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Showing posts with label Union County.
Showing posts with label Union County.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Route 278: the Expressway through my house

Readers of a certain age might remember the old Bugs Bunny where our hero wakes up in the morning to find an interstate highway being built around his rabbit hole. He spends the rest of the cartoon outwitting the construction workers to such an extent that they build the highway around his modest 七乐彩彩票app下载.

Bugs' victory became real to me many years ago when my mom told me the story of how Interstate 278 was almost built through our living room in the late '60s. Apparently, my parents had bought my childhood 七乐彩彩票app下载 in Union without knowing that the neighborhood was on a Department of Transportation map of the planned highway extension linking Staten Island with the then-yet-to-be-built Route 78 near the Union-Millburn border.

Earlier commercially-sold maps show a route that would have preserved our immediate neighborhood, but the impact on the town would have been immense with that route, too. Already criss-crossed by the Garden State Parkway and U.S. Route 22, Union would have changed dramatically, with an entire section of town cut off from the rest.

Plans for I-278 had been announced in the mid 1950s as part of a Federal government program to replace existing U.S. highways. According to a 1958 New York Times article, U.S. 1 would be replaced by Interstate 95, U.S. 46 replaced by 80, U.S. 22 replaced by 78, and so on. Planned as a secondary, or spur road, 278 would also be called the Union Freeway and was expected to divert Union County-bound traffic off Route 78 while relieving pressure on State Highway 28.

Protest letters are a little more convincing
these days.
As we know today, the interstates didn't replace the older New Jersey highways as much as they provided a less commercial, limited-access alternative that eventually got equally as congested as populations grew. And unlike a lot of the construction done in less populated areas of the country七乐彩彩票登录, parts of some of these highways would be built through thriving, densely built-up communities. The notorious urban planner Robert Moses had already pushed the construction of the New York portion of 278 in the 1960s by force of will, tearing up neighborhoods as it meandered through four of New York City's five boroughs.

Fortunately, New Jersey lacked a personality of Moses' stature to force the road through. That's where my family's story comes in. By the mid 1960s, Union, Roselle Park and Kenilworth residents living in the path of 278 were up in arms over the potential of losing their 七乐彩彩票app下载s to a six-lane expressway. The Committee to Eliminate Highway I-278 was formed to organize Union residents in protest to state and Federal elected officials. I haven't been able to find much yet about the committee but discovered a letter sent to residents with office holders' names and contact information. Organizers claimed that more than 550 七乐彩彩票app下载s and 24 commercial properties would be claimed by eminent domain, pulling as much as $15 million in rateables off the tax rolls.

Local outrage eventually prevailed, and all that was built of 278 in New Jersey was a stub of a highway that opened in 1969, linking Route 1 in Linden to the Goethals Bridge in Elizabeth. Once the rest was effectively killed, the allocated funding went toward the Central Jersey Expressway, now known as Interstate 195.

And, of course, my family and I were able to continue to enjoy our 七乐彩彩票app下载, unbothered by the inconvenience of being relocated by a six-lane interstate.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Pileated Woodpeckers: the excavation professionals

Ever have one of those days when your work brings you onto the road a little earlier than usual, the weather is clear and balmy and you find yourself driving near one of your favorite places? The coincidence is just too good to pass up a visit.

It doesn't seem to happen often enough, but that's where I was this afternoon. Near perfect weather, assignments complete for the day, and deliciously close to one of my favorite birding spots, Watchung Reservation. What else could I do? With binoculars already in the car, I was ready for a leisurely afternoon hike.

My usual target spot for an impromptu walk through nature at Watchung is the bridle path alongside Surprise Lake. Broad and well-worn, it's a safe, tick-free route for dog walkers, runners or folks like me who weren't exactly dressed or shod for a day in the woods. I wasn't sure I'd see or hear many interesting birds, given the time of day, but even a quiet walk is well worth the effort.

Finding my way to the bridle path, I considered trying to call out a Pileated Woodpecker. They're regulars, if not abundant, at Watchung, and we've heard and/or seen them several times near Surprise Lake, their loudly distinctive "WUK-WUK-WUK-WUK" being one of my favorite bird vocalizations. (Check it out .) As a species, they prefer forests with a good choice of standing and fallen dead trees. Even if you're not lucky enough to see one, you'll probably see evidence of them in a decent-sized woods -- large chunks of bark and inner tree trunk laying on the ground where they've pecked for insects. Square-shaped holes mark where they've excavated nesting holes.

Not the Pileated I saw today,
but a good representation.
You may be wondering what the big deal is about Pileated Woodpeckers. Quite simply put, they're huge, and they look like an old 七乐彩彩票平台 Woody Woodpecker. At an average of 16 inches long, with a large, powerful bill and distinctive red crest, they're more than twice as big as the Downy Woodpeckers you might see on a backyard tree. And rather than drilling in a rapid-fire pecking motion, they chip rather deliberately at their target tree trunks, cocking their heads as if contemplating the perfect angle to get to the inects beneath.

