The discovery of aniline dye in the 19th century brought bright, permanent color into the Victorian world. These dyes, whose chemical components were derived from coal tar, the by-product of extracting gas from superheated coal, were extremely valuable to the textile and leather industries. One combination of chemicals, one specific procedure carried out in a particular way, or in a specific order, could be the difference between fortune and funeral. It was a risk many chemists would take, because the rewards were great. One of the best of the best in New York was Dr. William G. Beckers. He was a German immigrant with an impressive educational background, and long years of experience in the dye industry.
Part One of our story outlines his history, and sets up the scene of our story. He established an aniline dye and chemical factory in Prospect Heights, on Underhill Avenue, in a mixed commercial and residential neighborhood that would never be allowed with today’s zoning codes. There, in the early years of World War I, before America got involved in the fight, Dr. Becker and his staff of chemists were trying mightily to discover the chemical secrets of German intermediaries.
Intermediaries were the chemicals used to bind the dye components, and produce lasting and vibrant colors. They were coal tar derived, and strong acids were also part and parcel of this chemical soup. While almost anyone could put together the rest of the dye mixtures, it was the intermediaries that made the dye successful for manufacturing. The best intermediaries were imported from Germany, where the formulas for them were literally kept under lock and key. Many chemists had tried to figure out the formulae, but no one could replicate the Germans.
The chemical companies there had a monopoly on intermediaries, and dye factories in America and elsewhere had no choice but to buy from them, and them alone. When World War I broke out, in 1914, it became harder and harder to get materials shipped out the country. Dyes were needed more than ever in the States, and a company that could make their own intermediaries would practically own the market. Dr. Beckers was determined to be that company.
On November 13th, 1914, Dr. Becker and two of his chemists, Ernest Haaren and Adolph Wolters, both young men with great promise, were hard at work in the laboratory of the Beckers factory, a two story brick building in the middle of Underhill Avenue, between St. Marks Avenue and Prospect Place. Dr. Beckers had just left the lab for a meeting in his office with sales staff when a tremendous explosion rocked the site, literally blowing men out of the factory out into the streets. Ernest Haaren was killed instantly, and Wolters was missing. Broken glass, bricks and wood littered the streets. Dr. Becker’s ear was almost torn off, and his workforce of twenty-odd men were injured and stunned, as well. So were passersby and people living across the street and next door. The factory’s second floor had collapsed into the first floor, and was a ruin.
The fire department arrived quickly, just as another explosion rocked what was left of the plant. The plant had not really been on fire before, due to the force of the initial blast, but the supply of volatile chemicals had reached the end of its stability, and smaller explosions and fires were now engulfing the ruined building. Above all of the noise of the scene, firemen could hear the cries of someone trapped inside. In the days before fire resistant gear and oxygen masks, all firemen had then were their leather gloves, handkerchiefs, their hoses, and a lot of nerve. The men rushed into the burning building, but smoke and flames drove them out again, their faces blackened, and their lungs burning. As they collapsed to the ground, the cries were heard again.
The men, under the command of Captain John J. Foley, of Truck 132, rose, and went once more into the building. Onlookers could see the hoses jerking with activity as they slowly progressed, and it became apparent that they had reached the back of the building. Water could be seen spraying upwards, and soon afterwards, the men retreated. They were burned on their faces and bodies, they were wet and black with soot and ash, but they carried a figure in their midst that was still crying out, but barely recognizable as human.
It was thirty year old Adolph Wolters, the missing chemist. His clothes had been burned away, and one hand was missing, burned away as well. He was horribly burned in the face and neck and upper body, but was still conscious and in agonizing pain. He was immediately taken to nearby Cumberland Street Hospital, but no one thought he would survive. When the initial explosion had occurred, he had been on the other side of the lab, and was blown into a wall, which collapsed, trapping him under heavy beams. The beams had pinned him, but they had also protected him from being crushed by more debris when the second explosion occurred. Then came the fire. He had almost been drowned by the water used in his rescue, but his rescue was just too late. He died at the hospital the next day.
The chemists Wolters and Haaren were the only fatalities. There were many workers, as well as local residents who were seriously injured, between being blasted out of the plant, buried beneath rubble, and cut by flying glass and stone. Some of the tenements across the street, and next door to the factory were examined for their own structural integrity, after losing their own windows and rocking on their foundations. The factory itself was a total loss. Dr. Becker, bandaged and wounded himself, would have to start over.
