HILLSBOROUGH, NJ – Looming over the former GSA complex along Route 206 since World War II, the water storage tower had grown obsolete years ago.
It had always been a roost for pigeons, hawks and other birds of prey, affording an expansive view of the township, nearby Manville and beyond. In more recent years, it had sprouted an odd assortment of satellite dishes and repeaters used by emergency services and commercial interests.
The landmark had long been a reference point for out-of-town truckers and millions of motorists who drove north and south on the state highway.
The faded blue steel structure had stood as a sentry and witness to history, until 7:30 p.m. Tuesday night when the massive structure tumbled to the ground in the midst of a pelting rain, accompanied by a racket that sounded as if a freight train had derailed.
Work crews had been preparing the site for more than a week, clearing out trees and fences where the tower would fall. Sparks began to fly at dusk Tuesday as workers used cutting torches to weaken the support beams.
By mid-afternoon Wednesday, the tower’s support beams were a twisted mass of rusting steel; the huge water tank sat on its side, with gaping holes caused by the huge cutting shears of the heavy-duty equipment brought in to clean up the jumbled pile of struts and beams.
The demolition of the rusted tower at Veterans Industrial Park is part of a reclamation project at the sprawling warehouse complex following a massive fire in February, 2016 that leveled two warehouses at the property owned by the US Veterans Administration.
It took 19 hours before the massive blaze was declared under control, with hundreds of firefighters from more than 90 companies as far away as Pennsylvania helping to contain the blaze, which sent billowing black clouds of smoke out over the Atlantic Ocean.
Investigators from the federal government, New Jersey, Somerset County and Hillsborough spent months sifting through the rubble and conducting interviews in an attempt to determine the cause of the fire, which caused an estimated $50 million in losses. They were unable to pinpoint the cause, although the official investigation ruled out any criminal intent.
Work crews have been busting up the concrete slabs of the old warehouses, crushing and recycling the material which is now being used as part of the foundation and new footprint for a planned 700,000 square-foot Class A industrial building to be known as Midpoint Logistics Center.
The new complex is being developed by Industrial Realty Group, located in Los Angeles, a national commercial real estate development and investment firm. The CBRE Group has been retained as the leasing agency for the property. A small CBRE billboard at the entrance of the property advertises the availability of leases to multiple tenants.
Construction has yet to begin.
The federal government bought the property in the early days of World War II, and soon, a sprawling complex of warehouses and storage facilities spread across the expansive 369-acre property; more than 2,500 people worked at the facility, in addition to military personnel.
Prisoners of War from Italy, and later Germany were housed in the barracks; on Sundays, there were supervised picnics on the grounds, with Italian relatives from Manville and surrounding towns invited to spend the day with the POWs.
In later years, the federal government stored precious metals on the secured site, while continuing to add to its stockpile of mercury stored at what had become known as the Defense Logistics Agency Depot. The federal government stored about 12,500 55-gallon drums of mercury at the site during World War II and continued adding to it over the years.
Hillsborough was finally able to convince the government to remove the mercury in December, 2010; the stockpile was transported by rail to Nevada.
Portions of the original property were purchased by Hillsborough Township and Somerset County in 2009 when it was declared government surplus.