Just as I was thinking about imitating the "WUK-WUK-WUK" to bring one out, I saw movement at the base of a tree on the side of the trail about 10 feet ahead. Expecting to see a Robin or two, I was astounded to see two Pileateds low on the tree trunk. It was clear they'd been there a while: one was standing on a pile of wood chips it had clearly excavated from the large hole it was still pecking away at. If I didn't know better, I'd believe it was a contractor working on a new factory for the Keebler Elves. The companion Pileated seemed either to be standing watch or perhaps waiting for a few good morsels exposed by its more industrious partner. Was this a parent-child situation, with a hungry adolescent waiting for mom to provide dinner?

Post-Pileated damage.
Whatever their work plan and relationship, they made for fascinating watching. My plans to go any further down the trail evaporated instantly as I set to watch one of my favorite species from the closest vantage point I'd ever had. It's not often you can view woodpeckers situated closer to the ground than you are! As the excavator continued his work, the other bird alternately turned up bits of piled detritus or hid around the side of the tree, his head occasionally popping up in a somewhat startled-looking "peekaboo" fashion.

Then, suddenly, I heard the "WUK-WUK-WUK" sound of a third Pileated from a tree about 10 feet beyond the working pair. Seeing two at once was a treat -- three was unprecedented for me. Could this have been the other parent, or maybe another offspring? Was it possible that there were even more in the vicinity?

I stayed just a few more minutes to enjoy the activity, then left the apparent family to their dinner. It wasn't clear they'd even noticed me, but they deserved their privacy and a measure of safety. And besides, they were making such short work of that hole at the base of the tree that I couldn't be sure it wouldn't come tumbling down at some point.* For a spur-of-the-moment stop at the Reservation, I'd been nourished by a peek at nature that I won't soon forget.


*I kid, I kid. To my knowledge, no tree has ever been felled, beaver-style, by an overenthusiastic Pileated Woodpecker.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

The bus from Baltimore came in: Orioles reach New Jersey

Maybe it's a coincidence, but just as their baseball namesakes have come north to play the Mets and Yankees, Baltimore Orioles -- the winged ones -- have made their way to New Jersey.

It's not entirely unusual - I generally see my first Baltimore Oriole of the year sometime in late April or early May. What's really getting me this year is the sheer numbers of them being reported in different areas around the state. I saw my first pair at the Deserted Village in Union County's Watchung Reservation over the weekend, typically the place where I find them for the year.

I wasn't quite prepared for my next run in with a member of the species. My local neighborhood park -- a little common space in the midst of long-developed suburbia -- is 七乐彩彩票app下载 to an absurdly loyal series of Black-crowned Night Herons that has shown up every year, along with the usual small park coterie of sparrows, geese and Mourning Doves. Kingbirds and American Goldfinches will arrive from time to time, but Orioles? Never.

Until the other day. Just about the time their human counterparts were probably starting batting practice at Citi Field, I heard a very fluid yet unfamiliar song as I was walking through the park. Who could it be? Fortunately I had my binoculars with me, making it substantially easier to scan the upper reaches of a large sycamore for whoever was vocalizing.

And then... I spotted a bit of bright orange. Preferring the high perches as they do, Orioles, in my experience, at least, are far easier to identify from their color than from the black-and-white patterning of their wings or the darkness of their heads. That hue and the uniformity across the underside of the bird made the bird unmistakably a Baltimore Oriole. He hopped along a bit and gave me confirmation with a turn of his body.

As I watched, I could see the bird singing his heart out. When he stopped, another Oriole within earshot began his vocalization. Could there be two in the neighborhood? And even more important, would they both find mates and build nests here?

I haven't heard them since that evening, but I did find another in a park just a few miles away. Will he find a friend and make his summer 七乐彩彩票app下载 where I can visit easily? Will they raise offspring that will return next year and thrive as well? I can only hope they have better luck than the baseball team did with the Mets this week.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Plymouth Rock at Echo Lake?

We run into plenty of historic markers -- plaques on boulders -- in our travels. Every once in a while, they're head scratchers.

For instance, there's the one in Union County's Echo Lake Park, situated near the western end of the lake. It's not far from the intersection of Route 22 and Mountain Avenue in Mountainside.


It stands alone in a grassy field, with no benches or contemplative area to give it context. One might think it was dedicated to someone associated with the creation of the park in the mid 1920s, or to whatever might have been there before the park, but it isn't. The inscription on the plaque is rather puzzling:


If you can't quite make it out, the inscription reads: "New Jersey State Branch of the National Society Sons and Daughters of the Pilgrims planted this site to commemorate the courage faith and ideals of our early settlers 1966."

I'm all for memorializing the people who helped found the country七乐彩彩票登录, and when I researched the Sons and Daughters of the Pilgrims, I discovered that's the business they're in, so to speak. Founded in 1908, the organization's members are the descendants of people who came to the New World before 1700. Their ancestors didn't have to have come over on the Mayflower, but they've been around a loooong time. And part of their mission, beyond encouraging the study of Pilgrim history, is to create "durable memorials of historic men, women, and events."

So that explains why the New Jersey chapter would invest in placing a good sized brass plaque on a very large stone in a public place. It doesn't explain, however, why the plaque and stone would be placed at Echo Lake. While it's a well-used park, it doesn't have the visibility of a downtown location in a major city, and that part of the park gets much less visitorship than other areas. Someplace in Military Park in Newark, or even within the grounds of the Presbyterian Church in Elizabeth would be more fitting, considering the founding dates of both cities.

