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Peter Cooper and his Glue

Aug 5, 2011 4:54 PM | 1 comment

By 1899 Newtown Creek had become so gummed up with pollutants that men could walk atop the water as if it were earth. The odors themselves that hung in the air were so substantial that children could perch upon them as though sitting on the wooden ostriches and horses of a carousel, to circle above the copper smelters, oil tanks, and tallow shops of the creek. And in order to sink pylons for new docks, laborers had to use handsaws to cut holes in the grime-thick water, the gelatinous bricks they extracted being sent off to the candle makers who carved their wares from the jiggling blocks. Flowing between and creating the boundaries of Kings and Queens County permitted this kind of magic; the creek, neither here nor there, existed in a limbo free from the familiar laws of this universe. So it wasn't just as if a literal New Town had sprung from the dregs of industrial New York, but as if a whole new noisome and slimy world had bubbled to the surface in this no man's land.

Newtown Creek circa 1900

These anecdotes -- men walking on water, children riding vapors, workers quarrying gels -- are, obviously, untrue. But though the Eagle writer who teasingly reported on such oddities in 1899 may have been out to give his readers in the Eastern District, wearied from the noxious air of the creek, some playful comic relief, his accounts of the fetid miracles yet allude to the wicked legerdemain of the industrialized world: gasses to solids, skins to glues, fats to soaps, and water to goop. This is where all of Brooklyn's waste came to be transformed, and the dross of the borough perhaps had no greater conjurer than Peter Cooper and his glue works.

Portrait of Cooper in the biography by Rossiter Raymond published 1901.

Born in 1791 and dead by 1883, Cooper led a long life as a talented inventor, successful manufacturer, and lauded philanthropist. As a boy he worked alongside his father, assisting him in his successive occupations as hatter, brewer, and brickmaker. From 1808 to 1812 he was apprenticed to a carriage maker. He invented a machine for shearing cloth, manufactured cabinet ware, was for a time a grocer, and finally established his glue factory, first in Manhattan near Kips Bay and later along Newtown Creek at Maspeth Avenue and Gardiner Avenue. Though his glue business made him rich, Cooper continued to invent and expand his business interests. He built iron works in Baltimore, a rolling and wire mill in New York, and blast furnaces in Pennsylvania. He designed and built the first American locomotive engine in 1830 and in 1845 made the first rolled iron beams for building purposes. He was also among the earliest to promote the laying of trans-Atlantic telegraph cables. And though he is long since gone, you'd be hard pressed to find a New Yorker who wasn't familiar with his name, attached as it is to the Cooper Union, which he established in 1853. On top of all that, he once ran for President as candidate of the Greenback Party (the oldest presidential candidate in history, at 85) and was the father of former New York City mayor, Edward Cooper, and father-in-law to another former mayor, Abram S. Hewitt. It's no wonder the Eagle published this reverential obituary upon his death.


Despite all of his accomplishments, when it comes to Brooklyn, Peter Cooper's name is glue.  The map above, a page from a 1902 Rand-McNally Atlas, gives a pretty good picture of Newtown Creek at the turn of the century. And if you look just to the right of that letter "N" you'll see a cluster of black rectangles.

These represent the Cooper Glue Factory. It's remarkable because the only other structures depicted on this 1902 map of Brooklyn are the buildings at the Navy Yard, the Main Post Office, City Hall, the Brooklyn Kings County Penitentiary, and the Raymond Street Jail near Washington Park (now Fort Greene Park); so out of 6 structures worth mapping, the glue factory was one.

 Detail of the factory from a 1904 Belcher Hyde Atlas. Pink buildings are brick; yellow, wood frame; yellow outlined in blue, wood frame covered in iron sheeting; buildings with an "X" through them are stables; that black zipper heading from the buildings to the water is a rail line; both Maspeth Ave. (on the right) and Scott Ave. (perpendicular to it) were cobblestone streets.

A 1911 Eagle article which appeared under the headline below gives a good indication of the factory's size as well as it's profitability. 

According to the article, Cooper's was one of the largest glue factories in the world, with a capital of $1,600,000 and an annual output valued at $2,000,000. The 500 people employed there drew an annual total in wages of $312,000. And in case you were wondering exactly how the glue was made, the article goes on to describe the process.

But life for the glue makers wasn't all wine and roses -- or, as it were, corium and cash. About a decade after Peter Cooper died, the glue works, now headed up by the two former mayors, Edward Cooper and Abram Hewitt, came under constant scrutiny by Brooklyn Mayor Boody and his health inspectors in what the Eagle termed The Glue War.

At issue was the pollution generated by the factory and its effect on the inhabitants in the area. Numerous "cowboy-style" raids into the glue works were conducted by the Nineteenth Precinct, leading to many citations and shut-downs. Most of the citations were given for violation of section 385 of the penal code, which prohibited "the assisting, aiding, or abetting in the commission of an act that interferes with the comfort, repose, health or safety of any considerable number of persons." Apparently throwing "gas tar" and other junk into the creek wasn't good for people.

