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Proposed Devastation Prior to Belcoville

A year before the United States entered the First World War, the Bethlehem Steel Company quietly purchased vast quantities of land southwest of Mays Landing for building a new proving ground. When the country did declare war, Bethlehem altered its plans and constructed BELCOville, named for the Bethlehem Loading Company. Here is the story of what Bethlehem planned to do with their land along the Great Egg Harbor River during 1916 and how the company already owned the land when it built the shell-loading plant and associated village to house the workers. All spelling and punctuation match the original article. My apologies for the quality of the images, but I did my best considering I derived them from a microfilm printout.

Extracted from the first page of the 08 October 1916 issue of The Philadelphia Inquirer:



Steel Company’s Proving Ground Almost as Large as Philadelphia County—Lie Along Egg Harbor River—Will Transform May’s Landing

Imagine a tract of land covering Philadelphia county from League Island on the south to Mount Airy and Bustleton on the north; bounded on one side by a brackish river, capable of accommodating fair-sized shipping, and susceptible of being dredge to accommodate larger, bounded on the other side by a superb automobile road, running for miles through devastated forest land: the space between river and sea filled with forests of aromatic scrub-pine, stunted oak and cedar, opening out here and there into arid spaces like a southwestern desert and closing in at others to dense thickets where none but the deer have penetrated.

This will give some idea of the extent of territory which will be covered by the new proving-grounds of the Bethlehem Steel Company, for heavy ordnance, ranging from May’s Landing, New Jersey, south to the Great Egg Harbor Bay.

The government, it is asserted, will not have any official part in the use of this proving-ground. The Bethlehem Steel Company did not take Washington into its confidence in planning for the vast land purchase—so vast that 250 deeds were recorded at the county offices at May’s Landing, and the signatures of more than 1000 persons, sought in every State in the country, into the greatest ordnance grounds in the world.

Will Transform May’s Landing

The significance of the purchase, which has been quietly going on for eighteen months through real estate agents, is hardly yet felt in South Jersey. May’s Landing, a quiet old country town of 2000 souls, is to be transformed into a great industrial centre, and its inhabitants, perhaps, changed from quiet householders who have gone on from generation to generation in the contentment that comes midway between wealth and poverty, into keen speculators and moneymakers.

The government, it is said, has been aware for a long time, of the quiet purchases of land along the Great Egg Harbor River, but has taken no special interest in it. If the new proving ground turns out to be satisfactory, the government will probably make its tests of armor plate there, but these tests, it is indicated, will be of Bethlehem products alone.

Miles of forest-lands will have to be cleared of their heavy, sweet-smelling growths—stripped clean down to the sand that in South Jersey underlies everything. Buildings here and there—and there are few enough of them—will be used for a time to house the laborers who will be drawn into May’s Landing as soon as the work of putting up the new buildings of the steel plant begins.

Land Wonderfully Flat

The land is wonderfully flat from Mays Landing to the sea. The water tower at Mays Landing, visible at a distance of nineteen miles, it is said, first directed the attention of engineers to the possibilities of the land. Farm after farm, meadow after meadow, and tract after tract of stubborn woodland passed quietly into the hands of the purchasing agents at prices which seemed liberal to the South Jersey people. Then the news got abroad and values went up by leaps and bounds.

Six thousand six hundred dollars, it is said, was paid by the company through its agents during the last week for a farm of 110 acres, which had several times been sold for taxes, and which had been valued by neighbors at $800. Six months ago a tract of 200 acres was offered to a Mays Landing citizen for $175. It cannot now be bought for money.

Meanwhile the inhabitants of ever seashore resort within twenty miles are wondering what the danger from gunfire or stray shells will be.

The government experts declare the danger will amount to nothing. It is considered unlikely that inhabitants will ever be disturbed by the explosion of a sixteen-inch gun. Screens will be built which will muffle sound as well as prevent the scattering of projectiles. And the range of these, as a rule, is calculated beforehand with wonderful precision.

The ground at present acquired is situated on the east bank of the Egg Harbor River, which it follows for a distance of eighteen tortuous miles into the Great Egg Harbor Bay, into which Longport, below Atlantic City, thrusts a projecting tongue. The distance, as the crow flies, from Longport to the lower edge of the proving grounds, will not be more than five miles.