Why, indeed, does Union County need its own Plymouth Rock?

Your guess is as good as mine, but I do have a theory, fueled by the relatively recent appearance of a series of historic markers on nearby Mountain Avenue. Signs for the Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route (or W3R) mark the path taken in 1781 by the Continental Army and ground forces sent by France to help American forces finally defeat the British. Starting in Boston where more than 4000 French officers and troops landed, and extending south to Yorktown, Virginia, the route actually diverges in New Jersey, reflecting the more westerly route the French took (more or less along current day Routes 202, 287 and some county roads) and the easterly route Washington's troops took (attempting to convince the British of yet another possible attempt to invade Staten Island) before heading toward Trenton. The Mountain Avenue segment is part of that easterly route.

Knowledgeable as they must be about colonial history, had the New Jersey Pilgrim sons and daughters deliberately chosen to plant their memorial in Mountainside alongside this pivotal Revolutionary route? Or was it just a happy coincidence?

Or maybe the answer is much simpler. In time-honored Jersey tradition, could it be that the Pilgrim descendants just knew a guy at Union County Park Commission who could get the stone placed? Who knows? Stranger things have been known to happen.


Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Newark Airport: the scarcely remembered shutdown

A recent visit to the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in Morris and Somerset Counties led me to think again about how close we came to losing this marvelous natural resource to development. As you might remember from our earlier story, the Refuge is the hard won project of environmentalists who stopped the marshland from becoming a massive regional jetport. Thing is, for as much as people will marvel over the folly of replacing this pristine wilderness with an airport, nobody talks about WHY exactly we needed one there… and why Newark International Airport wasn’t deemed sufficient for the flying public.

When I researched the issue, I discovered a fair amount of discussion about the need for longer runways to accommodate massive jets – seemingly more that Newark might be able to accommodate. I also came upon a seemingly forgotten aspect of the history of EWR, an unfortunate series of events that virtually cried out for a new airfield in the region.

Three fatal accidents over the course of 10 weeks in the early 1950s forced the public and government officials to consider whether large airports and heavily populated areas were good neighbors or a recipe for disaster. A total of 119 people, including several Elizabeth residents in their 七乐彩彩票app下载s, were killed in unexpected crashes near the airport. (Judy Blume's 2015 novel In the Unlikely Event is set on the backdrop of the tragedies.)

Locating an airport in a congested area wasn’t the planners’ original intent. Today’s Newark Liberty International Airport stands in heavily developed industrial sections of Newark and Elizabeth, bordered by the New Jersey Turnpike and Route 1, but it wasn’t always that way. Most New Jerseyans don’t recognize the area for what it once was: some of the southernmost portion of the Meadowlands. When sited in the late 1920s, the airport was built on damp marshlands in the outskirts of Newark. More than 1.5 million cubic feet of dry fill went into the soggy wetness to prepare it for paving and building, including 7000 Christmas trees and 200 metal safes. Airport operations proceeded without complaint or danger to local residents because, well, few if any people lived there.

With the passage of time, that changed. Normal industrial development, fueled by population shifts during World War II and the Port Authority takeover of Port Newark, brought more businesses into the area. Being close to the airport meant goods could be shipped rapidly, efficiently and more cheaply, so if your business wanted to grow beyond New Jersey, you wanted to be in what was once the swamp. Workers naturally wanted to live closer to their jobs, spurring residential development. Before you knew it, the “out of the way” airport had more neighbors than its architects probably ever imagined, and Newark was the second busiest commercial airfield among many competitors in the area.

The airport’s operations people, however, apparently didn’t recognize the potential dangers of routing aircraft over congested areas. That changed on December 16, 1951, when Newark and Elizabeth fell victim to what was then the second deadliest commercial air disaster in the United States. Fifty-six people died when a C-46 aircraft crashed into the Elizabeth River shortly after takeoff from Newark.

Just a few weeks later, on January 22, 1952, a twin-propeller airplane was attempting to land when it crashed into a house at the intersection of South and Williamson Streets in Elizabeth, after nearly hitting Battin High School. Three crew members, 20 passengers and seven people on the ground were killed.

A third accident, on February 11, was the final straw. After losing a propeller on takeoff, a DC-6 crashed, reportedly near an orphanage. Four on the ground died, along with 26 of the 59 passengers and three of the four crew. The Port Authority closed Newark Airport, raising questions as to whether it should ever reopen for commercial traffic. Airlines moved their EWR-based operations to LaGuardia and New York International (now JFK), leading some to wonder whether those carriers would return to Newark… if the airport ever reopened.

Ultimately, the airport was closed to commercial traffic for nine months, with the military using it only for defense-critical operations during daylight hours and good weather. Local mayors called on New Jersey Governor Alfred Driscoll and the state legislature to keep the airport closed and push the Port Authority to seek alternative locations in less populated areas for a new major airport.

Port Authority Executive Director Austin Tobin, however, had other plans. The agency continued its work on a new runway and issued a contract for the construction of an additional passenger terminal, clearly signaling that EWR would be back in business. Meanwhile, aviation ace Eddie Rickenbacker led the National Air Transport Coordinating Committee in developing new flight procedures for the airport. When announced in November 1952, the rules eliminated all takeoffs and landings over the densely populated sections of Elizabeth where the tragic crashes had taken place. Instead, aircraft would be routed over the Kearny Meadows.

