Some Dark Days at the Old Plaster Mill…

Some Dark Days at the Old Plaster Mill…

People have suggested that my writings are, at times, somber. With books on cemeteries and murders I suppose I see their point. Of course, these books are from an historical perspective, not from an obsession with death. So, at the risk of verifying what some may think, here is a new blog that describes some dark days at the old plaster mill

But let’s start on a happy note… Who doesn’t love Gerardi’s on Richmond Terrace?  I know many people who are not only glad, but who are actually thrilled to see it open each spring. Fruits, vegetables, plants, shrubs… this business is truly a Staten Island display of sunny spring and summer days. But, the buildings on the grounds where Gerardi’s is located, well they do have a history…

E. Robinson’s atlas of Richmond County, 1907.

During the 1870’s the north and east shores of Staten Island were the setting for a number of prosperous manufacturers. In 1876, Jose Berre King established the Windsor Plaster Mills on what is now Richmond Terrace opposite Franklin Avenue in New Brighton. The company thrived. By 1900, King also had a plant in Roslyn, Long Island.

Unfortunately, accidents were not uncommon in factories at this time. Aside from industrial mishaps, some very disturbing events occurred at the plaster mill.

July 15, 1901 was a sweltering summer day. For this reason, mill employees Angelo Santora, age 16, and Michael Fiorintino, age 15, went for a swim off the company’s dock on their lunch break. At this time factories were generally located near railroads and on waterways to facilitate the arrival of raw materials and the shipment of finished products. In this case King’s dock was on the Kill Van Kull.

Michael was just learning to swim. It did not go well. Soon he was screaming for help. Angelo went to his aid with the result that Michael threw his arms around Angelo’s neck. Both boys were submerged and drowned.

When Angelo’s parents were notified, they ran to the river. Once there Mr. Santora threw himself in front of an oncoming Staten Island Rapid Transit railroad train in an attempt to kill himself. Fortunately, he was grabbed and the endeavor failed. When Mrs. Santora reached the Kill Van Kull, she tried to relieve her misery by drowning herself in the river. Several men jumped in after her and she was safely pulled to shore. Mr. Santora then attempted to leap into the river, but the crowd was savvy by this point and he was restrained.

Advertisement. “Tammany Times,” 1904.

Factories were plagued by fires. On December 3, 1901, a ferocious blaze roared through the King plant while three-hundred employees labored inside. The factory was a complete loss with the amount of damage set at $250,000. Four days later the fire was still burning and the coroner wanted it extinguished immediately. He believed as many as seven bodies were in the ruins.

The J. B. King factory was soon thriving. Cement, mortar, plaster, and lime were all being produced a few years after the fire. But, a suspicious episode took place during the night of July 14, 1906, when shift supervisor Frank Getzner was tied to the revolving shaft of a fly wheel by his coworkers. His body was found the next day by the day shift. A description of the remains is too gruesome to recount.

When interviewed the men of the night shift stated that Getzner had died because a rope had somehow gotten around his neck causing strangulation. Obviously, this was questionable and if it was that simple why hadn’t the accident been immediately reported?

A Russian immigrant who had only been in the country for two months, Frank Getzner was 25-years old. It was reported that both his wife and child were sailing to the United States so that all could begin a new life.

From the “Tammany Times,” 1907.

It was soon discovered that a subordinate had a grudge against Getzner for reporting him as being lax in his duties. The individual was soon manipulating his co-worker’s opinions against the supervisor. Their mood escalated so much so that Getzner was murdered.

In 1913, there was more tragic news. The company’s president, Jose B. King committed suicide on April 22. King was said to have been suffering from nervousness for more than a year and a half. At this time, 1000 individuals were employed at his New Brighton mill. King was so successful, friends and colleagues referred to him as the “Cement Magnate.”

In 1924, J.B. King was taken over by United States Gypsum. The mill was absorbed and then expanded. According to James Ferreri the New Brighton plant was a leading manufacturers of building materials. Mr. Ferreri states that “chances are, if you bought a new house on Staten Island” between 1945 through the mid-1970’s, “it was erected with materials manufactured” at U.S. Gypsum on Richmond Terrace. In 1976, the corporate headquarters of U.S. Gypsum announced that the New Brighton factory would be closed. Today the Atlantic Salt Company operates on this site, as does Gerardi’s market.

Sincere thanks to Gina Sacco for assisting with this blog.

Works Cited:

Evening World. “Long Illness Drove Cement Man to Take His Life.” April 23, 1913.

Ferreri, James. Staten Island Advance. “From Wallboard to Street Salt in Staten Island’s New Brighton.” January 25, 2013.

New York Press. “Body Found.” December 9, 1901.

New York Times. “Tied Man to Flywheel.” July 15, 1906.

New York Tribune. “Boys Drowned Swimming.” July 16, 1901.

New York Tribune. “Only the Chief.” December 8, 1901.

Oswego Daily Times. “Tied Man to a Fly Wheel.” August 18, 1906.

Standard Union. “Strangled by Rope Tangling Around Neck.” July 14, 1906.

Tammany Times. “A Cement Centre.” August 6 1904.

The World. “Escape Fire on Ladders.” December 3, 1901.

