EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — A “miracle in the pines” is how guest lecturer Bob RaVell described the construction of the Bethlehem Loading Co., a World War I ammunition plant, during a presentation before the Egg Harbor Township Historical Society on Friday, Oct. 5.
RaVell, a Mays Landing resident, co-presented the history of the company, as well as the founding of Belcoville, with Keith Webb, an Atlantic County Division of Parks and Recreation employee. RaVell retired from a management position with New Jersey Bell in 1999 and embarked on a second career with the Atlantic County Division of Planning, where he worked on projects including the English Creek Bridge and Garden State Parkway improvements. Now retired from that position as well, he developed an interest in the history of the company and has led history walks through the Atlantic County Park in Estell Manor where the remains of the facility can be found.
According to the presenters, the plant was quickly built on 16,782 acres from April 3 to July 1, hence RaVell’s characterization of a miracle. “There were no regulating agencies to slow things down back then,” he said. “The project was estimated to cost $775,000 but ended up at about $1 million. There were cost overruns even back then.”
“People who lived in the area were nervous about the possibility of explosions as the armaments included TNT and ammonium nitrate. The plant was designed to build both 75 and 155 millimeter shells.”
The operation had 24 miles of track along with administration buildings, cafeterias, change houses, police buildings and military barracks to house 1,100 soldiers who were there to guard the operation.
The speakers said Belcoville, a section of Weymouth Township, was completed in August 2018 in order to house the thousands of plant employees and their families. The village included a town hall, YMCA, school, bank, bowling alley and retail stores.
Numerous homes from that era can still be seen along Route 50 in Belcoville. Another home was relocated to Newark Avenue in Ventnor, where it still stands.
“After the presentation, several questions were answered, and personal stories shared by members of families whose relatives had worked there,” Egg Harbor Township Historical Society Historian Lynn Wood said. “Belcoville, named for the Bethlehem Loading Co., was a little-known part of our local history during the First World War. Knowing that a busy town and railroads were once active through this part of Atlantic County will give a different perspective the next time you drive down Route 50 and visit the Atlantic County Park.”