Newark Airport reopened on November 15. 1952 and slowly came back to life as operators moved flights back from the other two major regional airfields. However, the concept of an farther-flung airport was still in the minds of some. Land owners in Lakewood, 60 miles south of Newark, offered acreage for a new, modern facility, proposing that a Pinelands-based airport could easily be connected to the Turnpike for easy access to both New York and Philadelphia. The airlines, however, rejected the concept. Much of the appeal of Newark was what had made it so congested in the first place: proximity to industry, people and New York City.

Perhaps the most fitting statement was made by the New York Times in an editorial supporting the reopening of EWR: "It is not possible to remove landing fields to entirely uninhabited areas. To do so would destroy the very value of air transport; it is not possible. The airplane is here to stay…”

Newark continued to grow even as the Port Authority fought for the proposed jetport in the Great Swamp. New terminals were built, airlines added new flights and routes, more people than ever saw the convenience of flying out of EWR instead of JFK or LGA. Thankfully, no additional fatal crashes have occurred in the neighborhoods surrounding the airport, a trend we hope will continue indefinitely.


Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Happy birthday, Thomas Edison: a man of his own making

Today's the 168th birthday of Thomas Edison, one of our favorite personalities here at Hidden New Jersey. We've done a lot of reporting about hidden Edisonia around the state, from his mines in Ogdensburg, the cement factory in Stewartsville, the electric railroad and tattoo pen in Menlo Park, and the site of an old lightbulb factory in Harrison, among others.

Prolific as Edison was in developing new technologies, though, one of his greatest creations was his own public persona. As reporters and the public became more fascinated with his life and career, he told his own life history with zest and verve, firmly placing himself in the continuum of American history. In fact, according to a 1909 biography published with his blessing, his great-grandfather, also named Thomas, was a New York banker and patriot who proudly signed his name to Continental currency during the American Revolution.

Anyone who researches their family history runs into stories like this. The farther back you go, and the longer you wait to interview your older relatives, you discover your great-granduncle three times removed sold penny nails to Abraham Lincoln, at least according to your third cousin Mary's grandmother.

Thing is, Edison's story isn't true. His family history in America does, in fact, venture back to 1730, when the toddler John Edeson arrived in Elizabeth from Holland. Thirty-five years later, he married into one of the community's most prominent families, the Ogdens and settled with his wife in current-day Caldwell. And in the lowest days of the Revolution, as the British forced Washington's retreat across New Jersey in December 1776, John reportedly provided intelligence to the Redcoats. His loyalty to the crown cost him more than a year of his own independence, as he was captured and held in Morristown by patriot forces for 13 months.

Now persona non-grata in New Jersey, the Edesons moved first to British-held Staten Island and eventually to Digby, Nova Scotia with thousands of other exiled loyalists. It was there that Thomas Edison's grandfather and father were born, before the family moved to Ontario and then, eventually back to the U.S. and the inventor's birthplace in Ohio.

Funny thing is, there seems to be a bit of a karmic conspiracy working on Edison's behalf when it comes to finding his Digby roots very easily. A few years ago, Ivan and I found ourselves in the small community on a birding trip and tried to find the Edison family plot reported to be in one of the local cemeteries. Despite guidance from a map done by the local historical society, we weren't able to find it. Perhaps the Edison graves were among those whose stones were obscured by the wear of age, or maybe we just looked in the wrong place, but I wondered if the Old Man was perhaps playing one of his pranks from the Great Beyond.


Friday, October 31, 2014

For Halloween, some of our favorite haunts

It's Halloween, and New Jersey-based websites are having a field day with posts citing the state's top scary and haunted places. If you're into old graveyards or things that go bump in the night, there are plenty of places where you can satisfy your itch to get a good fright.

At Hidden New Jersey, we generally don't cover the mysterious, spooky and altogether ooky places that are well known to many explorers, but the spirit of the day got me thinking. Of all the places we've been, which ones do I wish were haunted? Or perhaps more accurately, which ones have stories so interesting I'd like the chance to commune with the people who once lived or worked there?

Here are a few I'd like to revisit, this time with a Ouija board or trusty medium:

Site of the explosion
The site of the Kingsland explosion: It was 1917. The United States was on the brink of entering World War I, and Lyndhurst's Canadian Car and Foundry plant was manufacturing munitions for American allies. Saboteurs were afoot, and Tessie McNamara's quick actions were the factor between life and death for her 1700 coworkers as explosions tore the factory apart. Everyone got out safely, but the saboteurs were reportedly never found. Did they go up with the blast?

The seafaring community of Mauricetown: This now-quiet town once was 七乐彩彩票app下载 to what was probably the largest number of sea captains per square acre. I'd love to hear what one of those captains saw on his many journeys to foreign lands, long before airplanes made the world much smaller. What exotic places did he see? What did he think of the native people he met?

Along the Morris Canal
The Morris Canal: whether it's the excavated remains of an ingenious inclined planelandlocked port towns in Warren County or the canal bed that's been repurposed as the Newark City Subway, this long-dormant technological marvel has tons of stories to tell. A cooperative spirit, say of a mule tender or barge captain, might have a few words to spout about the canal's now derelict state.

