Bigelow Boilers Awaits Rebirth

Thomas MacMillan PhotoWith 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.

Industrial Ghosts

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.


Tags: , , , ,

Post a Comment

Commenting has closed for this entry


posted by: Atwater on December 26, 2012  1:55pm

Welders Unions should be offered purchase of the property so that they can build a manufacturing cooperative which could make and sell boilers, etc. to regional businesses and consumers. Tax credits should be given and partnerships between the Union and trade schools should be made in order provide the industry with a fresh labour force. It is time to bring manufacturing back to New Haven and this is a great opportunity to do that.

posted by: Claudia Herrera on December 26, 2012  2:08pm

Great article, thank you. And great impact this project will have to all the surround areas.

posted by: Walt on December 26, 2012  8:40pm

My grandfather, a civil war vet .,  worked at Bigelow after the war ended

I visited Ed Crotty. Bigelow President many years later while the company was owned by Etherington Industries, a mini-conglomerate formed by Geoff Etherington which also took over the MITE Corporation and several other old-time   businesses in the region as I recall

His office looked as if it had not been changed from the 19th century.  Very Impressive to me.

As I recall, around that time (early 1980’s)  Bigelow was still making massive boilers which were being sent   from Water Street to Hawaiian sugar plantations fot processing of sugar

posted by: Edward Francis on December 26, 2012  10:08pm

Interesting article. In the City of New Haven there were many older Fire Hydrants that were made by the Bigelow Mfg Company.  It would be interesting to know if any still exist on city streets. If so, and they were to be replaced, perhaps one could be incorporated into the redevelopment as an icon for the property.

posted by: anonymous on December 27, 2012  11:27am

It’s good to see the buildings may be preserved.

But they had been preserved and useful before the City boarded them up.  Around 2001, these were artist lofts, and the occupants held great parties.

If it hadn’t been for the meddling of City Hall, the area could have become the next Red Hook, with many local jobs created.  In Brooklyn, prices on buildings like these rose from a hundred thousand to millions of dollars between 2001 and today.

Instead, the area has been sinking further into vacancy and unemployment as nonsensical plans, such as tearing everything down and putting up a big box store, are put forward by City officials.

posted by: SaveOurCity on December 27, 2012  6:11pm

I agree that the Unions should be involved in the restoration process - - they should be billed for destroying the businesses that used to provide jobs and pride to residents of New Haven.

posted by: Atwater on December 28, 2012  9:32am

The unions did not destroy industry in this city. It was the globalization of the market place and the inability of labour to step up and take ownership of the means of production. Now, we have a chance to establish a new model of industry, one that is run by labour, for labour, which would ultimately benefit the people of New Haven.

posted by: Kevin on December 28, 2012  7:03pm

A non sequitur for Atwater - are you from the U.K, Ireland, or Canada (“labour”)?