An editorial in the Brooklyn Eagle called the two dead men “martyrs to applied science, approached with patriotic motive.” These things happen, the paper continued. Someone was probably careless, but worse things were happening in Europe. Peace also has its victims, the editor warned, and enterprise rarely tallies its casualties, all taken in the pursuit of success. “Americans will continue experimenting till we can make all our dyes ourselves. There is no deterrence, even in such an accident.” They were right.
Dr. Beckers immediately rebuilt his factory. This time, he took it away from residential areas, and built in in meadows of Canarsie, at East 83rd Street and Ditmas Avenue. The much larger new factory, designed by Benjamin Forrester was finished in 1915. That factory was soon joined by other buildings and warehouses. Dr. Beckers must have figured out the formula, because by 1917, the factory complex had 40 buildings, employed 1,200, and had a wage payroll of over a million dollars. The company had its own construction crew for erecting more buildings and installing equipment and machinery. The plant had its own cafeteria, hospital and fire department.
They needed the fire department and hospital. An explosion of dye dust in 1917 killed a worker, and severely burned four other employees. Another explosion occurred in 1918, injuring two and burning eight others. Yet another in 1919 caused $50,000 in damages to the plant. In 1920, a night watchman survived a hail of bullets as three armed robbers tried to break in to steal the payroll. He killed one of them, and foiled the robbery.
By the end of 1917, Beckers Aniline and Chemical Dyeworks was the sole supplier in the United States of Chrome Blue dye, which was used to dye the fabrics used to make soldiers’ uniforms. They couldn’t make the stuff fast enough. They were producing it so rapidly, the product didn’t have time to settle in the barrels, before they were sealed, and was spilling over the edges. In addition, Dr. Beckers began producing sulfur-based dyes, and buying up smaller companies.
1917 was a banner year; they were also now the second largest producers of sulfur-based dyes in the United States. They merged with the largest producer, Schoelkopf Aniline and Chemical Works, out of Buffalo, and another company, Benzol Products, in Pennsylvania to form the National Aniline & Chemical Company, Inc. They practically ruled the dye business in America. The war and subsequent peacetime prosperity were very good to Dr. Beckers and the top management of the new company. They were all ridiculously rich men. Dr. Beckers was named Vice President of the new chemical works.
Plant production in Canarsie slowed after the war, and much of the manufacturing was moved to Buffalo and elsewhere. The plant complex was sold in one of 1920s largest real estate deals; $700 million to a real estate holding company, which leased the factory back to National Aniline. In 1921, National Aniline merged again with four other chemical companies and became a name familiar to most of us today; Allied Chemical and Dye Corporation, which became Allied Chemical in the 1950s. Dr. Beckers was named a director, a position he held until his death in 1948.
The plant’s legacy in Canarsie was a large and lasting one. It provided jobs for hundreds before it closed down in 1922, but men would come home, their faces and clothing dyed the colors of the rainbow. No doubt, lung and other health problems ensued. There were frequent explosions that could be heard all over Canarsie. The industrial waste from the plant flowed into Jamaica Bay and polluted it to the extent that it destroyed the oyster beds, killing not only the oysters, but a thriving industry that had supplied 300,000 bushels of oysters yearly.
Some of the oystermen sued, but the company argued that the sewers emptying into the bay had killed the oysters, not Beckers Aniline. Several oystermen were awarded judgments, totaling $25,000. But the oystermen’s livelihood was forever gone in Canarsie. Today, most of the Beckers Aniline plant is gone, but the main building is still in use, taken over in the 1920s by Brooklyn Union Gas, and today used by National Grid.
Dr. Beckers, who lived in Park Slope for many years, was a member of the Montauk Club, and was on the boards of banks and charities. He would have his own special residential legacy, but not in Brooklyn. He’s actually a legend much further upstate. For over 30 years he had summered in Bolton, near Lake George. Bolton was actually called Beckersville for a while. He owned the prestigious Sagamore Club Hotel, on Green Island, Lake George, and he built himself an enormous 40 room mansion on the shores of Lake George. But that is another story. GMAP
(Photo: Washington Post, 1916, via colorantshistory.org)