Meet Great-Grandfather James Ott
Monthly Monitor, August 2001 - Newsworthy Neighbor
By: Mary Krein
Every time I travel on the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, I will think of James Ott of West Collingswood Heights whose father, Pierson M. Ott, was a structural steel worker and foreman of the work crew on the New Jersey side during its construction from 1922 to 1926. Ott says his father was a daredevil!
James Ott was born in Camden and lived in the Kresson Gardens (Fairview) section. He and his wife, Marian, then moved to Bellmawr Park. When four homes were being built in West Collingswood Heights, they bought one before it was finished. They have lived there since 1950.
He attended school at St. Peter and Paul’s in Camden, St. Joan of Arc in Fairview and then went to vocational school to learn welding. He started to work as a butcher and left that field because of the influx of supermarkets and went to work with RCA as a maintenance welder. He retired from there after 40 years. He and his wife are the parents of James, Jr. and Robert. “James, Jr. is much like his grandfather because he loves boats,” Mrs. Ott noted. “He and his grandfather both lived and breathed their jobs.”
“James, Jr. is the top civil engineer for all the forts rebuilding and remodeling them,” Ott, Sr. says. “The Army hired him right out of Christian Brothers College because of his good record there and he worked his way up to being top man. He travels from one fort to another. Fort Monmouth is historical and I think it is the oldest.”
James, Jr. has won awards from the United States federal government for running the best fort in the United States, Fort Monmouth. He also won another award which was the third highest award the government gives a civilian.
Their grandchildren are Danielle, Kathy, Regina, Robert and Angela and their great-grandchildren are Madison and Conner. Mrs. Ott has always worked around restaurants. Her mother built Country Gardens which is now called Lambert’s and she helped her to run that for a long time. She also ran South Jersey Vending for 16 years.
Ott remembers that his father was very successful in his work and that he was very clever. “They wanted him to be on the Bridge Commission and he refused because it was a political job,” Ott explained. “So P.C. Hull Steel Erection hired him as a superintendent and he worked for them until he died. He wouldn’t let me follow him. He wouldn’t let me work outside. I wanted to get a union card and he threatened to have me flagged if I did.”
Ott has a lot of his father’s tools and memorabilia. He has a piece of cable from the bridge which his Dad had one end pressed into a letter opener and the other end has a handle made from a coupling. He told him, “Don’t lose this, Jimmy. It is part of the bridge!”
There are pictures of the bridge in progress in his collection. “I have pictures of the towers going up,” he commented. “For its height and length, it is still the strongest bridge in the world. It had its history for the strongest bridge for its height and length up until four years ago and there is another bridge similar to it but it is not as strong as this one. This has a lot of steel in it. It is really built!
“The cable comes down to the anchorage,” he continued. “In the anchorage there is an elevator that goes down to the street. They intended to have that as the entrance to go up to the trolleys. They intended to put trolleys there years ago. Inside that anchorage all the walls are marble with paintings on them. They were going to have a shopping center there while the people waited for a trolley.
“It seems that the rails that were put on when the bridge was built were different from PTC at that time and the Bridge Commission was in authority. PTC said that they were not running over there unless the rails were changed. The commission said they should change the rails and they were not changing them. So, they held off until the Port Authority took over and there were no questions asked. The Port Authority changed the rails on the bridge. That is when the Speedline started.
“When the Speedline came in, the first stop was Broadway in Camden,” he added. “They bypassed the anchorage. The spot they fixed up all went to waste money thrown away. If the trolleys had been used, there would have been one stop at the anchorage where you got on at Linden Street in Camden to go up the elevator to catch the trolley and go across the bridge. It is still there but it is closed to the public. I have pictures of the anchorage showing big arms coming out and down in the casings that hold the cable. The arms move, that cable moves two inches and the bridge also sways. They have to keep that oiled and greased and they have to keep it open for maintenance.”
After Ott’s father crossed straddling a cable, with no net beneath him, he lost the name Pierson and he was called “Jersey Ott!”
One of the jobs he did when he was contracting was to fix the clock on the City Hall in Camden. He lowered himself in a boatswain’s chair and set the clock. The newspaper reported it by saying, “Jersey’s time is the right time!”
Ott likes West Collingswood Heights because it is a nice quite area. He keeps in touch at the township meetings, which he attends. He belongs to the West Collingswood Heights Fire Company.
