555 South Avenue, Beacon
In the early twentieth century, Beacon was the hat manufacturing capital of New York, second in the country only to Danbury, Connecticut. At Beacon’s manufacturing height, there were eleven hat factories in the small city. The factories were situated along the Fishkill Creek, which powered factory turbines and was a convenient source of water to wash and dye wool. The local train made it easy to send the finished hats to New York City showrooms.
Lewis Tompkins, a leading factory owner in Beacon, built the Tioronda Hat Works Factory in 1897, as an extension of the Dutchess Hat Works, the city’s first hat factory. The Tioronda Hat Works Factory was the largest hat producer in Beacon. The factory employed over six-hundred Beacon residents, many of whom were immigrants from Italy, Ireland, and Poland.
In 1919, workers at the Tioronda Hat Works Factory went on strike for months, effectively halting Beacon’s hat production. The strikers’ main demands included recognition of their union, an eight-hour work day, and a fifty-cent increase in wages. The strike in Beacon speaks to a widespread struggle for better labor practices across the United States at this time. In 1919 alone, nearly a quarter of the U.S. workforce participated in strikes. In Beacon, more than two thousand people across multiple hat factories were involved in the strike, which was policed by New York State troopers. It is unclear whether the workers were able to get their demands met. Workers at the Tioronda Hat Works Factory went on strike again in 1921, asking for better working conditions and an increase in wages, as they had before.
Tompkins was vehemently opposed to unions in his factories. He was known to fire workers who joined unions and those who attempted to organize collectively. Workers at the Tioronda Hat Works Factory were unionized through a local chapter in Beacon of the United Hatters of North America (UHNA). The UNHA emerged as a coalition of various hat-making unions at the national and local levels, and was the primary union representing hat factory workers in the United States. It focused on the systemic, class-based injustices between the factory workers and owners. UNHA chapters were frequently involved in labor strikes over wages and the prevalence of mercury poisoning, or mercurialism.
The Tioronda Hat Works Factory housed operations for every stage of hat production. Mercury was integral to many of the processes involved. It was used to cure fabrics and fur, was a part of the dying, and was mixed with other gases in the Dryer Room. Few precautions, if any, were put in place for workers’ safety. Workers in hat factories often experienced skin burns, eye and throat irritation, and uncontrollable shaking. The label of “mad hatter” is based on the physical and behavioral changes that come as a result of continuous mercury exposure. The mercury that polluted workers’ bodies also polluted the Fishkill Creek, seeping into soils and contaminating the local environment, including Beacon residents’ drinking water.
By the mid-twentieth century, hat manufacturing in Beacon had declined considerably. For decades, the hat-making industry struggled to compete with ready-to-wear fashion, and investments in manufacturing industries were diverted to southern states, where there were weaker regulations and labor laws.
In 1949, the Tioronda Hat Works Factory was sold to Atlas Fibers Company, which converted the buildings for textile reprocessing. By the 1970’s, the buildings sat idle, except when they were periodically used for warehousing. In January 2017, a fire swept through the old factory buildings; the factory’s overgrown ruins remain on the vacant lot. The site is slated for development into condominiums.
From the Beacon Metro North station, go south on the Riverfront Trail. Turn east onto Dennings Avenue, and continue until reaching South Avenue. (2.0 miles: eleven minutes by bike; a forty-minute walk.)
To learn more:
New York Tribune. (New York, NY) 28 Sep. 1919, p. 14. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.
New York Tribune. (New York, NY) 30 Sep. 1919, p. 18. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.
The Bulletin. United States, New York State Industrial Commission, 1919. Retrieved from Google Books.
Brenda Wirth, Mad Hatters of the Tioronda Hat Works: Legacies of Capitalist Enterprise and Environmental Inequity Stemming from the Hat Making Industry in Beacon, New York. Vassar College, Senior Thesis, 2019.
Dina Onish, Geography, Class of 2023.