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Historical Mysteries at Johnson & Johnson!

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By Margaret Gurowitz
Nov 15, 2012

Mysterious tunnels…links to the past…The Underground Railroad…secrets of our Museum building…a legend about hidden treasure…and some survivors from the founding days of Johnson & Johnson.  Now that the days are shorter and the winds are colder, it’s time to gather ‘round the blog and talk about some of the more mysterious aspects of our history.  In a post originally scheduled for Halloween, but moved back due to Hurricane Sandy, here’s a look at some myths, legends and mysteries at Johnson & Johnson.


Mysterious Tunnels

Kilmer House: a building that was one of the namesakes for this blog, and it sat on top of a mysterious tunnel too!

Is there really a mysterious tunnel at Johnson & Johnson?  The answer is yes!  Several decades ago, during the course of removing a building dating back to the 1890s at our New Brunswick campus, a sealed tunnel was discovered under the foundation.  Legend has it that the mysterious tunnel was part of the 19th century’s Underground Railroad…or was it?  As it turns out, the tunnel has its origins even further back in New Brunswick’s past.  It was a mine tunnel, dating back to the 1700s when there were copper mines in New Brunswick -- a legacy that’s still reflected in the name of Mine Street, just a few blocks from Johnson & Johnson.


Secrets of Our Museum Building

The Johnson & Johnson Power House, which today is our Kilmer Museum building.

Actually, there are two mysterious tunnels here.  The other mysterious tunnel – also sealed -- is in the basement of our Kilmer Museum, and it dates back over a century to the era in which our Museum building was the Company’s Power House.  That tunnel was used to draw water from the Raritan River to run the steam boilers and electrical generators that supplied power for our manufacturing buildings in New Brunswick.   The other secret of our Museum building is the loading dock for horse-drawn wagons in the back -- the last one of its kind remaining at Johnson & Johnson!

The second of our mysterious tunnels, during its construction in 1909, from our archives.


Did the Underground Railroad Run Through the Johnson & Johnson Campus?

Before 1861, the Underground Railroad was a network of secret routes and safe houses designed to help men, women and children escape slavery, and brave conductors such as Harriet Tubman and “station masters” such as New Jersey’s William Still repeatedly risked their lives to lead people to freedom.  The Underground Railroad did in fact cross the Raritan River somewhere in New Brunswick.  There were two routes that ran through the city:  one went from Camden to Bordentown to Princeton to New Brunswick.  If Cornelius Cornell, their local spy and lookout, signaled that the path was clear, the conductors took their groups across the Raritan in New Brunswick and continued to Rahway, Jersey City and then New York.  If they got the signal that bounty hunters were patrolling the river, they headed to Perth Amboy instead.  (They used small boats to cross.)  The second route through New Brunswick crossed to New Jersey at Bucks County, Pennsylvania, continued through Trenton to New Brunswick and then on to New York City.  So although the Underground Railroad did run through New Brunswick, we don’t know exactly where its route crossed the Raritan. They no doubt would have chosen to cross in the least populated areas to avoid discovery, which in the earlier days of the Underground Railroad may likely have been closer to or on the land that would become our campus.


Pay a Visit to Our Founders

Sepia photo of the portrait painting of Company founder Robert Wood Johnson in Johnson Hall.

Robert Wood Johnson, James Wood Johnson and Edward Mead Johnson founded Johnson & Johnson way back in 1886…and they’re still a regular presence on our New Brunswick campus today.  How can that be possible?  There’s a perfectly rational explanation:  their portraits hang in the lobby of Johnson Hall, on our New Brunswick campus.  (By the way, that portrait of Robert Wood Johnson the first once hung in the office of his son, General Robert Wood Johnson.)


Touch a Piece of History

You actually can reach out and touch a piece of our history: a section of the old Pennsylvania Railroad wall on our New Brunswick campus: the railroad brought one of our founders to New Brunswick in 1886.

New Brunswick, New Jersey has changed considerably over the last 126 years, but there’s one item on our campus that has been a fixture since the days of our founders and our first 14 employees: a section of the old Pennsylvania Railroad wall that hides our World Headquarters parking deck from view – a reminder of the fortunate train journey that brought James Wood Johnson – and Johnson & Johnson -- to New Brunswick.


The Legend of the 100-Year-Old Baby Powder

The scent that launched a thousand memories. JOHNSON’S® Baby Powder tin (early 1900s) from the UK, from our archives.

There’s a longstanding legend at Johnson & Johnson that if you open a very old tin of JOHNSON’S® Baby Powder, it still retains its scent.  (You can probably call it an urban legend, since New Brunswick, where we’re headquartered, is a city.)  It’s said that none other than General Robert Wood Johnson tried it and found it to be true.  So is it true?  Yes.  Your intrepid Company historian tried it with a 100 year old tin of JOHNSON’S® Baby Powder in our archives -- which still did retain its distinctive scent.  Blog readers should be cautioned, however, that company historians are highly trained Indiana Jones-style professionals and we would never, ever encourage anyone to use an archival historic product – they are for museum display purposes only!


The Mysterious Conference Table

Did this conference table belong to our founders?

Legend has it that a beautiful old conference table at Johnson & Johnson World Headquarters was designed by and made for Company founders Robert Wood Johnson, James Wood Johnson and Edward Mead Johnson. Was it their early boardroom table?  Did the Johnson brothers and Fred Kilmer sit around that table and discuss future plans?  The table was once in Kilmer House, the 1893 building that was home to the Company’s executive offices, and we’ve traced its history back to General Robert Wood Johnson so far…but we’re looking to go back further if anyone has the story.


Hidden Treasure?

Grey Terrace: was there a mysterious treasure here? We’ll never know, since the house never gave up its secrets!

Another famous New Brunswick legend connected to Johnson & Johnson is that of the mysterious hidden treasure in the walls of Grey Terrace, Company founder Robert Wood Johnson’s house on the corner of Hamilton Street and Easton Avenue.  For everyone attempting to rush over there to search for it, Grey Terrace is long gone (since around 1960, in fact!), but its stone wall and fence still surround the site on which it stood, which today is a Rutgers University parking lot.  Grey Terrace was built in 1873 by a carpet manufacturer named Robert N. Woodworth, and legend has it that gold from an unsolved bank robbery was hidden somewhere between the walls of his ornate Victorian house, many years before the Johnson family moved in.  That legend is based on an actual 1874 bank embezzlement case in New Brunswick in which $500,000 went missing and one of the defendants was a fugitive: if you’re interested, you can read the transcript of the trial here.  Long after the Johnsons lived there, Grey Terrace became a Rutgers University fraternity house, and every year pledges were made to squeeze between the walls of the old house looking for the money, which of course never was found.

If anyone has any more stories, mysteries or legends about our New Brunswick campus, or about any other Johnson & Johnson Family of Companies locations around the world, please add them to the story by posting them in the comments section!

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Emery James Baker
NOVEMBER 29, 2012 08:37 AM

Great write-up, there is another "Tunnel of J&J" but much newer, the tunnel system established during the cold war.

During that period an exit tunnel was created out of the bomb shelter in Johnson Hall to facilitate emergency egress, long since unused for foot traffic it makes an excellent service tunnel for fiber optic cables.

Crystal Cortacans
OCTOBER 28, 2013 01:22 PM

What a great article! Thanks for sharing the history of our great company! Love learning about secret tunnels!

Karla Ferry
APRIL 17, 2014 12:42 PM

This was an awesome articel to read love reading the history of Johnson and Johnson and also being and employee of this great company!!! Thanks for sharing. :)