With new money to clean up now-crumbling buildings where welders once built massive furnaces, New Haven is looking to reignite a long- dormant engine of industry on River Street.
Seventy years ago, proud welders lined up for photos before those furnaces were shipped from Fair Haven’s River Street to customers all over the world. Today that’s all a memory.
The Board of Aldermen voted unanimously this month to approve the acceptance of $2.8 million from the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development for clean up and demolition on River Street. The effort is part of a years-long effort at revitalization there called the River Street Municipal Development Plan.
Helen Rosenberg, the city economic development staffer who’s been guiding the project, said the money will go toward the stabilization of several historically significant buildings on River Street, the demolition of buildings that are too far gone to save, and environmental clean-up of the area.
The $2.8 million was originally approved in 2008 for the clean-up of a new home for Colony Hardware on River Street. Then in 2011 the company backed out of a plan to move there.
Redeveloper In The Pipeline
The current plans call for the preservation of historic buildings at 198 River St., the old Bigelow Boiler plant (pictured); and at 142 River St., the New Haven Pipe Bending complex. Some of the buildings date back to the 1800s, among the city’s oldest manufacturing buildings.
The goal is to prevent the old factories from deteriorating further while the city finds new businesses to move in and set up shop. The city has a potential redeveloper for the Bigelow complex, Rosenberg said; she declined to say who it is.
For Tony Bialecki, the city’s deputy economic development director, the possibility for new tenants at the faded plants evokes memories of the old industrial powerhouses that once were, the factories that sustained several generations of Fair Haven families. Like his.
“I grew up in Fair Haven, on Fillmore Street, and my dad worked his entire working life at Bigelow Boilers,” Bialecki said. “It was like 1940 he started, or 1939. … He was a welder by trade. He became a boiler smith.”
Bialecki’s dad, Felix Bialecki, walked to work every day. He spent his whole life putting together massive boiling units that were shipped all over the world, “down to the Caribbean for sugar plantations … out west to smelt mines and steel factories.”
Railroad tracks ran down River Street in those days, hauling materials and products in and out of the factories there. Bialecki said when he was growing up, he used to hop on the trains as they trundled by, to hitch a ride down the street. The conductors would let him into the locomotive and show him the controls that ran the train.
“They would know the neighborhood kids,” he said. “There was no sense of liability” back then.
During the World War II, Bigelow boiler made units that were as big as a room in a house, Bialecki said. Workers would put them together to test them, then take them apart to ship them out of the harbor on barges. But before they’d break them down, the workers would line up 10 or 15 of the huge boilers, stand in front with American flags, and have a photo taken, Bialecki said.
“They were very proud of the work they did,” he said.
Next door was the pipe bending company. It made all kinds of specialized steel tubes for boiler units.
“As a kid, I’d go down on weekends or in the summertime,” Bialecki said. People were always working in the factories. “You’d walk into these places and you had the image of a steel mill in Pittsburgh,” filled with loud noises and people welding. “This real sense of American industry at work, a 1950s kind of Leave It To Beaver sense of the world.”
“The building itself was amazing,” Bialecki said. “Some of the stuff was from the Civil War.” The Bigelow complex comprised buildings erected between 1869 and 1915, according to a report prepared for the city in 2004
Hobart Bigelow, who became mayor of New Haven in 1879, started his factory in 1873 on the site of an abandoned army barracks. He created the National Pipe Bending Company about 10 years later. The boiler factory reached its productive peak in World War II.
When Bigelow died, the business passed to his son, then on to the Barnum family, which finally sold it in 1963.
Eventually, in the 1980s, Bigelow went out of business. The city later bought the Bigelow complex and took the Pipe Bending plant in foreclosure.
The buildings are now silent and desolate. A recent afternoon visit to River Street found nearly the only sign of life was a man sitting outside the old Pipe Bending building, drinking out of a can in a paper bag.
Livable City Initiative staffer Kevin Kluth pulled up in a pick-up truck and used a screwgun to remove a piece of plywood over the door. An office area inside was in shambles. Flexible heating ducts hung limply from the ceiling. Upstairs, graffiti covered the fake wood paneling of another office (pictured).
In the rear part of the complex (pictured), the ravages of time, weather and scavengers have reduced the production floor to a skeleton. Beams of light from the setting sun shone through gaping holes in the roof and walls.
Even the floor, bucked and rotting, was full of holes. “Right there is the ocean,” Kluth said, pointing down a hole. “The water comes in and out with the tide.”
Old files lay scattered around on the floor: long forgotten typed memos and handwritten invoices on carbon paper.
The roof has collapsed completely in one of the structures fronting River Street.
Starting in spring 2013, all the debris and wreckage in the shattered parts of the complex will start disappearing. Rosenberg said demolition and restoration work at the site could start as soon as March, paving the way for a fresh start on River Street.