From the Great Egg Harbor Bay the ground extends in a more or less westwardly direction along the Tuckahoe, or locally, the “Tuckahoe” River, as far as Tuckahoe and Corbin, the Philadelphia and Camden of the district. It then extends northwardly through the little hamlet of Estelville, which it has practically absorbed, as far as the Weymouth road, at Dorothy, and thence back to Mays Landing. It has roughly the outline of a human foot and ankle seen in profile.

Mays Landing Once Active

South Jersey is not looking for its “first chance,” but for a real regeneration through the establishment of the proving grounds. For back in times almost Revolutionary Mays Landing was an active place. Seagoing vessels were built there, and the wreck of the last of them now lies in the north sands of the Egg Harbor River, just below “Goose Point.” At Weymouth, no great distance away, were iron furnaces which used the “bog ore” of the swamps and got its power for blasting from nearby streams. The cannon which until very recently were used in such quantities along Delaware avenue at street crossing to fend off wagon wheels from the pavement were cast Weymouth in 1812.

Distances from seashore resorts, as well as from labor-producing communities are being figured out by Mays Landing property-holders. Although it is considered unlikely that many men will be taken on at once they will have to be provided for, nevertheless. The new tract is eighty miles, in a straight line, from South Bethlehem, where the purchasing company’s chief plant is situated; forty miles from Philadelphia, and forty-two from Eddystone.

Trenton is about 53 miles, New York about 95. The Atlantic City inlet is about 10 miles off, Ocean City half that distance from the nearest boundary; Sea Isle City is 8 miles and Cape May 25.

The navy proving station is at Indian Head, Md. The army’s proving station is at Sandy Hook. There have been occasional complaints from residents of these neighborhoods, but they have been rather infrequent. The only time there has been an accident in recent years around Indian Head was when one of the first 16-inch guns of the navy was being tried out there a month ago.

The firing of one shell was considered a sufficient test of this latest gun in the possession of the United States Government. There is a 16-inch gun at the fortification of the Panama Canal and there is to be another at the other end of the canal, but the one tested at Indian Head was for one of the new battleships and was the first ever tested.

Failed to Realize Force

Even the experts of the army had not realized the tremendous force that the new gun would have. They had obtained a large section of the thickest and toughest armor plate that has ever been developed. Behind that was sand pile as large as an ordinary hill. With a report that could be heard for miles around, one shell was fired. It went through the bulwark, through the sand pile. Weighing more than a ton, the enormous monster of destruction hurtled through the air, finally plunging downward at an of forty-five degrees into the kitchen of Mrs. Mary Swann, wife of one of the workmen who had helped load the gun.

Almost invariably, however, the experts know what to expect, and on the range provided by the Bethlehem Company, eighteen miles in length and six in width, no similar accidents would seem to be possible. Mrs. Swann and her children had a narrow escape, but were not even scratched, because they were in the front of the house. The Bethlehem Company has evidently taken precautions against having such near neighbors.

Both Captain Clark, of the Ordnance Bureau of the Navy, and Colonel Hoffer of the Ordnance Bureau of the army, said in Washington that they had received no information with respect to the development of the proving ground at Great Egg Harbor River.

Colonel Hoffer said the government would naturally continue to use its own proving grounds for official tests, but that whenever a private concerns furnished proving ground facilities, it was customary that the test should be made there for the sake of convenience of both parties.

Other officials expressed the opinion that the Bethlehem company had expanded to the point where it needed a large proving ground, not only because of the big European contracts for guns and ammunition, but also because of the enlarged army and navy programme adopted by Congress.

All the munition and armor plate companies are aware that the needs of the government for armor plate will be trebled, if not quadrupled under the new building programme. The government now manufactures all its large guns at Waterliet, N.Y., and at the Washington Gun Factory. There is some expectation that private contracts may be awarded.

To Test Armor Plate

It is probable, however, that most of the testing at the Bethlehem proving grounds, so far as the government is concerned, will be with respect to armor plate. It is possible that some of the government’s twelve-inch guns may be tried out there in the future, but there is no likelihood of a 16-inch gun ever being tested there. It would be easier to move the armor plate to a point nearer where the enormous gun to be tested happens to be constructed.

