In researching my great-grandfather, Walter H. Bell, I have been interested in tracking his employers throughout his life. He worked in so many capacities for so many corporations that it has become a personal challenge to track his place of employment year to year. And it often changed in such a short span of time.
While re-checking my sources for my posts about Walter Bell’s marriages, I reviewed an entry for him in the 1911 NYC directory:
Bell, Walter H manager 95 Liberty R806 h E Orange NJ
I already knew from the 1910 census that he lived in a rooming house in East Orange, NJ, a suburb of Newark. I also knew that in 1910 he listed his occupation as “manager – oil company.”
What company was located at 95 Liberty?
95 Liberty refers to Liberty Street in Manhattan, NY. The entire block is now occupied by a skyscraper called One Liberty Plaza. The previous main tenant was the Singer Building and its neighbor the City Investing Building. However, he could not have worked in these buildings because both had addresses on Broadway, not Liberty.
A quick Google search proved that there had been a building there but it was razed in 1968 for One Liberty Plaza, but I couldn’t find any more information. I went back to the city directory knowing that many also have an index by street. I browsed through the pages and, while there was a street index, it only included cross streets and building numbers, not tenants or names of buildings on each street. However, I kept going and I stumbled upon a two-page list dedicated to named buildings and their addresses! I browsed the list until I came across my answer. 95-97 Liberty Street was the location of the White Building.
I returned to Google and adjusted my search terms to include the proper address and name of the building. I turned up a promising result! The Skyscraper Museum in New York has an online exhibit called “Ten and Taller” showcasing historical buildings in Manhattan that were greater than 10 stories from 1874-1900. The White Building was built in 1898, so it made the list! The entry included a picture and a citation that pointed me to a photo digitized by the Library of Congress. The photo depicts the construction of the Singer Building, but luckily the folks at the Skyscraper Museum recognized the White Building in the foreground or I would never have found the image!
So now that I know where Walter worked, who did he work for?
I went poking around online looking for a business directory of New York City. I found a collection of them on HathiTrust. Using the full-text search option, I generated a list of every entry in the directory with an address of 95-97 Liberty. Over 10 pages of results. Seeing no other option, I began reviewing them one at a time. Luckily, I was only on the 5th entry when I came across the American Creosoting Company.
Creosote is a word I was familiar with, because Walter was peddling it back in Minnesota and neighboring states when he worked as a traveling agent for the Kettle River Quarries Company. If you don’t know what creosote is, it’s a derivative of oil-tar that is used to preserve wood and waterproof it. The technique was often used to prepare wooden ships for the water. In the early 1900s creosote wood blocks were marketed as cheap way to replace paving stones for streets, which is exactly what Walter was selling to small towns in Minnesota and Montana. This was before everyone knew it was, you know, highly toxic.
Continuing to read the business entry I see that their headquarters are at 95-97 Liberty St, in the White Building, and their factory is in Newark, NJ. At the end of the brief entry Walter H. Bell is even listed as one of the “directors” (manager). So it appears that this is likely the oil company Walter was working for in the 1910 census and why he lives in New Jersey but technically works in New York. He is likely working at the production plant in Newark but living in the suburbs.
I expanded my search to business directories in 1910 and 1912, but, while I located the American Creosoting Company in each, Walter was not listed among the “directors” in those years. He probably was still working there in 1910 but was not yet an upper-level manager.
In 1912, the directory lists Walter at 2 Rector St in R324. I again used the text search of the 1912 business directory to determine what was housed in room 324 of the 2 Rector Street building. I find a P. M. Cabell Company there, owned by Philip M. Cabell. A Google search suggests he may have held some patents for reinforced concrete, perhaps Walter was a sales agent for his product.
Sometime during 1912 Walter leaves New York and moves to Chicago…where the story will have to continue another day!