The Delaware Bay lighthouses: More than one old lighthouse has a tragic story of a lonely, suicidal keeper living a solitary life miles from shore. To my knowledge, none of the Delaware Bay lights in New Jersey waters have such a tale to tell, but I'd still like to chat with one of the early keepers at Ship John Shoal, Miah Maull or Cross Ledge Light.

Gloucester City's Immigration Station
The Gloucester City Immigration Station: It was first Philadelphia's Ellis Island, then part of a Coast Guard base, then abandoned and now an office building. What were the hopes, dreams and fears of those who were detained here? Where did they ultimately end up?

Earl R. Erdner's warehouses in Woodstown: Simple, sage wisdom is right there on the outside walls, ripe for the reading. I'd love to know if the long-dead Mr. Erdner has any more advice for us from the great beyond.

Alexander Hamilton's room at Liberty Hall: While still a young student, America's first Treasury Secretary was the guest of Governor William Livingston's family in what's now Union Township. He already held ambitions for greater things and was building friendships that would serve him well throughout his career. What was going on in his teenaged mind?

Whatever you end up doing to commemorate All Hallows Eve, have fun! And if you happen to run into the Jersey Devil, give him our regards.







Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Marching toward victory: New Jersey and the Rochambeau route

Our recent story on the Battle of Connecticut Farms noted that many of us have trod on hallowed ground, sites of Revolutionary War battles, without realizing it. Coincidentally, the same day we watched a reenactment of that battle, we discovered that another vitally important yet generally overlooked part of the Revolution was just a couple of miles away.

It wasn't a battle site or a historic house. George Washington didn't sleep in it, at least not in the portion we found. In fact, it's a long, thin line that stretches from north of Mahwah to the Delaware River at Trenton. Well, parts of it do. Others kind of squiggle around the northeastern part of the state until they meet at Princeton.

It's the Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route, the Rhode Island to Virginia path that the Continental and French armies took on their way to the final engagement with the British in Yorktown. In other words, it's the path that led to the end of the American Revolution, and it works its way along several old roads and former Lenape paths in New Jersey. We found signs for it on Mountain Avenue in Mountainside, just south of Route 22.

To understand the importance of the route, we need to go back to the earlier days of the Revolution. Recognizing that the Continental Army was no match for well-equipped and expertly-trained British forces over the long haul, American representatives reached out to France for help. The French and British had longstanding antipathy toward each other; both had established colonies in the New World. The Americans realized they had a very likely ally in the French, and one whose support would add legitimacy to the claim for sovereignty as an independent nation.

Initially, France's support for the young United States came in the form of funding, weapons and ammunition, all of which were essential to the cause. The last great push of the war, however, would require more, as the conflict was at a stalemate. France responded with manpower: 5300 seasoned soldiers and 450 officers, led by General Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, compte de Rochambeau. They landed in Rhode Island in July 1780 and prepared for a long hard winter, during which Washington and Rochambeau planned for decisive action in the spring. The Continentals, meanwhile, wintered in Newburgh, NY.

The two armies began their southward trek in June 1781, moving along established roads and less traveled paths before joining forces near White Plains, NY. Contemporary accounts from the French reported that many of the American troops were without sufficient clothing, yet cheerful, their spirits lifted, no doubt, but the presence of able reinforcements. From there, the combined troops continued, largely as one, on a route that tracks somewhat along Interstate 95 south of Princeton. The National Park Service map of the route shows several alternate routes for the Continental troops in North Jersey, though  represents the main path through the state.

Standing next to the route marker along Mountain Avenue, as I did, it's not hard to imagine how New Jerseyans of 1781 must have felt as they saw the French and Continentals making their way along the road. The state's segment of the conflict was over, though residents couldn't yet know it. Weary of war, still suffering from the harsh damages of battle and pillaging, the locals must have been relieved to see the troops marching southward, out of range. Though somewhat suspicious of the French, there were probably many who hoped that with fresh reinforcements, the United States would be able to vanquish their opponents, leaving the new nation to chart its own course as an independent entity. Ultimately, when they marched northward after the victory at Yorktown, the combined forces were hailed as heroes.

The path of the commemorative route travels along well known New Jersey roads like Routes 202, 22, 27 and 206, sometimes diverting onto local and county roads. We haven't tried it yet, but it looks like an ambitious jaunt for a weekend drive, or maybe a good bike ride. And there are plenty of historic sites along the way, or maybe just a few blocks off the path. From what I can tell, the Washington Rochambeau Route signs are relatively new, just waiting to be found. Take a look around your neighborhood -- they might just be nearby!



Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Growing up in Union, I was acquainted very early with the story of one of the last Revolutionary War engagements fought in New Jersey: the June 1780 Battle of Connecticut Farms. Parts of the battle took place on the grounds of my grammar 七乐彩彩票平台, though my classmates and I weren't aware of that as we played kickball and hopscotch on the playground.

Considering that, you can imagine how excited I was to hear that the committee planning the city of Elizabeth's 350th anniversary was staging a weekend-long series of reenactments in both Springfield and Union. Both towns, along with the rest of Union County, were once part of Elizabeth, so it made sense to be part of the party.

