Do the Time Warp: When Greenpoint was the Second Largest Industrial Center in the US!

American Manufacturing Co. Circa 1919, via the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

Hey Greenpoint history nerds! Welcome to the second installment of “Do the Time Warp!” This post will check in with Greenpoint’s industrial past, when Newtown Creek was mightier than the Mississippi, and instead of a BQX trolly, Greenpointers were united in their demand for “a marginal railroad which shall extend all along the Brooklyn Waterfront from Bay Ridge to Newtown Creek, with spurs into all of the big factories.” 

At the time, Greenpoint was home to just 125,000 people, but that small population constituted a labor market that could “not be surpassed in the Eastern States,” and helped make Greenpoint “one of the great workshops of the nation.”

Industry was moving at such a fast clip in Greenpoint at the time that the Eagle reported, “demand for factory sites in this section is unprecedented,” particularly along the waterfront.

So various were the products made in our hometown workshop, that a popular saying in Greenpoint at the time was that everything was made here “from a darning needle to a 5,000-ton steamship.” The most prominent industries in town were lumber, hemp, twine, dyes and iron.

100 years ago, it was estimated that 50,000,000 to 75,000,000 feet of lumber were kept in the Greenpoint stock yards at all times, and the amount sold to, or consumed by, all of neighborhood’s various industries climbed to 200,000,000 feet per year! That meant there were constantly barges unloading lumber for use in the docks and shipyards. The lumber trade also supported Greenpoint’s box makers, cabinet makers, staircase builders, and truck manufacturers. Then, or course, it also supported the great and glorious Eberhard Faber Pencil Factory, which, the article notes, is the oldest pencil factory in the United States, and one of Greenpoint’s leading industries.

But, all other factories paled in comparison to The American Manufacturing Company at West and Noble Streets, which was the largest industrial plant in Greenpoint, occupied 6 city blocks, employed 4,500 people, and turned out 40,000 pounds of Manila jute, hemp twine and bagging every day. It’s sister in fiber manufacture was the Chelsea Fiber Mills on Manhattan and Commercial; The Colonial Works turned out more paint than almost any other plant in the city, and my personal favorite, “The Greenpoint Metallic Bed Company on Franklin St. employs 500 hands and is one of the largest manufacturers of brass beds in the country. It turns of 1,500 beds a day.”

All this industry kept Newtown Creek flowing with freight. At four miles long, it was said to be the busiest waterway of its length in the world, handling a greater volume of goods than the Mississippi River.

And, with industry came development. The paper makes note of a trend we would recognize today as true and timely: “Nothing short of amazing has been the determined drift to this northern extremity of Brooklyn, and… the enthusiasm of the people of this section, with reference particularly to real estate interests concern[s] the great progress and great development now underway.”

So, Greenpoint had booming industry, and a bustling community, but one thing was missing: adequate transportation. Then as now, locals had gripes about the subway. In our Time Warp installment, we’ll look at Greenpoint’s struggle to get connected.

About Lucie Levine

Lucie Levine is the founder of Archive on Parade, a local tour and event company that aims to take New York’s fascinating history out of the archives and into the streets. She’s a Native New Yorker, licensed New York City tour guide, and freelance writer with a passion for the city’s social, political and cultural history.

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