It is unlikely, therefore, that the residents around the new proving ground of the Bethlehem Company will ever be disturbed by the tremendous explosion of a sixteen-inch gun. All sorts of smaller guns, however, doubtless will be tried out. The English used fifteen-inch guns against the Dardanelles. Now they are installing eighteen-inch on some of the ships. The largest contemplated for the American Navy are the sixteen-inch guns.

At the coast fortifications, twelve-inch guns are tested at a range of from 100 to 13,000 yards. Most of the tests at the Bethlehem proving grounds probably will be to determine the strength of armor plate; to try out guns contracted for by Europeans; to test shells and other explosives. At the government proving grounds, the effect of guns and ammunition in trench warfare is tested in real trenches. At the Bethlehem plant it will be possible to build such trenches ten miles from the gun under test, trying it out under the general conditions that prevail in Europe. There will be targets and rifle ranges, trenches and barbed wire entanglements; everything, in fact, that is encountered in the actual use of guns and munitions in Europe today. Discussing generally the modern conditions which call for such a large proving ground by a private company, one of the experts of the War Department made some comments which show the scope the Bethlehem concern will have. He said

“The heaviest armament at each of the Panama Canal consists of a sixteen-inch gun. These are the largest weapons in the possession of the United States, and perhaps the largest in the world. Each gun is fifty feet long and weighs 184,000 pounds. At an elevation of forty-five degrees the range is over twenty-four miles, but as mounted the range is something over eleven miles. The projectile is six feet long, weighing 2400 pounds, and containing 140 pounds of high explosive.

“The charge is 670 pounds of smokeless powder, the explosion, of which causes a pressure of 38,000 pounds per square inch. The muzzle velocity of the projectile is 2250 feet per second, or 1500 miles per hour, and the muzzle energy is 84,000 foot tons. The shell will penetrate any armor plate in existence at a range of eleven miles. At this distance the water line of a ship would be ninety feet below the horizon.

Strong Secondary Defenses

“The secondary defenses on each side of the canal consist of a six 14-inch guns, six 6-inch guns, sixteen 12-inch mortars and eight 4.7-inch howitzers. The mortar shells have a range of 20,000 yards, or over eleven miles, each shell weighs from 700 to 1046 pounds, and carries from 60 to 120 pounds of high explosive. At extreme range the shell reaches an altitude of over eight miles, it target being the deck of the hostile warship.

“Recent reports from Europe tend to show that both the British and German navies are preparing to build or have built guns of even heavier caliber than those in use on the Panama Canal. According to apparently authoritative reports, the English Admiralty has tested and is preparing to adopt an 18-inch gun for mounting on British dreadnoughts under construction. German ordnance experts, it is understood, have perfected a gun of 17-inch caliber.

“Following the great naval battles fought off the Dogger Bank and near the Falkland Islands in the present war, the tendency toward heavy ordnance became marked, as it was the lesson taught by these battles that the smashing power of the big gun at long ranges was the decisive factor in winning naval engagements. The fact that hits can be scored repeatedly at 18,000 yards, not in carefully preparing target shooting, but under actual battle conditions, has stimulated the ingenuity of big gun experts to the limit.

“As long as the officer in the fighting top of a dreadnought can ‘spot’ the hits, the big guns beneath him can register hits. The only limit which it is believed can be placed upon the range of big guns is the limit of visibility of hits. The cooperation of aerial fleets in naval engagements extends even this limit to the point of conjecture. It is possible, and even probable, that the naval battles of the near future will be directed from the air, the ranges will be signaled from the air, and the man behind the gun will shoot without seeing the ships of the enemy.”

The work of inclosing the vast tract at Mays Landing will begin within a few days. A wire fence, running for miles along the roads, will be the first evidence that gunners, naturalists and strays will no longer be welcome in the old “Naturalists’ Paradise.”

It is estimated that nearly a hundred deer remain within the boundaries of the new proving grounds. Wild life is abundant. Access to the interior woods is difficult, automobiles refusing to plow through the heavy sand. Mosquitoes breed in the fresh water creeks and runs in the upper part. Below, in brackish water, they are less abundant.

I hope you enjoyed the read!