We've featured the Battles of Connecticut Farms and Springfield in Hidden New Jersey before. They're essentially two halves of the same unsuccessful effort. The British, with the help of Hessian mercenaries, twice attempted to make their way through the communities to reach Hobart Gap and ultimately capture General George Washington at Morristown. In both cases, severely outnumbered Continental soldiers and local militia put up far more of a fight than the British and Hessians had anticipated. In the midst of the Connecticut Farms battle, Hannah Caldwell, wife of the "fighting parson" Rev. James Caldwell, was shot and killed, a martyr whose death brought greater sympathy to the American cause. Both towns were burned to the ground by the retreating invaders.

The 2014 edition of the battle used some of the same roads as the original fight, though this time police were needed to block off traffic. Far fewer soldiers and militia were in force, though the proportion of Americans to British, Hessian and Loyalists appeared pretty accurate. And the mayor of Union was in attendance, perhaps to reassure the locals that their 七乐彩彩票app下载s would be safe from flames. A reenactor set the stage by relating the events that led up to the battle, then narrated the action with helpful insights on the various weapons, uniforms and troop movements.

As stirring as it was to see a historic battle reenacted where I'd spent so much of my childhood, the real impact came near the end of the program. In his closing statements, our narrator observed that we were standing on truly hallowed ground. Men had fought and died on that very land for the independence of the young United States of America. Some of the combatants are interred in the graveyard of the Connecticut Farms Presbyterian Church across the street, including a number of Hessians whose mass grave had been unmarked for over 200 years. Perhaps they'd been buried where they fell. In its own way, that corner of Union was just as notable as any of our most celebrated battlefields. Blood had fallen there, lives had been lost, from people who wanted to be free from tyranny.

Most New Jerseyans don't think much about that, not because they don't want to, but because they're just not aware. Though some of our larger battlefields -- Princeton and Monmouth -- have been preserved to some extent, there are more that are lucky to get a small commemorative marker. Others were covered by roads or buildings or parking lots long ago.

As frustrating as it might be to see hallowed ground occupied by a Walgreen's, it's still out there for all of us to find and reflect on. This map gives you an idea of the potential for discovering the revolutionary past of your own community. Let us know what you discover!



Saturday, September 13, 2014

Winfield Park: born of war, a battle to build

If you look through the trees along the northbound side of the Garden State Parkway northbound, just before exit 136, you might notice an enclave of small dwellings, many connected to each other. These nicely kept one- and two-story buildings look a bit like modular housing, yet there's an air of permanence to the entire area.

You've just passed the town of Winfield, a proud enclave of just under 1500 people on a triangular 0.177 square miles of land bordered on two sides by the Rahway River. It's basically a sliver of land between Cranford, Linden and Clark, so small there are only two roads in and out of town. Many in Union County know it as a tight community where generations of families have lived in what was originally built as temporary defense worker housing during World War II.

That's partially true: residents have always been close-knit, and the town was built for defense workers, but the houses were always intended to be permanent. And Winfield holds a unique distinction among American towns: it's the only defense housing project to be established as a separate municipality.

Winfield has its roots in the months before America entered World War II. The U.S. Government's Federal Works Agency had created the Mutual Ownership Defense Housing Division to build suitable dwellings for the multitudes of workers who were being hired by manufacturers and shipbuilders supplying the armed forces and America's allies. The low-cost, permanent housing would be a boon for people who lacked enough money for a down payment: the government planned to sell the developments to their resident-owned and operated housing corporations.

Need for housing was particularly acute for employees at the Federal Shipbuilding and Drydock 七乐彩彩票app下载 on Kearny Point, and the FWA set to work to find a large enough piece of land on which to build 700 housing units. Another 300 were built in nearby Newark and Harrison.

Actually locating the development wasn't easy, for both logistical and political reasons. The ideal location would be close to utility networks but in a community where those facilities were underused and land was inexpensive. Open tracts in and immediately around Kearny were largely marsh and easily ruled out as too difficult to develop quickly, forcing the FWA to look farther afield. Ultimately, they investigated seven different communities as possible locations.

Nearly 20 miles away, a small bit of land by the Rahway River in Clark looked ideal. Then the political challenges emerged. While Clark officials had courted the project, their constituents were concerned that the influx of new residents would change the town's character. Taxes were anticipated to double as the cost of services would increase while no new rateables would be built with the community. The issue became so contentious that the entire slate of officials who'd encouraged the project were voted out.

With local government now led by sympathetic officials, opposition leaders then came up with a plan to ensure the defense worker community would have no impact on the town's finances. If they couldn't stop the project, they'd find a way to get it declared an independent town with its own budget, taxes, services and public works obligations.

That's exactly what happened. Just after construction began on the project in June 1941, one of Union County's state assemblymen introduced a bill to establish Winfield Park as a municipality. Through legislative sleight-of-hand, the bill was rushed through both houses without opportunity for discussion or public comment. Governor Charles Edison refused to sign it into law, declaring it to be counter to the needs of national defense, but his veto was easily overturned. For better or worse, Winfield Park was now a municipality -- the only one in New Jersey owned lock, stock and barrel by Uncle Sam.

