The Story of Our Valley, Chapter Four – A Ton of Bricks (Part V, 1902-1908)

Subway construction and train tunnels under the Hudson River feed demand for brick at the start of the 20th century, but opening low drawbridges over the Hackensack River hindered commuter trains.

By Kevin Wright©2012

As Hackensack brickmakers readied their plants in March 1902, James W. Gillies began loading vessels with his winter stock of two million bricks. While demand to rebuild the city of Paterson, ravaged by fire on February 9, 1902, held prices to $5 per thousand through July, in the end, the season proved a disappointment. While the price of brick delivered in New York hovered around $5.75 per thousand, the rising cost of cordwood—still used in nearly all the yards—ate into profits. Even those few yards burning coal saw little in the way of savings.

Brickyards in Hackensack, Ridgefield Park and Little Ferry spent $200,000 on labor, supplies and other operational expenses to produce 18,362,000 common bricks in 1902. Slavs, Hungarians, a few Irish and Germans comprised a majority of the 800 seasonal employees. Only a portion of this labor force remained year round, finding winter employment elsewhere. The thriftiest brickyard workers formed a colony on the Martin Vreeland farm (in the vicinity of Vreeland Avenue, Hackensack), where they erected small dwellings close to their workplaces. Most others traveled to Baltimore, Maryland, in the off-season, joining in the oyster trade. These migrants generally lived hand-to-mouth and a there was hardly a good suit of clothing to be found among them. 

A superabundance of rain caused considerable damage to drying bricks. When about a foot of rain fell in thirty hours in the second week of October 1902, nearly five million green bricks melted into clay blobs. Even worse, several kilns and most clay pits flooded. The flow of water was stronger the nearer the rivers came to the ocean, and the Passaic and Hackensack Rivers spread out to an extent not thought possible. 

An encounter with a navigational hazard ended the career of one windjammer. On October 15, 1902, a brick schooner, belonging to Charles E. Walsh, of Hudson Street, struck a sand bar. When the rising tide swung its stern around, the vessel dashed against the wooden bridge fenders, sinking before it could get clear. Consequently, the owner suffered the loss of ship and cargo.

Thomas Cole and William L. Cole, of London, England, patented a new machine for molding bricks on June 13, 1902. Taking advantage of excellent facilities for railroad and river transportation, the American Brick Machinery Company established a new plant at Ridgefield Park in January 1903 to manufacture brick-making machines, employing the so-called Cole system, which enabled manufacturers to make bricks for $1 per thousand.

Exceptionally cold weather delayed the firing of kilns in March 1903; the clay was frozen stiff and brick schooners sheathed in ice. A trade journal, the Brick and Clay Record, reported, “The output of the Hackensack river district, which includes Hackensack, Ridgefield Park and Little Ferry, is about 40,000,000 a year.” Strikes in the New York building trades nearly crippled the market for Hackensack brick in May. By the second week of June, most common brick sold at $4 per thousand, which scarcely covered labor costs. After three weeks of unrelenting rain, most work stopped in July, except in one yard at Little Ferry. While strikes prevented large sales in New York, demand in Paterson, due to the recent fire, provided some relief. Not withstanding the dullness of the season, the New Jersey & New York Railroad built a siding to the North Jersey Brick Company yards at Carlstadt, thereby enabling direct shipment of raw materials and output. Here, the plant manager, Mr. H. H. Walsh, of Newburgh, New York, installed a drying method of his own invention, intended to eliminate loss of green bricks to rain in drying yards. Under his system, 1,200 green bricks at a time were stacked on pallets, moved on an endless conveyor and exposed to waste heat from the plant’s furnace and exhaust steam in a drying chamber. The clay for this plant was taken from the Hackensack Meadows, where the tides proved “troublesome” in pumping out the pits. 

High tides on Friday, October 9, 1903, and again on Saturday, reached a depth of eight feet at New Milford (referring to the neighborhood of the Water Works in what is now Oradell), doing considerable damage. Brick production fell from 18,362,000 in 1902 to 10,650,000 in 1903. The short, wet season and resulting scarcity saw New York prices rise to $8 per thousand. Anticipating demand from New York subway construction, manufacturers looked forward to reaching the $10 mark before spring, the highest price in many years.

On January 31, 1904, The New York Times reported, “The quality of brick made on both the Hackensack and Hudson Rivers is unsurpassed for substantial construction work. It is solid and even and burns to a uniform density, making it perfectly safe to use wherever strength is required. No facing brick or any of the other better varieties is made in these yards. Indeed, when business is good they are crowded to their utmost capacity to supply the requirements of ordinary building work without reference to the other sorts, which may come later. There has been talk of opening fresh pits at different points in both localities and beginning the manufacture of paving brick, but so far nothing of the kind has been done.” Charles Walsh was the first brick manufacturer to start operations for the season in April 1904.