But some workers at Cooper's factory had it far worse than those residents who simply couldn't stomach the stench. This article ran in an August 31, 1900 edition of the Eagle.

Other horrific stories from the glue works include those of a 15 year old boy who was crushed to death by an elevator, and a workman, James Mildren of Maspeth Avenue and Oliver Street, who was found hanging from a beam in the storehouse, despondent over gambling losses.

Death for the factory itself came in 1915, when nearly all of the thirty buildings comprising the old works were torn down. Cooper's glue, however, wasn't done yet. Having found a new home in what was said to be the largest and best equipped glue manufacturing plant in the country, just outside of Buffalo, New York in a town called Gowanda, Cooper set up shop. And today, on the other side of New York State, his legacy still lives on, as the Peter Cooper Landfill Superfund Site.  

Brooklyn takes to the Skies Part II

Aug 4, 2011 3:21 PM | 0 comments



When one thinks of Brooklyn, airline travel usually isn't the first thing that comes to mind.  But in the late 1940's Brooklyn's business leaders and the Brooklyn Eagle wanted to change all that, and after years of campaigning, the lease was signed to open the first ever Brooklyn Airlines Terminal in the lobby of the Hotel St. George. The new terminal would provide information, ticket and limousine service to Brooklyn executives and vacationers alike. Eight airlines in all were represented in the attractive newly designed space--American, Eastern, United, National, Northeast, Northwest, Colonial and Capital Airlines.                  


Seated, Left to Right, are Tom Prevost, assistant vice president of National Airlines, and Kenneth McClellan, manager of the Hotel St. George. Watching the signing are Don. B. Wilson of United Airlines, Philip G. Nolan, who will manage the Brooklyn terminal; Edwin B. Wilson, executive editor of the Brooklyn Eagle; and Col. A. C. Welsh, director of theTraffic and Foreign Trade Department of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce.  

The lobby of the Hotel St. George was a hub of activity on December 9th 1947 as crews put the finishing touches on the Brooklyn Airlines Terminal.


Cutting the ribbon on December 11, 1947 to officially open the new terminal was Miss Brooklyn Aviation, the lovely Mrs. Virginia Mullin, who won that position in a photo contest. For her hard work in promoting air travel she received two round trip tickets to Montreal for herself and her husband, from Colonial Airlines president Sigmund Janas.  With her are Lt. Gen. George E. Stratemeyer, commanding general of the Air Defense Command, Borough President Cashmore, Don Wilson-airlines executive, and Capt. Frederick N. Kivetter, commandant of the Naval Air Station at Floyd Bennett Field.


Better Air Sevice Proponents--Outside Hotel St. George airlines' ticket office, ready to board Carey Transportation bus for LaGuardia Field are: left ro right, Gilbert C. Barrett, president of the Brooklyn Savings Bank; Robert E. Blum, vice president of Abraham & Straus; Edwin B. Wilson, executive editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, and A. G. Wright, vice president and general manager of the New York Telephone company

This was a time of much celebrating and speechifying. Brooklyn Borough President Cashmore beamed with civic pride,"It's a pleasure to know that you can ask for a ticket to Brooklyn and not get one marked New York", for Brooklyn now appeared on all air maps as a scheduled stop. The festivities weren't confined just to the Hotel St. George. Cashmore had declared December 8-14 Brooklyn Aviation Week, and there were events throughout the borough.  At Laguardia Field Mrs. Mullin's daughter 3-year-old Priscilla (with her mother's help) christened an American Airlines DC 6, "Flagship Brooklyn," by smashing it with a bottle of Brooklyn-made beer. The Boy Scouts were there, with a color-guard of 150, forming a cordon around the plane. Catcher Bob Bragan, represented the Brooklyn Dodgers, and music was provided by those Ebbets Field stalwarts, the Brooklyn SymPhony.  At the Brooklyn Public Library nine models of current airliners went on exhibit, making it the largest group of airliners assembled in one show.  This exhibit was opened by Dr. Milton James Ferguson, Brooklyn's head librarian, and Mrs. Mullin as well, who I think at this point needed an airplane to get around to all her events.   


The Airline Terminal's tenure at the Hotel St. George turned out to be short lived though. Tucked away in Brooklyn Heights, it proved to be to small for a community the size of Brooklyn, and not convenient enough to get to.  Plus, adding to the confusion, the hotel's desk clerk was constantly receiving calls for people wanting to make plane reservations. So plans got underway to find a new location. In March of 1950 the combined efforts of the Brooklyn Citizen's Air Transportation Committee, the Brooklyn Eagle, the airlines and the Port of New York Authority paid off.     


