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Treasures of the past

Riverside museum at old train station exhibits classic watch cases

Long before they were worn on the wrist, ornately decorated pocket watches were in vogue.

A Philadelphia Watch Case Co. pocket watch, with a case made of 18- karat white gold, is worth about $2,400 today. SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Gentlemen in the early 1900s kept them in the vest pocket of suit coats – with the chain attached to a button – and took the pieces out to tell the time.

A four-month-old Riverside Township museum now has an exhibit featuring the watches.

Theophilus Zurbrugg purchased the Pavilion Hotel from Samuel Bechtold in 1892, then had it expanded and converted to a state-of-the-art factory for his Philadelphia Watch Case Co. The building still dominates the Riverside skyline at the corner of Lafayette and Pavilion avenues.

Completed in 1908, the facility brought jobs and prosperity to the town once known as Progress.

Zurbrugg had rowhomes built for workers, and in his will left $250,000 to build a hospital two blocks away for their health-care needs.

The main room of the new Riverside Historical Society Museum in the old train station features displays about the factory and Zurbrugg Hospital.

“It is part of our history,” said Vincent Malecki, a society member who pointed out the original designs of watch cases by Edward Altorfer Sr. “All they made were watch cases. The gold was heated to a certain temperature, and they welded together each part.”

Today, a Philadelphia Watch Case Co. manual pocket timepiece, its case made of 18-karat white gold, is worth about $2,400.

“We are so pleased with the new museum,” member Joanne Mongon said. “It is our permanent and forever home.”

The train station was built in 1933, and the structure at 7 Franklin Ave. is sound. The museum’s grand-opening celebration in October 2022, was attended by hundreds of people, with tents outside to accommodate everyone, according to Mongon.

“We were so fortunate to store our archives and host special events at the Watch Case building for many years through the generosity of Lippincott and Jacobs (consulting engineers),” said Alice Smith, president of the 40-year-old Historical Society.

When the building was sold for redevelopment, the society stored its collection at the Watch Case building for several months, then moved to the Riverside library at 10 Zurbrugg Way for three years.

“To finally have our own location allows us the opportunity to offer programs and showcase our historical archives, thanks to donations and the generosity of the community,” Smith noted of the museum, whose space was first converted by Virtua Health System to a thrift store … “We’re excited to make history a community event, and acquiring the train station allows us to do that.

“The grand opening gave us an opportunity to express our gratitude to all those who helped with the move to make the station a central part of the community,” noted Smith, adding that there is a basement for storage that helps with storing and rotating displays.

“Everything fits nicely in the space and as we receive additional donations, we find that we are constantly moving items around,” she pointed out. “So you’ll never see everything in our collection, therefore people should stop by often.

“There is so much to see, which also encourages another visit.”

Malecki said the new museum is great.

“Alice worked very hard to help us get the train station,” he said. “She’s a fantastic president.”

Standing in front of Theophilus and Lizette Zurbrugg’s grandfather clock are historical society members Shirley Astemborski (left), Vincent Malecki and Joanne Mongon. The organization’s museum had its grand opening last October. PHOTO BY ALBERT COUNTRYMAN/THE SU

Besides the rooms that are all about the Watch Case factory, Riverside Metals and Zurbrugg Hospital, there are two other display rooms on the main floor. In the middle room are old newspapers dating to 1894; photographs; an 1851 map of what was then Progress; and items local residents have donated, Mongon said.

In the large back room, a section is dedicated to residents who served in the military and in the local fire and police departments – complete with uniforms, helmets and patches. There are also Riverside and Holy Cross High School yearbooks and an old movie projector from the Fox Theater.

“We also just published a book, ‘Progress to Riverside, A Story of Our Town’s Past,’ that goes from 1851 to 1900,” Mongon said of the work by Herman Maurer.

Another positive for the new museum is that the Historical Society was just awarded a $10,000 arts grant from the Burlington County Board of Commissioners as part of a record-high $76,861 in local historic preservation grants to 12 county history groups.

“Burlington County is home to history spanning hundreds of years, from the indigenous people and early Colonials through the Industrial Revolution and fight for civil rights,” Commissioner Director Felicia Hopson offered.

“Our historic sites and artifacts are among our county’s most treasured assets, and these grants will support organizations committed to preserving and showcasing the history that makes Burlington County so special.”

The Riverside Historical Society will use the county funds “to have Theophilus Zurbrugg’s oil painting restored, an 1853 Duncan Mitcheson map restored, VHS tapes converted to flash drives for easy access, and educational materials and programming for partnering with Riverside Elementary School’s third grade history project,” Smith said.

“Since receiving the train station, we have seen younger adults getting involved and volunteering at the station and attending our monthly history programs,” she said of sessions that are held on the third Wednesday of the month at American Legion Post 146 at 7 p.m.

The museum itself is open to the public every Thursday from 9 a.m. to noon and 1 to 4 p.m. It is also open the second and last Saturday of every month from 1 to 4 p.m.

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