Great Falls NJ, 19th century steel engraving by William Henry Barlett
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Great Falls in 2008 by Thomas Flagg

Story of the Great Falls Symposium
by Tom Flagg

Since 1981 the Roebling Chapter SIA has hosted a well-attended and much respected annual Symposium on the industrial archeology and history of the New York and New Jersey region. The Symposium brings together professionals and lay-people alike to share a day of papers and short films presented by many talented researchers and practitioners. Topics are wide ranging as can been seen from the past presentations, but all presentations provide well-illustrated insight into aspects of our industrial past. In 2010 the symposium was moved from it former venue at Drew University to Paterson, NJ "the Cradle of American Industry" and the future site of Great Falls National Historical Park. Starting in 2013 the event will be held in the newly renovated Rogers Storage Building. This industrial building was originally part of the historic Rodgers Locomotive and Machine Works dating back the 1832. The prestigious John Augustus Roebling Award for Outstanding Contributions to Industrial Archeology is presented at the Symposium each year.

A full listing of the presentation titles at each of these Symposiums can be found by clicking the Past Presentations link at the top of this page.

The first Drew Symposium was organized by Thorwald Torgerson, who was president of the Roebling Chapter and then the national SIA, and a tireless advocate for industrial archeology. It was co-sponsored by the Anthropology Department of Drew University (as it has been ever since). The date was Sept. 12, 1981 and it featured the first of many presentations by Edward Rutsch and also one by Abba Lichtenstein on historic bridges, plus presentations of slides showing past field trips of the chapter. The presentations were heavily illustrated with slides, setting a precedent that is still followed. Lunch was at the student center, and was included in the charge of $10.

The success of this Symposium, and the hard work of Thorwald, set the pattern for years to come. The second annual Symposium was held October 16, 1982, and included a movie on the Mauch Chunk Switchback Railroad shown by Lance Metz, a presentation by Ed Rutsch on a site at which he was then working, and seven other talks. This left no time for showing slides of past chapter trips, and it was decided to have these instead at the annual meeting in January, another tradition that we have kept.

For the third annual Symposium (Oct. 19, 1983), lunch was served in the seminar room outside the auditorium, which has been the practice ever since. The food for this lunch was prepared under the direction of Nanci Batchelor, who (with her family) cooked much of it herself, a huge job for a large group like this; the typical audience is 100 to 150 people. Jim Lee gave a presentation on the Plane 9W Turbine of the Morris Canal, Lance showed another great film, Ed Rutsch was on again also, and Ed Lenik gave his first talk on an IA site in the region. We heard a presentation on the Baltimore Museum of Industry from Dennis Zembala: but this was very relevant because it was presented to give us some guidance in creating a museum of industry in our region. This of course has not yet come about.

In the fourth Symposium Bill McKelvey gave his first Drew presentation, and Ed Rutsch and Lance Metz were back again. It is interesting to note that Lance and Bill went on to create their own annual symposiums, inspired in part by Thorwald's creation. The symposium that McKelvey' started takes place at Drew in the Hall fo Sciences also, in the spring, under the auspices of the Friends of the New Jersey Transportation Museum. The presentations here are generally more brisk at about 15 minutes long, and so there are more of them. Canal Symposium started by Lance Metz takes place at Lafayette University in Easton, PA, under the auspices of the Canal Museum. Its presentations are longer, and always accompanied by a published version of every talk. So Thorwald's efforts have resulted in three annual symposiums, each with its own distinctive character and tradition.

Thorwald decided to bow out after the fifth annual Symposium, and the sixth was organized by Terry Karschner, of the state Office of New Jersey Heritage, which has co-sponsored the Symposium ever since.

Terry's many duties with the New Jersey office made it difficult for him to find the time to devote to the Symposium, so the eighth one (Nov. 5, 1988) was handed off to Tom Flagg, who had just ended four years as president of the chapter. He became the Symposium coordinator with help from "co-coordinators" such as Allison Rachleff. The RCSIA has had generous assistance from chapter members such as Nanci Batchelor, who has for many years supervise the food part of the symposium. She and her crew prepare, and set it out the lunch, and then clean up afterward. Chapter's treasurers, Kevin Pegram, handles the financial and registration work. We are very grateful for their work.

We have made every effort to keep the admission price relatively low for an all-day lunch-included Symposium. The fee is set to break even, not to bring in money to the chapter's treasury. And anyone may attend, not just chapter and SIA members; we have found this helps to recruit new members.

Starting in 2010, the location of the Symposium was moved from Drew University's Hall of Sciences, in Madison, NJ, to Paterson, NJ. Thanks to encouragement from Gianfranco Archimede, it was decided that Paterson offered an industrial setting more in keeping with the Society's mission. In 2013 Gianfranco took over the management of the Symposium and arranged for the event to be held in the newly renovated Rogers Storage Building.

© 2013 Roebling Chapter, Society for Industrial Archeology