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Speaker tells relevance of NJZ to Palmerton

  • ELSA KERSCHNER/TIMES NEWS Peter Kern, left, talks with Dave Taschler of Lowhill Township following the talk at Kibler School.
    ELSA KERSCHNER/TIMES NEWS Peter Kern, left, talks with Dave Taschler of Lowhill Township following the talk at Kibler School.
Published August 03. 2013 09:03AM

Peter Kern, the final speaker for the "Three Thursdays in July" programs at the Kibler School in Towamensing Township, told about the connection between the New Jersey Zinc Company and the town of Palmerton.

Roy Christman of the Friends of the Kibler School, which is owned by the Palmerton Historical Society, made the introduction.

He noted that Kern had been vice president of New Jersey Zinc Research and Development.

Kern said the relationship of the Zinc Company and Palmerton borough is so involved that he could speak for a long time. He said the Zinc Company had some great overseas operations, but on this particular evening he would focus on Palmerton - before there was either a zinc company or a town.

In the 1600s the Dutch were looking for copper. Entrepreneurs went to the frontier (New Jersey) where they found a red outcropping that was they thought was copper - but it wasn't.

Kern said it was likely zinc and iron which the Dutch considered useless. Two hundred years later zinc ore bodies were found in Franklin and Ogdensburg, N.J. In 1848 the Sussex County Iron Company, which became the New Jersey Zinc Company, began mining operations.

The original product by New Jersey Zinc was iron oxide. When people started painting houses to make them last longer in the time period 1850-1880 the company began to prosper.

Zinc oxide was used in rubber, which remains the largest usage with a pound of zinc in each tire produced.

With zinc ore from New Jersey and Friedensburg, Pa., a place was needed for advanced smelting. The New Jersey ore was high quality with up to 20 percent zinc.

The question was asked, "Why build a smelter in a swamp in Pennsylvania?" Kern said It was actually easier to transport the ore than to transport coal which was easily available from the Panther Valley.

The town was begun July 3, 1898, and the smelter was the beginning of the West Plant along present-day Route 248. There was a zinc oxide plant and horizontal smelters.

At one time 3,000 people worked at the Zinc Co. because the method was labor intensive. The furnaces had to be charged manually.

The company put in a research department to explore uses for zinc that people would use. The department became the preeminent research department in the United States and maybe the world, said Kern.

Between 1898 and 1906 the town population rose to 6,000. The borough is defined in size so it cannot grow larger.

Recruiters went to Europe to urge immigrants to come to the US to work at the Zinc. Fifteen hundred to 2,000 people were needed. European newcomers had poor language skills but the Zinc Co. saw a need for educated kids and parents. At one time there were 13 schools in and around Palmerton.

The company contributed $150,000 to build the Stephen S. Palmer High School, now an elementary school.

The Zinc Company had the West Plant and created an East Plant with research in the center of town.

The company could not keep up with the demand for zinc so a changeover was made to vertical furnaces which mixed the ore and coal, and which were changed every 90 minutes. The newer furnaces required little labor.

With the added zinc that was being produced it was up to the research department to find uses.

During World War I, the company thrived aiding the war effort. It did die casting. At the time the most important metals were iron, aluminum, copper and zinc.

Early Matchbox toys were die cast zinc but it became brittle. Research found a method of die casting that would last by creating an alloy trademarked ZAMAK.

While the company was performing its work, the town benefited from the Palmerton Hospital staffed with Johns Hopkins-trained people. By1928 there was a pension plan.

People would say it was self-serving, to which Kern responded, "Of course it was. Why wouldn't you want a healthy workforce?"

During the Depression everyone worked a specific number of days a week. Kern said this couldn't happen today. The union came in 1958 and the company was publically traded after the death of Edgar, Stephen Palmer's son.

There is a physical presence in most states. In 1965 Gulf & Western bought it and in 1981 it ws sold to the investors. It went bankrupt in the early 21st century.

The price of zinc is set as a commodity.

Horsehead Corporation still operates in Palmerton.

A new smelter is being built in North Carolina and Kern thinks most operations will be moved south. There are only 100 people presently working in Palmerton.

People asked about the auction of a Palmer watch which bought $2.25 million at Christie's Auction House. Kern, who attended the auction, portrayed the watch as a "magnificent pocket watch." St. John's Episcopal Church, built in honor of Stephen's wife, was pictured in the auction catalog.

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