William G. McAdoo, president of the New York & New Jersey Railroad Company and the Manhattan Railroad Company, succeeded in connecting the business centers of Manhattan Island by subways and by tunnels under the Hudson River to New Jersey. The first tunnel under the river, extending from the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad yards in Jersey City to the foot of Morton Street, New York, was completed on March 11, 1905, at which time a parallel tube had been built for a distance of 4,400 feet, leaving only 1,300 feet to be completed. The approach on the New York side was finished to a point near the intersection of Greenwich and Christopher Streets. From that point the line would be carried under Christopher Street to Sixth Avenue and thence under Ninth Street to a connection with the subway at Astor Place. It was to be further extended under Sixth Avenue from Eighth Street to Thirty-third Street with stations at intermediate points. On the New Jersey side, the line would be constructed from the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad Station in Hoboken to the Erie Railroad Station at the foot of Pavonia Avenue. Work also began on two tunnels to be built for the Hudson & Manhattan Railroad Company, connecting the Pennsylvania Railroad Station in Jersey City with a large terminal to be built on the west side of Church Street, between Cortlandt and Fulton Streets, in New York. The shaft for these tunnels was already sunk on the Jersey side.

Enjoying the spring thaw, Hackensack River brickyards gradually came to life during the third week of April 1905 and were soon ready to ship the first brick of the season. Prices were very good, due to subway construction in Brooklyn and work on train tunnels under the Hudson River. According to the Clay-Worker, “Much of the brick used in the subway in New York was made at the Hackensack yards.” Charles E. Walsh, of Hackensack, was the first brick maker to start his fires in 1905, with other major producers in Little Ferry and Hackensack following quickly in his wake. Each of their kilns had a capacity of 40,000 bricks. Julius Jaeger, of Rutherford, invented a new machine for manufacturing pressed brick in April 1905, which not only promised to turn out pressed bricks at three times the rate of the ordinary process, but which could readily adjust the size and shape of the product to suit demand. H. H. Walsh opened the North Jersey Brick Company at Carlstadt in December 1905, using a dryer of his own patent as well as coal to fire his kilns. Overall, the season looked promising as the City of Hackensack commenced building two brick additions to its schoolhouses. New brick schoolhouses were also planned for Fort Lee, Rutherford and Englewood. Progress on these projects was threatened, however, when other building trades supported a local carpenters’ strike. In August, desirable brick sold at the high price of $7.50 per thousand, keeping smoke curling from kiln sheds along the river between Henry Gardner’s upper yard and the Mehrhofs’ yards in Little Ferry.

These were good times. James W. Gardner, the Mehrhof Brick Company, and M. B. & I. E. Gardner took advantage of high prices in May 1905, commencing operations earlier than usual. Six brick schooners could be counted loading at a single time, where scarcely more than two were previously noted. According to one trade journal, “Along the Hackensack schooners are pressed into service which have not conveyed brick for years, and it is not an infrequent sight to see tows with six and eight huge barges of brick floating down the North [that is to say, Hudson] River to the brick piers in the East River.”

Clay beds around Hackensack were all close to water level by this point with some pits reaching twenty feet below the river’s surface. As old pits became too deep and therefore too expensive to pump, brickmakers looked for fresh clay near Hackensack, seeking deposits that were closer to their yards to reduce carting costs. James W. Gardner uncovered a clay deposit of excellent consistency for manufacturing brick. Capitalized at $125,000, Irving and Warren Felter, of Little Ferry, and George C. and Frank P. Felter, of Haverstraw, New York, formed a new corporation in June 1905 under the style of Felter Brothers. They secured river frontage in Bogota, adjoining the Bogota Boat Club, conveniently situated between the Hackensack River and the New York, Susquehanna & Western Railroad. Sadly, John Chitna, an aged Bohemian, who worked in the brick business for 30 years, was crushed to death when a ton or more of clay fell upon him from a high bank.

By September 1905, every brickyard along the Hackensack River was “crowded to its utmost capacity to keep up with orders.” The Mehrhof Brick Company filled a contract for ten million bricks to build nine factory buildings on 87 acres at New Durham (North Bergen) for the B. T. Babbitt Soap Manufacturing Company, one of the largest contracts ever awarded a Hackensack manufacturer. Construction of almost fifty dwellings in Hackensack supported demand. Construction of New Jersey Worsted Mills, a large German woolen factory on the Saddle River at Garfield, in November 1905 provided a substantial order and it was not unusual to see four schooners loading with brick at the same time, to say nothing of huge barges ferrying brick across the river to the pier in Ridgefield Park for transshipment by railcars. A late spell of warm weather, unhampered by rain, extended the season, allowing drying to continue into late autumn. Unfortunately, several schooners and barges, fully laden with brick, became ice-bound when the river froze from shore-to-shore three weeks before Christmas and almost a foot of snow blanketed the ground. 

