Curtis Wright Aircraft Facility

Posted March 5, 2009 by The Lostinjersey Blog

The CW facility consists of over 2 dozen buildings on 140 acres of property. One building alone covers 30 acres. If this doesn’t convey the size of this property, then this will: the CW property occupies 1/3 of the entire town of Woodridge. In this facility, airplane engines were designed, tested, and built, leading to other design and assembly processes, such as engines for nuclear submarines. This facility was one of many owned by the CW Corporation, all of which were essential to the US during WW II (most of the aircraft used in WW II used CW engines).

CW was named after its founders, Glenn Curtis and the Wright Brothers. Wilbur & Orville Wright, two bicycle shop workers from Ohio, made the world’s first airplane flight in 1903. Over the next few years they improved their design to the point where flights of up to 24 miles could readily be achieved. This was a huge improvement over the hundred yard flight they made at Kitty hawk, NC in 1903. In 1909 they attended the first ever aviation meet in Europe and to their surprise they competed and lost to an aviator named Glenn Curtis. Curtis had worked with Alexander Graham Bell as part of Bell’s Aerial Experiment Association. Financed by Bell, the Association sought build a usable aircraft. Bell conceived what would eventually be called the aerilon, although the Wrights would get into a patent dispute over this design element that would last for years. Curtis went on to found his own company, the Curtis Aeroplane and Motor company, which came to become the largest aircraft manufacturer during WW I, at one point producing 100 aircraft in a single week, and over 10,000 during the course of the war.

By 1919, Wright Aeronautical was no longer run by the Wrights. Wilbur had died in 1912 of Typhoid fever, and Orville had lost interest in the company, but was still designing with a focus on engines, not on the aircraft as a whole. Wright Aeronautical merged with Lawrence Aero Engine Corporation and in 1927 Charles Lindbergh flew one of their planes, “The Spirit of St Louis” across the Atlantic. Within 2 years, Curtis Aeroplane and Motor Company and Wright Aeronautical merged to form Curtis Wright.

During the 30’s the corporation forged many new design elements in aircraft engines, including the air cooled engine and the radial engine. CW was eventually tapped to design the engines for the B-17 flying fortress. Eventually they began designing the aircraft themselves and soon were given the largest peacetime aircraft order ever placed: They built the Curtis P36 Hawk Fighter and it successor the P40 Warhawk which was used extensively in WWII. As jet fighters became the norm, CW withdrew from building aircraft and focused solely on engines.

CW engines could soon be found on commercial planes such as the Douglas DEC models and the Lockheed Super Constellation. By the 1950’s propeller driven civilian airplanes were giving way to the jet engine much like they had in military aircraft. CW was forced to transform itself to avoid obsolescence. They began manufacturing plastics, nuclear rod control equipment, and in the 60’s developed sophisticated electronics for the space industry. They also continued working on hydraulics, actuators, and later, safety and relief values used in submarines. by the 70’s CW helped further develop the Wankel rotary engine which wound up powering the Mazda RX-7. In the 80’s the company continued to expand the lineup of components, providing machinery for nuclear power plants as well as nuclear powered Navy ships. As of now there are 3 main divisions at CW: motion control such as actuators are sold primarily to the aerospace and airline industries. Metal treatment and flow control are the other divisions. They supply parts and machinery to chemical companies, nuclear facilities and the US Navy.

CW’s ties to NJ begin with an automobile company called Simplex, in New Brunswick. This company merged with Wright in 1915. Together Wright-Martin manufactured many airplane engines in New Brunswick and most European Allies used them in their fighters. During WWI Wright-Martin employed 15,000 people, but by the end of the war, government contracts ended and the work force dropped to a mere 300. The company moved the remaining operations to Paterson. The partnership dissolved and Martin went on to be a successful airplane manufacturer. Meanwhile Curtis’s Corporation was taking orders from England for flying boats, as were the US Navy and Army. A manufacturing plant opened in Buffalo and in Toronto. Curtis & Wright merged in 1929 and by the end of the 30’s had facilities across the country, including one in Patterson, and a propeller division in Clifton, NJ which eventually moved to Caldwell. The Paterson plant would eventually expand to Woodridge at the start of WW II.