“They didn’t have any fire hydrants from the Black Horse Pike in and I lived two blocks in from the Pike,” he says. “The township was unsuccessful in getting hydrants. So, I went to the state and got in touch with the Insurance Association. They like to know if properties have protection. They came to a township meeting and they made them put the hydrants in on Wilson Avenue. It was a struggle but I was very successful.
“What amazes me is how remarkable the engineer was to figure that all out all those years ago,” he concluded. “It is a proud thing to know that my Dad was such a major part of it.”
“He was a great man, a good father; he took care of his family and was very strict. If you walked the wrong side of the chalk line, you were going down to the cellar!” It is the other way now, children sue their parents!”
Ott says that the story of his father is on the Internet. “I did all this to more or less honor my Dad because he was a wonderful man and he was great to us,” he added. “The least I can do is having some remembrance of him. I loaned my pictures to the Port Authority to use for the birthday of the bridge. Sitting on that cable, he had more nerve than I have!”
Who First Crossed New River Bridge?
Ah, That’s the Question- One Admits Shinning it, Another Confesses He Beat’em All - BUT BOSS WALKED OVER
Four gangs of workmen labored feverishly for two weeks to finish the first footpaths. Each man had a secret desire to be the first to cross, that he might relare it to his grandchildren, and stand along with Washington. Yesterday they were within speaking distance of each other. Then the big bosses dimmed their dream with an order to suspend any man attempting to cross before the formal opening by Chief Engineer Modjeski. But what is the loss of a job to men who work in constant danger of their lives?
With ninety feet still to be completed Pierce Ott, foreman of the south span of the Camden side, declares he shinned across the swaying cable. This was at 9 A. M. and it didn’t phase him a bit he said.
“I just tossed a leg across the cables, grabbed hold with both hands and worked my way over,” he said casually. “Nobody who works up there cares about the height. It only took mea couple of minutes.”
Ott lives at 50 Spruce St, Camden, is married and has two sons Matthew five and William Four. Matthew, who shows promise of being as frisky as his wiry father, said that this was no feat and demonstrated his ability to skip along the porch railing until his mother saw him.
But foreman have more liberties than do laborers. George Morgan, an iron worker, who lives in Blackwood, N.J., stole his crossing during the lunch hour.
Morgan tells how he waited on the top of the Philadelphia tower after his fellow workmen went down in the “basket.” The gap had shortened by this time to twenty feet.
Dangling from the swaying cable in much the same manner as Ott, he gained the Camden side.
Now, the distinction of being the first in literally walk across the Delaware seems to belong to George Bowers superintendent of construction. He is a veteran bridge builder and is credited with being the first to walk across the Hudson over the Poughkeepsie Bridge. Bowers walked the entire 3,200 feet from tower to tower beginning on the Philadelphia side just after the last section of planking had been laid at 3 o’clock. It was a 20 minute trip he said.
All this, however, is behind the back of officialdom so to speak. The bridge commission knows nothing about it.
Who says he was first to cross the Delaware over the new suspension bridge. He shinned ninety feet of cable between the unfinished foot paths. Two others claim the honor of being first to cross the span.
Bridge Awaits Cable Spinners
Workmen of Twin Towers Divided by Eager Rivalry
The footbridge completed yesterday consists of two festoons of boardwalk stretched from the cable
The footways look like two great yellow ribbons stretched across the 1,750 feet curve from shore to shore. Each is eight feet wide.
Much rivalry has developed between the two sets of workers at the end of the bridge during their months of work in preparation for linking the two cities.
The men on the Jersey side are jubilant over the fact that they finished their end of the river yesterday several hours before the Philadelphia end was complete.
The honor of the first crossing on the new bridge was taken by a man from the Philadelphia gang, George C. Morgan, 24 years, of Blackwood. This Jersey man made the dizzy passage over the center of the river on the bare cable for a distance of 50 feet. He crossed to the Jersey side and back at noon yesterday while the other men were at lunch.
Pierce Ott, 24 years, 550 Spruce Street, Camden, foreman or “pusher,” of the gang that claimed the honor of finishing the first of the Camden side had declared he would be the first to cross and that he would not wait for the boardwalk to be complete. His intentions were wrecked early yesterday when an accidental blow on his nose by a timber sent him off the work for a day.
Other foremen under Superintendent Greene on the Camden side are George Bowers, Jr., son of the veteran bridge worker at the head of the Philadelphia workers: '
Bill Salders, of Maple Shade, and J.O. Strom, 2414 South Seventh Street, Camden.