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Eight-alarm fire destroys historical automotive plant

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Smoke from the Elizabeth, N.J., fire could be seen for miles. (Photo courtesy Arthur G. Petridis)

Smoke from the Elizabeth, N.J., fire could be seen for miles. (Photo courtesy Arthur G. Petridis)

Special to Old Cars Weekly

By Arthur G. Petridis, Elizabeth, N.J.

On Dec. 22, 2011, an iconic piece of automotive history exploded into flames resulting in an eight-alarm fire that burned for several days.

As I read the news articles about the massive fire in Elizabeth, N.J., there is an important part of the building’s history and a big piece of New Jersey’s history that is forgotten.

The building was latest subdivided into many small businesses and storage uses. Before that, it had been the Burry Biscuit factory and I remember smelling the cookies being baked.

The real history began when the building was first built. In 1917, Fred Duesenberg built an assembly plant in Elizabeth, N.J. The plant was not successful and was soon taken over by John N. Willys of the Willys-Overland Company. Millions were poured into this plant and it was considered to be one of the largest and most modern assembly plants in the country.

Durant took over the assembly plant when Willys-Overland ran out of capital. Durant announced that his new Star automobiles would be made in Elizabeth, N.J. In November 1922, history was again made when the first Star emerged out of the Elizabeth plant. More than 1,000 workers were employed at this plant.

The housing market exploded and much of the houses seen standing today in that section of Elizabeth were built as a result of the Durant assembly plant providing jobs. Mr. Durant subsidized many of the houses as he wanted to attract the best workers possible. By the end of the decade, however, Durant was out business and the Elizabeth plant was abandoned.

In 1934, the Burry Biscuit Company took over the building and it became the company’s home office. This ran as a successful business for many years.

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Now it is subdivided into many small businesses, and will be forever gone now that this fire has consumed this historic building.

The fire is so intense that the National Weather Service had put out warnings of heavy smoke and the citizens of Elizabeth and neighboring Newark were advised to keep their windows closed.

Sad that such an important part of automotive history is forever destroyed and hardly even mentioned in the many news articles of this massive fire.

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