In researching this article I spoke with several local residents as well as Mayor Paul Sarlo who filled in the blanks on the history of CW as related to the town of Woodridge, as well as the future of the property. The facility in Woodridge employed at its peak over 27,000 people and functioned 24 hours a day in what could best be described as a mini city. On CW property was a hospital, a day care center, as well as police and fire units.

Despite the numerous buildings above ground, a lot of work went on underground. Many employees were female (the image of Rosie the Riveter could’ve easily been taken from a picture of the work line at CW during WWII) With the increase in employment, came the requisite surge in housing and many new developments sprung up. Across the street a 7 block section of 40 x 100 lots was built, known as Sunshine City. It is impossible to overstate how important CW was to the US during WW II. Major steps were taken to insure the security of the facility. Buildings were designed with 3 foot thick concrete walls. This served two purposes. It protected the facility from any sort of aerial attack, and would contain any sort of explosion that might occur.

The fear of foreign attack was so strong that they installed anti-aircraft guns on the property. They also built fake buildings on the roof of the larger buildings, as well as fake roads, even grass in order to camouflage the buildings from the air. The guns are long gone, but the mounts remain. After WWII ended, CW still produced engines here, and later components used in nuclear submarines. By the end of the Korean War many of the government contracts expired and by the early 1970’s the Woodridge facility slowed down production before finally shutting down in the late 1970’s. Since then they have leased some of the buildings to various companies, which remains the situation today. Prior to the closing of the plant, the federal government paid the taxes on the property, but once the contract dried up, CW had to pay it themselves, and thus began nearly 30 years of fighting over the amount of taxes owed. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to realize what the shutting down of this facility would do to the local economy in terms of job loss, and the resulting impact on housing, local businesses, but most of all to the tax base. According to the mayor there was an increase in crime and a drop in property values. The loss of tax revenue and the failure to replace it with something else substantive was a major blow.

The fight over taxes went on for 30+ years but recently came to a resolution. Curtis Wright sold the complex to Wood-Ridge Industrial Property Owner L.L.C. for $51 Million, in December 2001. The complex comprises approximately 2.3 million square feet of rental space on 138 acres of land. CW continues to be responsible for the environmental redemption efforts. I spoke recently with mayor (and Senator) Paul Sarlo and he said that they plan to turn the large parking lot areas to the east of the buildings into townhouses. This makes some sense as the only thing there is pavement, but I wonder if contamination is still an issue. Mr Sarlo stated that upper area had some contamination but it was the lower southern end that’s where most of it was. That area will be developed commercially.

Groundbreaking is 2004, phase 1 will take 5 years and will see the development of some lower priced units. Phase 2 involves the building of denser construction as well as the development of open space and a transit stop. With 140 acres of usable property, 70 acres will provide space for 700 townhomes. If they are sold for an average of 500K, that could generate taxes based on nearly 350 million dollars. That’s a lot of ratables flowing into the town coffers. Not bad for a property that generated little tax revenue for the past 30 years. The hope is that it will drive local property values up, as well as breathe new life into the businesses on Passaic Ave.

Mr Sarlo confirmed that there were underground facilities, one tunnel of which is over 1/2 mile long…. A person who recently went exploring did locate the tunnels and told me where to find them. One thing I have not made a real discussion of here is the environmental cleanup that occurred in the 80’s. I have sketchy information at best, so if anyone has solid information about this part of the CW story, I’d love to hear it and add it to the site.

Everything you just read was written in 2005. At that time, I explored the site (with permission) but have not gone back. As we all know, the economy has gone south, particularly the housing sector. I plan to post an update on the CW situation in the coming months.