Tuesday, June 2, 1998

James H. Birch

Industrialist and Arts Patron

James H. Birch established a carriage repair shop in Burlington in 1862. His business was so successful that in 1865, he purchased the High Street mansion which had previously been occupied by governor Joseph Bloomfield and his family. Behind the house, Birch built a factory to mass-produce carriages. A patron of the arts, he opened a 1200-seat opera house on High Street next to the mansion.

Birch's business continued to expand, and by 1900 his factory covered 15 acres, with a staff of hundreds making more than 200 models of carriages for export worldwide. Birch's techniques for the mass production of carriage bodies attracted the attention of Henry Ford, who asked Birch to manufacture bodies for his new automobiles. Although his son urged him to accept Ford's offer, Birch declined, believing that the automobile would never replace horse-drawn carriages.

The rest, as they say, is history. Birch's carriage factory went out of business in 1918, and the Birch Opera House closed in 1927. Even Birch's son, James Jr., met with sorrow, as the first husband of Marguerite V. Burton. Not all was lost, though - Birch's third son, Thomas, served as U.S. Minister to Portugal from 1913 to 1922. Today, rickshaws and carriages produced by the Birch carriage factory are preserved in the collections of the Burlington County Historical Society and the City of Burlington Historical Society.

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