A Roebling company account of how it built wire netting to counter Germany's U-boat menace. Such products made the Trenton plant a tempting target for saboteurs.
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1915: Who torched the Roebling plant?
By JON BLACKWELL / The Trentonian
   World War I took just months to turn Europe into one, big killing field and send more than a million men to their death blown up, shot and bayoneted in mud-filled trenches.

    But for America, neutral and complacent behind the protection of an ocean, war was good business. Nowhere was that more true than in Trenton, where John A. Roebling's Sons Co., a world leader in structural steel and wire, filled millions of dollars in orders for the Allied powers. Putting men to work on double shifts, Roebling supplied the anti-submarine netting, artillery chains and other armaments they needed to defeat the Germans.

    On the night of Jan. 18, 1915, someone decided to put an end to Roebling's war-fueled prosperity. He or, more likely, they sneaked in while 300 people were at work, cut the wires of the fire-alarm system and started a series of small fires in rubbish heaps and piles of cotton and jute. Within a few hours, eight acres of factory were destroyed, together with a block of workers' houses.

    Washington Roebling, the engineering genius behind Roebling's Sons and the man who built the Brooklyn Bridge, thought he knew who was responsible for the sabotage. "Disaffected foreigners," he said, probably riled up by labor troubles.

    But others doubted that simple working men had the capacity to pull off such a daring caper unaided. Then, when a second arson fire broke out in the Roebling factory in November, it appeared more sinister forces were at work. For blame, the press and the rumor mill turned overseas, to the country with the best motive Imperial Germany.

    Was this theory true? If so, it was an extraordinary German act of war against a neutral power making Trenton, in effect, the first American battleground of World War I.

    Unfortunately, the federal government, which had no central crime-fighting or intelligence-gathering agency at the time, never bothered to investigate a connection between Trenton's fires and Teutonic terror. In fact, the mysterious fire at Roebling remains unsolved to this day.

    But in the postwar years, an international commission would rip the cover off the shady sabotage that German spies and terrorists carried out right under America's nose and make the idea of sabotage at Trenton quite plausible.

    "They went to New Jersey to carry out sabotage for the same reason that Willie Sutton robbed banks," said Jules Witcover, a Washington journalist whose 1989 book, "Sabotage at Black Tom," described the spy network. "For Sutton, that's where the money was. For the Germans, New Jersey was where the munitions were."

    Just days after the outbreak of hostilities in Europe in August 1914, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed that America "must be neutral in thought as well as deed." But while the government stayed aloof from the war, some American citizens had a financial stake in trading with the Allies: Britain, France and Russia. Germany, meanwhile, was under blockade and could import no goods.

    To thwart the American war trade, Germany dispatched its ambassador to Washington, Count Johann von Bernstorff a Prussian aristocrat who had the same waxed mustache and haughty airs as the Kaiser. Bernstorff's mission was to persuade the American public and leaders to stay neutral.

    But he also got a secret, $150 million bankroll and a coded message. "Avail yourself in unlimited amounts of these credits for the destruction of the enemy's factories, plants and ... setting incendiary fires to stocks of raw materials and finished products," it read.

    A network of spies, thugs, and petty criminals most of them German immigrants who had stayed loyal to the fatherland were ready to do Bernstoff's dealing. One of his plotters, adventurer Franz von Rintelen, later claimed it was legit to carry out the secret war. American production, he said, was "a spectre, an intangible phantom, against which strategy, tactics and all the courage of the German soldier were helpless."

    As Witcover speculates in his book, the Roebling works must have been a tempting target for sabotage. The Roebling brothers Washington, Ferdinand and Charles were themselves German-Americans. But they were solid American citizens, pillars of Trenton society, and besides that, they were making a fortune producing material that was being used to thwart German victory.

    Roebling steel was used as netting in the North Sea to trap and disable German U-boats; it was used in Allied biplanes that flew sorties over German lines; it was used as telegraph wire to link generals with soldiers in the trenches; and as chains to keep artillery pieces from flying back too far after being fired.

    These products were manufactured in a sprawling complex of buildings made of fireproof brick and secured by the latest in fire-alarm systems. But it was not hard to infiltrate, since the immigrant labor force was a powder keg of anger.

    Washington Roebling was a Civil War veteran who predicted a second, more bloody civil war between capital and labor, and was determined that capital should win. He had a successful record of busting unions and breaking strikes. He and his brothers also tried to hire fewer Italians, whom they considered radical, in favor of other immigrants.

    Among the newest of the newcomers at Roebling's plant were laborers from Austria, a German ally. Washington Roebling took special note of his suspicions with them after the fire, noting that "we had many disaffected foreigners working in the shop, especially Austrians." But he failed to make any link to a foreign government.

    Many of those Austrians were at work at Roebling's insulated wire department on Jersey, Hancock and Tremont streets when the building burned down.

    For three hours, the flames raged uncontrolled, shooting dozens of feet into the sky and lighting up all Trenton in an orange glow. The city's overmatched fire department, arrived at the scene late and had to get assistance from 30 miles away in Camden. Five-story walls crumbled and the flames spread to workers' housing, incinerating 14 houses.

    All 300 workers got out safely. No one was injured, except for Fire Chief James Bennett, who sprained his leg when a hose knocked him down.

    Ferdinand Roebling, secretary-treasurer of the plant, was left nearly dumbstruck. "It might have been a foreign spy," he told The New York Times. "Possibly someone might have lighted a cigar carelessly."

    In fact, the disabled fire alarm pointed to only one cause arson.

    Ten months later, it happened all over again. On Nov. 11, fire broke out at the Roebling wire machine shop at Elmer Street and Hamilton Avenue. Again, the fire alarms were cut; again, hundreds of men were at work, but escaped safely; and again, it was too late to save anything of the building.

    Washington Roebling fumed. "We live in a reign of terror. Everyone expects the whole mill to go, in which case we will be ruined," he wrote Ferdinand.

    But the family rebuilt without a second thought. Despite their tremendous losses, a combined $3 million, they were making even more off war contracts. And their factory for building heavy, industrial rope the mainstay of their enterprise was never damaged.

    The Roebling plant would never be torched again. But in coming months, the incredible pace of sabotage picked up elsewhere. In July, 1916, German agents blew up the Black Tom depot in Jersey City an act that claimed two lives and touched off an explosion felt as far away as Trenton and Philadelphia. A few months later, they burned down an explosives plant in Kingsland, Bergen County. Dozens more fires were also blamed on spies.

    It was not, however, these acts of sabotage that sent the United States into battle with Germany, but other enemy machinations. In 1917, Germany began a policy of ruthless sub warfare in the Atlantic, sinking American as well as British shipping. That prompted the United States to join the Allies, kick out Germany's diplomats and help defeat the Germans in battle.

    A commission to investigate U.S. claims against Germany made up of jurists from both nations later determined that Germany had, in fact, been responsible for the Black Tom and Kingsland destruction. At least a dozen German spies and saboteurs were thrown in prison.

    The big fish, however, got away with diplomatic immunity. Among them were Bernstorff, along with his chief diplomatic attache in Washington, a duplicitous schemer named Franz von Papen. By 1933, von Papen had acquired great influence as a minister the postwar German government and could hand-pick the country's next leader. The man he chose was Adolf Hitler.