When the Bethlehem Loading Company arrived in Weymouth Township to construct a munitions plant for U.S. efforts in World War I, it’s unlikely anyone suspected South Jersey would be adding another town. A subsidiary of Bethlehem Steel Company, Bethlehem Loading Company was one of four such facilities constructed for the war effort, but the munitions plant wasn’t the only military project considered for this area.
“Plans also called for a proving-grounds for big guns with a range of twenty miles,” William McMahon reports in his book South Jersey Towns, “but the combined political power of Atlantic City hotelmen and Atlantic County poultrymen killed that proposal. Instead a shell-loading plant was erected…”
The 10,000 acres chosen for the project consisted of mostly swampy land below Mays Landing. Douglas Yearsley’s history of Weymouth Township identifies that the tract ran “from Hamilton Township to Gibsons Landing roughly between the present Route 50 and the Great Egg Harbor River” and reports that “to make room for the huge landmass needed by the loading company, the property was bought up secretly to avoid inflation.”
Groundbreaking for the plant occurred in March 1918 and a railroad was built to bring construction material into the site. Work on the buildings began April 3, according to an Atlantic County Parks pamphlet, and eventually produced a “modern plant…with administration buildings, cafeterias, change houses, police buildings and military barracks to house 1,100 soldiers to guard the plant.”
The grounds also included machine, blacksmith and carpenter shops, a power plant, three munitions plants for the manufacture of 75mm, 155mm and 8-inch shells and stables for horses, which were ridden by police and guards and used to haul wagons loaded with construction equipment. The main administration building, according to a detailed handout provided by the Estell Manor Park, was a wooden two-story structure that measured 150 feet by 40 feet.
A byproduct of the facility was the birth of a village, Belcoville, which took its name from the Bethlehem Loading Company. According to McMahon, it was “in February 1918 [that] the construction of homes began,” a month before work on the plant commenced. The Atlantic County Parks pamphlet informs us that “by August , accommodations to house 400 families and 3,000 single people were completed…”
Yearsley estimates the early Belcoville population as nearing 10,000, “12 times the remainder of Weymouth Township.” He described the town as having “a bowling alley, theater, post office, school, gym, laundry, central heating plant, power station, water and sewerage, railroad line, newspaper, band, and church.”
According to McMahon, the munitions plant began operating on October 24, 1918, but its part in the war effort was cut short less than a month later when, on November 11, the armistice to end World War I was signed. At the time, construction was only 70 percent complete. “The plant produced little to justify the expenditure of millions of dollars,” McMahon writes. The Estell Manor Park handout places the cost of the entire operation at $12 million.
McMahon explains that the facility’s “construction activity continued until December 1, when the project’s 1,800 employees were dismissed.” But shell-loading, according to the Atlantic County Parks pamphlet, continued production into 1919,” a process that McMahon reports lasted “on a small scale” until January 21, 1919. “On July 1, 1919,” he explains, “the town and plant consisting of 206 dwellings and 84 factory buildings, were abandoned.”
McMahon calls Belcoville “a ghost of World War I,” but Yearsley asserts that “the town flickered back to life in 1923 when the water company sold the remaining houses with the land and Belcoville rallied to form its volunteer fire company and community church.” He also explains that “the village began the war as South Mays Landing in Hamilton Township, but ended up as Belcoville, Weymouth Township probably to force Bethlehem Loading Company to supply its own schools and services.”
By the time the U.S. entered World War II, the Bethlehem Loading Company facility was dismantled, its steel and iron repurposed for use in the new war effort. Today, the Atlantic County Parks pamphlet explains, “the concrete foundations and rail beds are all that remain as a silent reminder of American patriotic response to a world crisis.”