(Author’s Note: The historical information in this piece is taken from the book Edison’s Environment: The Great Inventor Was Also A Great Polluter, by George J. Hill, M.D., M.A., D.Litt, Third Edition, 2017.)
One can’t imagine New Jersey without Thomas A. Edison. “The Great Inventor” and his many factories and laboratories were widespread throughout Essex County. West Orange, Glen Ridge, Bloomfield, Newark and Belleville all hosted one or more of Edison’s enterprises between 1870 and his death in 1931.
What often has not made it into the many biographies and studies of Edison, however, is the legacy of environmental damage left behind in places where Edison built and operated his businesses.
Dr. George J. Hill, a retired surgeon and a professor emeritus of surgery at New Jersey Medical School, was the first to really examine Edison’s impact on the environment. The third edition of his book Edison’s Environment was published in 2017.
Belleville residents who are interested in the town’s history would find much of value in the book’s ninth chapter, titled “The Destruction of Silver Lake.”
Edison in Silver Lake
In Chapter 9 of the book, Dr. Hill notes the lack of information in many historical sources about the factories in Silver Lake, despite the fact Edison, beginning around 1888, bought approximately 50 acres of land, beginning on the western side of Silver Lake on Belmont Avenue, and stretching into Bloomfield. On those 50 acres Edison would build factory buildings and laboratories, seemingly designed to produce batteries and chemicals. Former Edison employee William Hand, interviewed in the book, noted the buildings on the property were divided into the battery factories and the chemical works. Batteries, phonograph record cabinets, phenol and potash were allegedly among the products produced and manufactured on the property.
In his research, Dr. Hill spoke to several persons who lived in Silver Lake during the time Edison’s factories operated in Silver Lake, as well as people who actually worked for Edison. One person Dr. Hill interviewed in 1998 stated she, as a young girl, would invite friends over to “watch the fires” at the Edison factories on Saturday nights around 1912 or 1914. According to the woman, — who was also a onetime employee of Edison’s at his West Orange factory — there were fires almost every Saturday night on the Edison property, then known as the “Silver Lake Chemical Works.” She stated that Edison’s reputation in Silver Lake was not one of renown or respect.
According to Dr. Hill’s book, the main operations of the Chemical Works were located on the west side of Belmont Avenue. Pictures in the book of fire-damaged buildings and tanks of carbolic acid — a poisonous substance also known as phenol, at that time used to manufacture plastics — illustrate the dangerous and environmentally damaging work that occurred there.
“Edison announced that his intentions were to beautify the area and to generate prosperity for the community. However…what happened at Silver Lake was quite different from Edison’s announced intentions.”From edison’s environment : the great inventor was also a great polluter by George J. hill, M.d., M.A., D.Litt (Third Edition, 2017.)
Fires, Stream Pollution and “The Death House.”
Fires appear to have been a common hazard at the Silver Lake property, according to Dr. Hill’s book. In January 1916, a huge fire — allegedly started by faulty wiring — destroyed a 17,000 square-foot steel building, exposing to risk several other buildings on the property in which chemicals were stored.
Edward Cary — identified in the book as an employee who worked for Edison in Silver Lake — claimed he lost his sense of smell due to working in close proximity to the carbolic acid and formaldehyde stored and refined in the factories. Another former employee –not identified in the book — reported a “mountain of sludge” on the Silver Lake properties, possibly byproducts of nickel and iron used in the manufacture of batteries.
The 1916 fire wasn’t the worst loss Edison sustained. That same year, an Essex County judge ruled that phenol/carbolic acid was a hazardous substance from which Edison’s company was responsible for protecting people. This ruling came after a family on Heckel Street in Belleville filed suit against Edison for allegedly polluting a nearby stream. Edison’s company was fined $200 for the pollution.
William Hand, mentioned above, noted that the factories produced a lot of waste which was apparently brought to dumps on the property. He stated that a lot of waste was generated because the chemical reactions produced in the labs and factories weren’t well-controlled.
Hand himself was in charge of a laboratory employees nicknamed “Hand’s Death House” or “Hand’s Mad House.” The name stuck, Hand noted, because people had actually died in the lab, and because some of the chemical reactions caused plastic buildup in the pipes, and gases and chemical byproducts would shoot up and out of the lab into the air over Silver Lake, raining down pieces of plastic all over Silver Lake and allegedly causing respiratory problems for nearby residents.
Despite his knowledge of the pollution on the Edison property and in the air above Silver Lake, Hand — a young man at the time – wasn’t compassionate toward the local residents and their complaints. In Dr. Hill’s book, Hand recounts that he was at least once confronted by a large group of Silver Lake residents demanding compensation. They brought their dead chickens, dogs and cats, claiming that chemical releases from the factories killed their animals and sickened children. When Hand allegedly didn’t take them seriously, the group forced themselves onto the Edison property and destroyed a laboratory.
Later, Edison himself put Hand in charge of investigating wrongdoings or problems on the Silver Lake property. Hand noted one time when he had to climb onto the roof of one locked building, and after climbing down noticed his hands were coated with a yellow substance. A quick test Hand conducted confirmed that the yellow material was mercury oxide. Mercury was a critical — but at the time secret — element used in Edison’s batteries.
In the book, Hand confirmed to Dr. Hill the existence of several waste dumps as well as several abandoned buildings on the property in Silver Lake as late as 1926. One dump, according to Hand, was an acre wide, consisting of a 60-foot high pile of batteries containing nickel.
Hand recounted that he was once checking one of these waste dumps on the property when he encountered a worker whom he described as a “skeleton.” Hand believed that the worker — who told Hand he worked in a foundry on the property — had been exposed to mercury. Hand told Dr. Hill he didn’t believe the worker lived very long after that. Hand reported this encounter to Edison, whom apparently dismissed Hand’s concerns, implying that Hand was exaggerating the dangers of working in the factories and labs.
Edison’s Environment, as a full work, is intriguing to the historian or Edison buff. While many or most biographies or studies portray a studious and active man who had obvious flaws, few to none speak about the environmental impact he left in the wake of his inventing and manufacturing. Granted, Edison was not the only businessman or inventor whose work impacted the local environment, but in relation to Belleville’s history, it shows the struggles against prejudice and denial of responsibility Silver Lake residents had to endure at the hands of Thomas Edison and his managers.
It appears that in the years following Edison’s death in 1931, many of the buildings on the property were either abandoned or slowly phased out of use. In the 1970s, many of the buildings were razed. Sometime between 1970 and 1980, a supermarket building with a large parking lot was built at 81-179 Belmont Avenue, and the property next to it was converted into a car lot, apparently sometime in the 1980s and continues to operate as such to the present day. In April 2018, the Belleville Planning Board approved a development on the property for two mixed-use buildings, which would consist of retail/commercial on the first floor and variously-sized residential apartments occupying four stories above, totaling 232 units. A groundbreaking for the development was held February 21st.
Environmental reports on the property submitted to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection as recently as 2013 show levels of chemicals and elements such as mercury, nickel, lead and arsenic on the property that far exceed NJDEP standards. The site’s Licensed Site Remediation Professional, or LSRP, testified before the Planning Board that what is sometimes known as “capping” would be utilized to prevent residents from being exposed to existing contamination on the property. The “capping” could apparently be something as simple as placing what is known as “historical fill,” — dirt and soil, not necessarily entirely clean, from other areas — on top of the contaminated soil and installing concrete walkways and natural landscaping as a buffer.