.
1921 began with continued positive news about Eastern Potash. In February there were prospects for early operation of the plant, and work on the refining plant continued. In July the refining plant was ready for operation. The powerhouse generated electricity which was sold to Granton Chemical next door. By August there were complaints about oil pollution from the plant at the Tea Pot Inn beach just up the river. By the end of 1921, the lime kilns were completed and the plant cost $4,000,000. It had been three years since the plant was proposed, and not one ounce of potash had ever been produced.
The end of the Eastern Potash Plant began in 1922, with the appeal and non- payment of property taxes to Raritan Township. Contractors began to sue to get paid, and finally large stockholders sued, calling Eastern Potash a “stock swindling operation.” In 1923 Eastern Potash went bankrupt. One lawsuit by a stockholder said that the plant never “turned a wheel” and the president of the company was making over $100,000 per year. C.R. Blood, the construction superintendent of the plant, resigned and moved to Florida. Eastern Potash went into receivership, and a successor company called Building Materials Corporation acquired the plant with the plan to make bricks.
Bricks Will Save the Plant
Brick making operations started on August 17, 1925 at a rate of 100,000 bricks per day, with the bricks being used for buildings on the plant site. The Home News reported that the plant produced 150,000 bricks per day in 1927. The Aero Corporation announced in 1928 that they would be making airplane engines in the old potash plant, but this did not happen. Aerial photographs from 1931 show a barge in the canal, a pile of materials on the dock, and a loop railroad track around the plant. The powerhouse and chimney are also visible.
Thomas Edison Company Steps In
In 1932 the plant was bought by Metropolitan Concrete Co., a subsidiary of Edison Portland Cement. Plans were to use the plant to make 1,000,000 barrels of Portland Cement per year. In 1933, Edison estimated it would cost $500,000 to adapt the buildings for the manufacture of cement. In April 1935 it was anticipated that the plant would open in 3 months, but it never did. Despite nine years of planning work, the company did not produce any cement at the plant. In 1941, it was announced that the plant would be sold to the Chilean Trading Company for $134,000, who had plans to dismantle the plant and ship it to Chile.
Sailing away to Cuba
America entered World War II on December 7, Suddenly, there was a great need for steel and nickel for the war. The main source of nickel for US war industries was in Canada, but it was not enough. In 1942 a new source was developed in Cuba, but there was no plant to process the nickel. The Defense Plant Corporation financed Nicaro Nickel Corporation to build a processing plant in Cuba, but there was no steel available.
Along the Raritan there was the abandoned potash plant with over 1400 tons of structural steel in it and a large gantry crane. So, the Defense Plant
Corporation bought the old potash plant for $71,000, dismantled it, transported it by rail to Florida, and then shipped it to Cuba where it was used in the nickel processing plant. Even the giant gantry crane was moved to Cuba.
The new plant produced nickel, a material vital in armor plating in ships, tanks, and airplanes for the US war effort, and remained in operation until 2012. While back in Raritan the only thing they did not take was the chimney, which is still visible today sticking out of the woods along the Raritan River, a silent memorial to an industrial dream of the early 20th
century. To view a movie of the construction and operation of the plant, including the gantry crane in Cuba, go to:
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