The Former Publicker Industries: Publicker Industries — The Fall of a Colossus
In the shadow of the Walt Whitman Bridge, a giant of the distilling industry once stood. Truly the American story, Publicker Industries started as the brainchild of an ambitious Ukrainian immigrant. Harry Publicker started life in the alcohol business in 1913, when he “sweated” whiskey residue from old barrels and sold it as industrial alcohol. Not content with this work, Harry opened up a distillery between Bigler Street and Packer Avenue on the Delaware water front.
The Plant took off selling alcohol products to the US Government in World War I. Prohibition did not ban the production of industrial use alcohol, so Harry’s plant continued to prosper. The Distillery increased production capacity from 6 million gallons to 60 million in the early 1920s. Federal Regulations enacted at the time limited the total production of industrial alcohol to 70.5 million gallons, of which Publicker produced a whopping 17%.
In World War II, government purchases of alcohol products launched Publicker to new heights. Production peaked during these years. By 1946 Publicker had $355 million in yearly revenue and 5,000 employees. With his newfound wealth, Harry Publicker eventually bought a 175-acre estate in Berwyn.
Helen Publicker, Harry’s only child, married the hugely ambitious Simon Neuman, or Si as he was more commonly known. At the time of Harry’s death in 1951, Si was ready to take over; the sky was the limit. Along with an expansion of the main Philly plant, Si established new sites everywhere from Texas to Scotland. In Scotland he started the Inver House brand, which was named after his 30 -room Radnor mansion.
Things were going well until the Castros came to power in Cuba, and Publicker had to switch to new artificial sources in place of molasses. In addition, Si made some poor business decisions. The Company over-produced first whiskey and then scotch, and it also failed to keep up with advances in the distilling industry. After years of minimal success, Simon Neuman died in 1976, with Publicker $39 million in debt. Even with all his business follies, his biggest failure was that he failed to pave the way for a successor.
A massive family power struggle ensued when Simon’s wife Helen, who had no business experience, became the head of the company. She then appointed Robert Leventhal as president, who she promptly fell in love with even though he was more than 20 years her junior. Fearing they were going to be left out of the shrinking company and family fortunes, the Neuman children spent years suing their mother and Leventhal. One of their lawyer observed, “they didn’t seem to realize, while they were throwing deck chairs around and banging them over each other’s heads, this was the Titanic.”
Leventhal tried to keep the company afloat by selling off their liquor brands to pay for debts along with other company assets in 1979, but no one could stop the downward spiral of Publicker Industries. In 1981 Leventhal resigned, and in 1982 the Philly Plant was idled. By 1986, the company was sold for the price of a small motel. As for the family, the Neuman estate was only settled in 1987 after Helen’s death.
The Philly site was then sold to scrappers who later abandoned the location when two workers were killed in a pipeline explosion. Years of mismanagement had created an environmental disaster. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources found improper records, a lack of licenses, hazardous leaks in 20,000 gallon tanks, illegal drums, and water contamination. In 1987 a five-alarm fire that raged through the plant causing explosions and flares brought in the EPA. They declared a threat to human health, and the EPA put it on its superfund list. After 14 years and over $20 million dollars of cleanup, inspections and more cleanups the Publicker Distilleries story was over.
The once massive complex was turned into a storage yard for imported cars. Once it was possible to smell the whiskey as you crossed the Walt Whitman Bridge. Now you can remember the tragic tale of Publicker Industries, a warning to us all.
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- Farrell, Alexander E. "Overview of the Superfund Program." Reclaiming the Land (n.d.): 25-47. Web. <http://www.ellenjaye.com/pub_epa-summaryreport.pdf>.