15 Comments

  1. Elaine Croteau
    Jun 1, 2017

    As usual a very interesting piece of history. Gory as it may be you cannot change history. Keep writing them as you see them.
    Thanks.

    • Patricia Salmon
      Jun 1, 2017

      Will do Elaine. Glad you found it interesting. I am asking folks what aspect of Staten Island history they would like to read about… any suggestions?

  2. Jenny
    Jun 1, 2017

    Perhaps “dark,” but also a good reminder that the “good ol’ days” were often not that great, especially in turn of the twentieth century industrial New York. I know I’ll be thinking of the poor Santora and Getzner families next time I’m on Richmond Terrace.

    Thank you, Pat, for performing your civic duty as historian.

    • Patricia Salmon
      Jun 1, 2017

      Thank you Jenny. I agree in so many ways the good old days were not so good. People forget about the horrific air pollution; terrible working conditions (including child labor, fire hazards…); absence of medication (antibiotics)… the list goes on. Hey that is not a bad idea for a blog right?

      I hope you are doing well! – Pat

  3. Beth
    Jun 1, 2017

    Yup, please keep writing. History is always interesting and the more details the better!
    Thanks!

    • Patricia Salmon
      Jun 1, 2017

      I sure will Beth. What else would I do with myself? It looks like my next blog will be about the Mount Carmel Grotto in Rosebank. Calmer and quieter for sure. What would you like to read about?

  4. Jenny Brown
    Jun 2, 2017

    Always love the “real people/real story” connections of your work- it is never JUST about the area or buildings. Thanks for all you do to keep S.I. personal for us. Happy summertime!!

    • Patricia Salmon
      Jun 2, 2017

      Happy summertime to you and Ed too Jenny! Also, thank you for your kind words. I always try to find the people connections. I know that is what interests me the most. A timeline of who owned properties or who was descended from who is sometimes necessary, but the gist and tales of people’s lives and their connection to the island is what really grabs my attention. I hope you are well. Thank you for writing Jenny!

    • Patricia Salmon
      Jun 2, 2017

      One criminal episode I left out of this blog was the March 2, 1922 beating of Michael Connor. He was guarding legal government bonded whiskey in a building immediately adjacent to the King Plaster Mill during Prohibition. Mr. Connor died a few days later. Nine men were arrested, one had a prominent Staten Island name. (The details are actually covered in “Staten Island Slayings.”) Sadly, no one was ever convicted of killing the night watchman.

  5. Ciro Compagno
    Jun 29, 2017

    I was fortunate to recently tour the former US Gypsum site. At the height, there were reportedly 1,100 employees each shift. There were three shifts per day, and operated 24/7. Good manufacturing jobs that are long gone.

    Many of the buildings and upper stories have been razed by Atlantic Salt Co. to make room for their growing business. Additional buildings are planned to be razed. It’s an interesting mix of reinforced concrete, concrete block, brick, corrugated asbestos and metal, etc. Steam was used for building and equipment heating.

    The SIRT right-of-way ran through the property in between and below buildings. It must of have been a sight, as a passenger, to ride through this industrial “valley”.

    • Patricia Salmon
      Jun 30, 2017

      Thank you so much Ciro for the history, the update and the observations. I never thought about the SIRT going through the property. I, like so many, lament the loss of those industrial jobs too. It is very sad. Sad too that they have been taken to other countries. One reason being that there are no laws in third world countries to protect the workers or the environment. It will be interesting to see how countries like China deal with these problems. Anyway what other places have you explored on Staten Island Ciro?

  6. Ciro Compagno
    Jun 30, 2017

    Your welcome Pat.

    A few years ago I also toured the Bethlehem Steel Prop Shop in Mariner’s Harbor. They operated from 1938 to 1960. The site was readily accessible from the street. We walked right in. This shop built alloy propellers for the nearby main plant on Richmond Terrace. During World War II, many destroyers, landing craft, cargo vessels, and ocean-going tugs were built. After WWII, they continued making a variety of commercial vessels. They employed hundreds of Staten Islanders as ship builders. Today, most do not know that Staten Island had a very rich history and tradition in the maritime industry.

    The SIRT serviced the prop shop until they closed in 1960.

    • Patricia Salmon
      Jul 5, 2017

      Also they do not know that the maritime industry went back to the 1700’s. The Noble Maritime Collection is an excellent place to discover the maritime history of Staten Island. For information go to noblemaritime.org Historic Richmond Town also has an exhibit called “Made on Staten Island” that is well worth a visit. A book was published in conjunction with the exhibit. It too is called “Made on Staten Island” and it focuses on many of the products that were manufactured on the island including beer, bricks, linoleum, terra cotta, dental equipment, band uniforms and more. The book was written by Charles Sachs. It is available through Richmond Town’s Gift Shop. Find out more about Historic Richmond Town at historicrichmondtown.org Thank you so much Ciro!

  7. Warren Westbo
    Jul 19, 2017

    The US Gypsum plant was indeed quite the operation. I recall friends and neighbors who at one time or another worked a shift. Traffic on Richmond Terrace was always slow, would weave between the numerous Frank Murphy and Ricciardi trucks backing in and leaving the loading bays.

    • Patricia Salmon
      Aug 26, 2017

      Thank you so much for contributing historic information Warren!

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