At signing of lease for New Brooklyn Airlines Terminal, on Livingston St., in Biltmore Hotel, Manhattan, today. Left to right, standing, Philip Nolan, manager, Brooklyn Central Terminal; Everett Clark, representing Brooklyn citizens Air Transportation committee, and Don Wilson, chairman, Brooklyn Airlines Committee.  Seated, Charles Shuff, terminal president, left, and Robert E. Blum, chairman of the board of hte Citizens Committee 


On March 12, 1950 the new, new Brooklyn Airlines Terminal opened at 200 Livington Street, directly across from Abraham & Straus.  Brooklyn would no longer be according to the Brooklyn citizen's Air Transportation Committee, "the country's largest neglected airline market."


In this picture Margaret Arlen, WCBS's women's commentator stops at conventiently located Brooklyn Airlines Terminal 200 Livingston Street, to pick up air ticket and inquire about newly installed airport limousine service.  The radio star, homebound to North Carolina, had just finished emceeing a benefit fashion show in Brooklyn. 


Open For Business!  Philip J. Buckles Sr., station manager for Carey Transportation, Inc. posts sign at LaGuardia Airport advising of new service to be started tomorrow from Brooklyn Airlines Terminal on Livingston St. opposite Abraham & Straus.  Looking on is Edward E. Ingraham, acting superintendent of the airport.   


Milestone -  Thelma Illions, 18, of 2072 E. 22nd St., is congratulated on being the 2,000th airport limousine passenger from the Brooklyn Airlines Terminal by Robert E. Blum, vice president of Abraham & Straus, center, as Kenneth Heiberg, president of the Brooklyn Junior Chamber of commerce, left, and Philip Nolan, manager of the terminal, right, look on. 

Today we can take the AirTrain to JFK, and an AirTrain from Manhattan to Newark, but surprisingly getting to LaGuardia, (which by the way is the closest airport to Manhattan) can still be a nuisance.

Printing your boarding pass or an Eticket at home would have seemed like the stuff of science fiction to the travelers of 60 years ago, when a group of determined Brooklynites made sure that Kings County took its place in the skies.   


Image courtesy of MTA

On the Road with the Eagle

Aug 1, 2011 4:50 PM | 0 comments

Summer is in full swing and hopefully for many of our readers the word VACATION is coming to mind.  While daydreaming of my own escape from the daily grind, I came across a scrapbook in excellent condition that chronicles a journey taken by a group of Brooklynites exactly 92 years ago today.

Horseback Riding

The National Parks Tour, organized by the Eagle, was open to the public and advertised in the paper during the early months of 1919.  Headlines such as "Western Cities Rival in Offers of Hospitality to Eagle Tour; Unique Drives Programmed," attempted to lure all of Brooklyn's most dedicated armchair travelers out of their parlors and onto the open road.

For all of the details, I was unable to find the price anywhere.  Given that the party travelled by private train (the Eagle Express) and that a barber, tailor and maid were hired "for the greater convenience of the party," I suspect the answer to my question is, "If you have to ask, you can't afford it."

In all, 126 tourists joined the 33-day adventure which traveled from Brooklyn across the United States to Washington and back through Canada:

Route of the 1919 National Parks Tour

The Eagle's coverage of the trip was as compelling as its advertising.  Each day, an update on the adventures of the party was included in the paper.  And while these updates give us wonderful anecdotes (such as the story of Mrs. J. Renwick Thompson spotting a forest fire in Colorado and helping park rangers prevent a terrible disaster), it is the scrapbook's contents that capture the real story.

"It's a bear."Each page is carefully constructed with photographs and handwritten notes.  No author is credited - I suspect it was the work of an Eagle staffer.  While some pages (above) provide narrative, most include brief captions, allowing the photos to speak for themselves.  The image on the left is simply titled, "It's a bear."

The Eagle planned a truly remarkable tour.  I had a difficult time selecting the photographs to include in this entry, as each one seems better than the next. 

In Wyoming, meeting with local Sheep-hearders (sic):

Sheephearders in Wyoming

Still in Wyoming, taking a contemplative rest:

A Solitary Moment in Wyoming

Taking in the view of Colorado:

 Taking a Break on the Mountain

Hiking in the Badlands:

Two Brooklynites in the Badlands

Admiring sulphur formations in Yellowstone:

Sulpher Formations

Outside of Glacier National Park, greeted by a party of Blackfoot Indians:

Greeted by the Blackfeet

The party's "sweethearts" hike Mount Rainier together:

Young Love

In Alberta, Canada, swimming in the natural hot springs:

Swimming in the Springs

For me, there is something both unexpected and inspiring in viewing these pictures.  First, they are like nothing else in our collection; a stark contrast to the urban and industrial pictures that make up the majority of our photographs.  It is fun to see New Yorkers exploring the wilderness.  One can only imagine what the "Eaglettes" (the scrapbook's name for the party) felt as they explored everything from big sky country to the rainy forests of the Pacific.  Second, when I look beyond the smiling faces, I am awe-struck by the beauty of the landscape.  They make me all the more grateful for our National Parks, knowing that many of these places are still as beautiful today as they were in 1919.  For the entire Eagle party, I imagine, it was a once in a lifetime trip--one that I wouldn't mind recreating myself someday...

 The train heads home to New York...