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Steamboats on the Raritan

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By Margaret Gurowitz
May 08, 2009

What did Johnson & Johnson have in common with Robert Livingston, one of the drafters of the Declaration of Independence?

Give up?  They both ran steamboats on the Raritan River in New Brunswick.  And here’s another fact:  Livingston’s tenure as U.S. Minister to France from 1801 to 1804 would have an impact on Johnson & Johnson over 80 years later.  How, you ask?  Because Livingston teamed up with inventor Robert Fulton to invent…you guessed it:  the first working steamboat in Paris.

So…what was Johnson & Johnson doing with steamboats?  Wasn’t it enough that we had our own power plant, our own water filtration system and our own glassblowers? Apparently not, because we had our own steamboats too.  And what did we use them for?  The steamboats were used to transport Johnson & Johnson products to the ports in New York for distribution to places in the U.S. and around the world.


Steamboat Robert W. Johnson docked in front of Johnson & Johnson

A much earlier Kilmer House post pointed out that, although it was a fortunate coincidence that Johnson & Johnson came to be located in New Brunswick, the city turned out to be a very good place for a new business because of the railroad and the river.  Johnson & Johnson shipped its product by rail, but it turned out that water was a faster way to get our goods to the ships in New York that would take them to more distant markets in the U.S. and around the world.  The city of New Brunswick already had steamship docks due to shipping businesses that started with Robert Livingston and steamboat inventor Robert Fulton, and continued with Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt.  So with the river right there, it was natural for Johnson & Johnson to use boats in distributing its products.  Because many of the products Johnson & Johnson made were essential items like sterile dressings and sutures, the Company wanted to ensure their constant availability.  This was especially true during World War I when the Company was producing bandages and surgical dressings around the clock to meet demand.  Having its own steamboats was a way for Johnson & Johnson to make sure that it could quickly and reliably get huge quantities of products to the ports in New York.  Having its own steamboats reduced shipping times to same-day instead of more than a day.

Steamboat James W. Johnson on the Raritan River

Steamboat James W. Johnson on the Raritan River, 1915

A 1908 edition of THE RED CROSS MESSENGER explained:

“For the most part all goods shipped from the Johnson & Johnson factories at New Brunswick are transported by the steamer ‘Robert W. Johnson,’ which navigates the Raritan River and Bay.  The steamer landing in New Brunswick being directly on the factory grounds.  New Brunswick is situated on the main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad between New York and Philadelphia, thus in shipping by rail there is often a delay in their trans-shipment at connection points. The Steamer ‘Robert W. Johnson’ leaves the factory of Johnson & Johnson every morning and arrives in New York in less than four hours…this method obviates the numerous handlings of the goods with the constant danger of damage and insures prompt transportation.”  [THE RED CROSS MESSENGER Vol. I, No. 3, July 1908, pp. 30-31]

Johnson & Johnson steamboats, 1917

The Company’s Steamboats Docked on the Icy Raritan, Winter of 1917

The steamboats were owned and operated by a subsidiary called the Middlesex Transportation Company.  Many of New Brunswick’s other industries such as wallpaper manufacturers Janeway and Carpender (alert blog readers may remember them as the former owners of the first Johnson & Johnson building), also relied on our steamboats to transport their goods.  The steamboats also brought raw materials like cotton to Johnson & Johnson to be made into products. Because the Company was so reliable, the story goes that the Johnson & Johnson steamboats also were asked to carry U.S. mail to New York as well.

Johnson & Johnson started using steamboats in 1902 and had them for 33 years, until the advent of highways and trucks reduced the time to get our products to New York from four hours by water to just one hour by highway, ending the age of the Johnson & Johnson steamboats at the beginning of 1936.

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Marcia Marcal Persiano
MAY 12, 2009 02:38 PM

This is fascinating information. Through these articles, I am learning about the day-to-day functions of our company through its history. I am eager to learn more. Please keep publishing these articles - I am your No. 1 Fan!! thanks, Marcia :)