Opponents inadvertently helped create a sense of camaraderie and self-determination among Winfield residents, starting when the first pioneering 145 families moved into the incomplete town in November 1941. What they found when they arrived was less than ideal -- shoddily built 七乐彩彩票app下载s with inconceivably poor plumbing, muddy roads and sidewalks, and no electricity -- but they made do. After residents went on a rent strike to underscore their grievances, Federal investigators found the contractor guilty of fraud and bid manipulation, forcing the FWA to hire a new company to finish the project.

Still, Winfield Park residents soldiered on, creating a town from scratch. Defense workers headed to work on a government-supplied bus (when it wasn't broken down) as their families got to know each other. Friendships grew and clubs formed, along with a volunteer ambulance squad and co-op grocery store. A grammar 七乐彩彩票平台 opened to much fanfare in 1943. And as was originally envisioned, the Winfield Park Mutual Housing Corporation purchased the entire town from the U.S. government in 1950, paying off the mortgage in 1984.

Inevitably, with the arrival of the Garden State Parkway and greater suburbanization, the land on which Winfield sits became more valuable than the 七乐彩彩票app下载s and small commercial area sitting on it. Though developers have periodically approached community leaders with various proposals for redeveloping the area, the residents have always said no. It appears that they like where they live and who they live with. Why change it now?


Friday, June 20, 2014

Jersey Boys just off Route 22? The Four Seasons in Union

It's probably one of the most open "secrets" in North Jersey -- the legend that the singing group The Four Seasons got their name from a bowling alley on West Chestnut Street in Union. Depending on who tells the story, the quartet took the name either because their original one didn't sound as good, or because they wanted the alley's owner, who'd refused to hire them, to feel the sting of rejecting them when they hit it big.

七乐彩彩票app下载Jersey Boys, Four Seasons, Hidden New Jersey, Frankie Valli
The Four Seasons in 1971. Courtesy Union Township
Historical Society.
Though I grew up in Union and threw my share of gutter balls in the establishment in question, I was always a little skeptical of the story. Yeah, Frankie Valli grew up in Newark, a straight shot down Route 22, so he might have tried to book some gigs in Union, but really? Every town looks for a claim to fame, leading some residents to make dubious connections to famous people or events, and I figured some well-meaning Unionite had made a logical but probably false connection between the alley and the falsetto-singing quartet.

Shame on me: it turns out the story is true, according to Valli's own . His official bio states that in 1960 the band, then called the Four Lovers, "flunked an audition to play at the cocktail lounge of a bowling alley in Union, NJ, but they decided the lounge's name would make a classy moniker for a singing group: The Four Seasons."

As much as I'd like to invite you to meet me at the alley to bowl a few frames and sing a chorus of "Big Girls Don't Cry," I can't. It's not there anymore, having been torn down in 1998 to make room for a Costco. Yup, a Costco. Folks in the area may be grateful for a convenient place to score big bargains, but Union lost a very visible landmark of its incidental contribution to rock and roll history. That and a chance for a cameo role in the Jersey Boys movie.

It's not forgotten, though: in 2008 the Township of Union renamed a portion of West Chestnut Street "Four Seasons Lane" in honor of the group, complete with commemorative street signs. Given that none of the members of the group were actually from Union, I guess it's not surprising that more hasn't been done at the site to honor them, but a plaque would be nice. Maybe if Valli had scored a 300 game, things might have been different.


Friday, June 6, 2014

A campus stroll through history, as told by trees

In three and a half years and over thousands of miles criss-crossing the state, we've seen a lot of notable trees. We've come upon ancient mighty oaks that witnessed the signing of treaties with the natives and the first American air mail (albeit by balloon), and a large but younger one that provided a customary place for country七乐彩彩票登录 folks to don their shoes before walking into town. A massive holly spent most of its life in obscurity before becoming a force in changing the route of the Garden State Parkway. A host of famed trees of other species are mostly known for being really old and still alive. The message they all deliver is clear: despite rampant development, New Jersey communities somehow manage to preserve trees that have meaning to them.

What we didn't know was that we could have visited offspring of most of these trees, and more, in one place: the Union County College七乐彩彩票平台 campus in Cranford. There, not far from the Sperry Observatory, is a grove of 70 trees that comprise the Historic Tree Project. Labeled with nameplates, they represent not only New Jersey but many other notable places around the country七乐彩彩票登录.

The New Brunswick white oak that's said
 to have inspired Joyce Kilmer's poem Trees
is represented by this healthy youngster.
A project of UCC biology professor Dr. Tom Ombrello, the Historic Tree Project started in 1997, intending to grow and nurture seedlings and saplings of trees that have some significance in American history. Several seeds or acorns from each historic tree are germinated in the adjacent greenhouse, with the goal of ultimately planting one in the grove. Spare seedlings are shared with other 七乐彩彩票平台s, parks and historic societies around the state, with the goal of preserving the parent tree's heritage (or, perhaps, sap-line).

