Lost New York: Piels Beer Brewery, Stapleton

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    A wave of Germans came to New York from the 1840’s through the end of the Civil War. Escaping food shortages, religious persecution, and difficulty in acquiring land in Germany, they settled throughout the five boroughs, with many settling in the North Shore communities of Staten Island.  Many wound up in Stapleton, which at the time was a bustling community with shopping and nightlife.  A big parcel of land at Van Duzer and Broad Streets provided the space for the most massive brewery ever built on the island, George Bechtel’s Bechtel Brewery, which would churn out a variety of beer for nearly seventy years.

    Bechtel Brewery, Stapleton. Demolished by fire, 1931.
    Bechtel Brewery, Stapleton. Demolished by fire, 1931.

    The brewery was enormous, one of the largest structures ever built on Staten Island at the time that it opened in 1853.  Stapleton’s myriad of fresh artesian wells supplied good water, and caves dug right into Grymes Hill were perfect for fermentation rooms.  When it opened, the brewery had no less than seventeen fermentation rooms; Bechtel was not one to do things half-assedly.  Indeed, Bechtel had a reputation for perfection and was known for running a tight, efficient ship.  Within twenty years, his beer was internationally known, winning awards in Sydney, Australia in 1870, at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876, and the Paris Exposition in 1877.

    The Atlantic (Piels) Brewery, different view from Canal St.
    The Atlantic (Piels) Brewery, different view from Canal St.

    Naturally, with such success, there were competitors. Rubsam & Horrmann’s Atlantic Brewery set up its shingle on nearby Boyd Street in 1870, brewing its own variety of beer, the most famous of which was Piels, a pale ale that was known for being somewhat tasteless and watery, but one which survived for nearly a century and a half.  It was always #2 (and sometimes #3 behind the product of Bishoff’s Brewery, opened in Stapleton in 1868).  In those days, watering holes had to pledge allegiance to a particular local brewer.  A typical sign in a saloon’s window would state “100% Bechtel” or “100% R & H”, and the bars were outfitted with signs, coasters, glasses, and taps that trumpeted their allegiance.  Stapleton became the destination point for revelry and rosy cheeks throughout the Industrial Age.

    Company advertisement
    Company advertisement

    Prohibition in 1919 ruined the Bechtel family, who had become quite wealthy by the early part of the twentieth century.  Bechtel brewery could never quite figure out how to re-purpose itself, and shuttered soon after.  A huge fire reduced it to ashes in 1931.  Bishoff’s was sold in 1917, and eventually converted to a champagne-producing plant when Prohibition ended.

    The Rubscam & Horrmann Atlantic Brewery (or the Piels Brewery as it was colloquially known, owing to its prominent Piels signage), with its red brick facade and clock tower, managed to hang on through those lean years by converting to the production of alcohol-free near beer.  A joke among the locals was that the near beer didn’t taste any differently from Piels Ale; it was somewhat watery, light on flavor, but provided the hint of alcohol boozers craved during the dark years of Prohibition.

    Piels Beer Coaster
    Piels Beer Coaster

    The lifting of Prohibition provided a shot in the arm for the struggling brewery, and with Piels back in the stores again, it managed to lurch along for two more decades. However, larger national brands had been developed, and the construction of both a national rail network and the interstate highway system made transporting it anywhere possible.  Piels was crowded out by Millers and Budweiser on its home turf, and ultimately the antiquated Atlantic Brewery could not compete.  In 1953, it was shuttered permanently. Piels Beer managed to survive into the 1960’s before it was sold to a series of owners, most recently Pabst, and the brand name was ultimately retired for good in 2015, after 149 years.

    Staten Island Advance, July 11, 1975.
    Staten Island Advance, July 11, 1975.

    The brewery remained abandoned until 1976, an inviting eyesore for urban explorers and vandals who where drawn to its industrial age enormity, and its maze of iron catwalks and ladders inside. The clocks in the clock tower were smashed out, leaving gaping round holes measuring fifteen feet in diameter that faced north, south, east, and west.  For the last few years of the brewery’s existence, the clock tower boasted the graffiti tags of legendary pioneer taggers Panama 7 and Dirty Slug. Anything of value was stripped or smashed, and by the 1970’s, the building had become dangerous.  Multiple fires had taken their toll on the structure, and rusted vats and equipment housed rats and other vermin.  Once, the Staten Island Advance reported on a trail of blood that lead from the sidewalk on Boyd Street through the cavernous maw of the brewery to a pool of blood on the inside.  A sizable number of children were maimed and injured on the rusty collapsed equipment inside.  One ten-year-old was nearly killed by a fall that left him in a coma.  It was enough of a danger that mothers in Stapleton, which had been in severe decline for years, warned their kids not to go near “the brewery”.

    The menace was finally demolished in the Spring of 1976, and almost nobody was sorry to see it go.  There was no purpose for which it could be retrofitted; it was too old-fashioned and too gutted to repair or re-purpose.  A big, traditional wrecking ball brought down the clock tower in an effusion of dust and debris.  In days, the last cultural remnant of Stapleton’s 19th century incarnation as a party destination was gone forever.

     

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