In 1906, Heinrich Reis, Professor of Economic Geology at Cornell University, noted, “In the Hackensack region, brick have also been made for many years, but although the New York market is only seven miles distant in a straight line, yet the water route via Newark Bay is thirty-one miles long. As the Hackensack River is obstructed by numerous low drawbridges, shipping is done almost entirely by barges, and as the cost of towage is high, the otherwise cheap facilities for shipping are minimized and the nearness to the New York market is more apparent than real.” In their heyday, commercial brickyards operated fleets of full-rigged brick schooners to transport their wares to Secaucus for transfer to railcars: the Mehrhofs owned seven vessels, Edward Schmults owned two, while the Gardener and Benjamin L. W. Hanfeld brickyards each owned one. Moreover, the upsurge in river traffic proved a serious drawback to the nearly 10,000 commuters that rode suburban railroads across the Hackensack River each morning. Opening drawbridges for the passage of brick schooners caused delays two or three mornings in a row. This produced a general unhappiness as most commuters, if only five or ten minutes late for work, were nevertheless fined a half-day’s pay. Professor Reis also noted an ominous decline in demand for common red brick, “owing to the introduction of buff, mottled, speckled, and other types of fancy front brick.” Since clay found in the Hackensack Valley burned red, it could not be utilized for these newer styles. The use of reinforced concrete and other artificial materials was still in its infancy, but concrete cinder blocks, molded in ornamental forms, were increasingly popular for building small houses. Consequently, brickmakers introduced improvements to reduce costs, including mechanical blowers to fan flames. Coke and fuel oil gradually replaced cordwood; coal dust was added to promote burning.

A barge, heavily laden with brick, grounded in mud along Felter’s canal in Little Ferry, but finally floated free with high tide on June 19, 1906. Hackensack brick makers, M. & L. Gardner, celebrated preparation of the season’s last brick kiln on November 11, 1906, ordering a ten-gallon pot of clam chowder to feast their employees. As a sign of the times, brickmaker Charles E. Walsh contemplated a merger with Herman Abbenseth and Elmer Van Buskirk, manufacturers of cement block. When one of the Mehrhof Brick Company’s schooners was delayed at the Paterson Plank Road Bridge in April, owing to trouble in opening the draw, Freeholder Coe introduced a resolution on May 6, 1907, to create the office of County Engineer at an annual salary of $3,500 “to direct the preparation of all plans and specifications for bridges and culverts and attend to all engineering work which may be referred to him” by the Board of Chosen Freeholders. The motion passed 13 to 10.

The last brick kilns were fired on October 15, 1907, providing stock to carry over winter. In June 1908, Milburn and Lycurgus Gardner, of Ridgefield Park, were the first to burn small quantities of brick. The Mehrhofs at Little Ferry pumped their pits dry and set their pug mills churning. As Murat Gardner’s pit was mined too deep to work economically, the Carlstadt Brick Company stripped additional clay land and prepared their first kiln. Electricity was exclusively used to operate their machinery, including pumps. Demand slumped in July 1908, but later revived. Placing experienced brickmaker William F. Kenny at the helm in November 1908, the New York & New Jersey Brick Company revived the large brickyard at Kingsland, which lay idle for some years after falling into bankruptcy. The first snow fell on November 16, 1908.


Ask yourself—Just how valuable are the lessons of history? If you enjoyed this article, then please consider joining the Bergen County Historical Society, a non-profit, 501(c)(3) volunteer organization, founded in 1902. We are dedicated to preserving important evidence of the past and promoting historical literacy through interesting programs and publications.

We don't receive public operating support or grants the way other groups do, but rely entirely upon private donations, membership dues and volunteer contributions of time and talent. We are presently trying to raise $350,000 to construct a first-rate historical museum building and library for Bergen County on the Society’s property at Historic New Bridge Landing, 1201 Main Street, River Edge, NJ 07661. For further information or membership application, visit: http://www.bergencountyhistory.org

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Hank July 21, 2012 at 02:12 PM
When was the last brick yard closed? Are there any remnants of the brickyards?
Kevin Wright July 21, 2012 at 02:25 PM
There are two more parts to this story, ending with the demise of brickmaking in the Great Depression. I believe Indian Lake, Willow Lake and the large pond on Mehrhof Road in Little Ferry are the drowned basins of former clay pits. Otherwise, except in occasional street names and innumerable stamped bricks embedded in the walls of countless buildings and other structures, this industry has vanished.
Rick Malley August 16, 2012 at 09:26 AM
Dear Mr Wright, I have been researching my family tree and found that Nicholas Merhof is my Great-Great Grandfather. I enjoyed reading your articles on the brickmakers. Rick Malley, Montgomery,
Kevin Wright August 16, 2012 at 11:19 AM
You are most welcome.
David L. Sadler September 11, 2012 at 01:54 AM
Mr. Wright, I enjoyed your article on brick manufacturers in Bergen County. I am a cousin of the Mehrhof brick makers. My 3rd great grandfather, John Mehrhof 1796-1862 left the Greater New York Metro Area and moved to Central New York in 1841. I have been researching Mehrhof genealogy for nearly 20 years. David L. Sadler Box 47, Clockville, N.Y., 13043


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