Presidents are well represented, with offspring including George Washington's Mount Vernon holly, red maple and sweet buckeye trees, oaks from Abraham Lincoln's birthplace and resting grounds, and more from notable places in the lives of presidents Jefferson, Grant, Cleveland, Wilson, Eisenhower, Truman and Johnson. Others celebrate groundbreaking African Americans including Booker T. Washington and Martin Luther King. Still more are the progeny of "witness" trees that may still stand at the site of historic events like the Battles of Gettysburg and Antietam, and the attack on the World Trade Center buildings on September 11, 2001.

Over the years, some of the historic trees have been felled by storms or other natural occurrences. Raising plants in climates outside their normal environments can be tricky, making some especially susceptible to the harsh weather extremes we've experienced in New Jersey over the past several years. And, of course, there are the usual four-footed villains to guard against. One might wonder if an acorn from a pedigreed oak, however young, might be an especially tasty treat for an adventurous squirrel, or if the bark of a historic sycamore might be especially pleasing for a deer looking to rub his head.

The project is now focusing on trees representing New Jersey historic people, events and sites, including catalpa, magnolia and buckeye samples from nearby Liberty Hall. Grover Cleveland's birthplace is represented by descendants of the mighty sycamore and a red oak behind the Caldwell 七乐彩彩票app下载, while a ginko tree reminds us of the Greenwich tea burning. The Pinelands also gets a shoutout with a pitch pine from the area near Tabernacle where Emilio Carranza, the "Lindbergh of Mexico" met his untimely end while flying a goodwill mission in 1928.

Like all living things, trees have a finite life. Even the sturdiest and most ancient eventually die on their own, making projects like these all the more important. Despite the best efforts of preservationists and arborists, we've already seen the passing of storied trees like the Mercer Oak and the New Brunswick Joyce Kilmer Oak, but not before acorns were collected and nurtured. With luck, 200 years or more from now, our own descendants will be able to relax under the boughs of these trees and consider their own links to the past, gain inspiration and do great things in their own lives.



Thursday, February 6, 2014

Here's to you, Dr. Robinson: finding the 17th century in Clark

One of the fascinating aspects of Northern New Jersey is how history is sometimes obscured within the community that's developed around it. You can walk or drive past a centuries-old building and not realize it, given how it's seemingly shoehorned between a gas station and a Dunkin Donuts. I'm struck by this every time I drive through an intersection where the Merchants and Drovers Tavern stands in Rahway. Several buildings nearby look distinctly Colonial and old enough to be authentic, but there's no signage to confirm it.

Not far from the Merchants and Drovers is a house that had already been standing a century when the tavern and those other structures were built. In fact, the house in question was built in the days of East and West Jersey, 85 years before the start of the American Revolution.

The Robinson House, 21st century...
Now that's OLD. It's so old that when it was built as a farmhouse for physician and surgeon William Robinson and his family, the surrounding land wasn't known as a farm but as a plantation. Today, it's still got a nice piece of land around it -- by Union County standards, at least -- but much of the plantation has been replaced by a much newer housing development. And for a period of time, it was seemingly just another house, maybe appearing not so remarkable in context with its neighbors.

Dr. Robinson came to East Jersey in June 1684, as part of a movement of Scots encouraged to settle in the English colonies of the New World. Finding the area suitable, he returned to Scotland to retrieve his family to settle here in 1686. He'd bought a parcel of land on the Rahway River and built the a house in 1690, eventually expanding his holdings to nearly 750 acres.

... and a century ago.
Viewing the house from the street, it's difficult to believe that people lived there until 1965, a feeling that's perpetuated when you go inside to discover a rustic interior with authentic wooden beams and floors. However, it changed with the times, and archival photos show the exterior with additional windows and a dormer on the roof, suggesting that the interior was likely remodeled extensively over the years.

After gaining possession of the house in 1973, the Township of Clark restored the building to its original rustic, New England style look, eliminating extra windows and other features that had been added since Dr. Robinson's day. It's been lauded by historians as a superior example of early American architecture, one of the few still existing in the country七乐彩彩票登录 that incorporates aspects of medieval architecture.

Likewise, the Clark Historical Society has assembled a fun collection of artifacts from Dr. Robinson's era and beyond. Regular visitors to Colonial house museums will recognize some of the staples -- spinning wheel, candle molds, butter churn, bedwarmer -- but the Medicine Room is a special treat. Besides a representative sample of herbs used by physicians of Robinson's day, artifacts include a blood-letting knife that would have been used to draw the "bad blood" from an ailing patient.

When you visit, be sure to check out the cellar and the attic, too. Upstairs, the Historical Society maintains a wall-mounted, poster-sized scrap book that includes photos of the restoration process, along with maps, an inventory of Robinson's property at death, and documentation on the house's provenance. The cellar, once the probable shelter protecting livestock from bad weather and predators, now holds an assortment of items that range into the 20th century. Depending on your age, you might remember some of them from your grandparents' garage or basement, or possibly from the Smithsonian.

Step outside and you're back in the 21st century, wondering about the mysteries other houses might hold. Could there be a 七乐彩彩票app下载 in your own neighborhood, older than it appears to be?



Monday, December 23, 2013

From Navy Wildcat to traffic helicopters: the story of Linden Airport

Studied closely, the gritty borders of U.S. Route 1 have a litany of stories to tell, their inspirations lost to progress or the wrecking ball. Like the phragmites reedgrass that grows so well in disturbed soil, the presence of a new strip mall is often a good indicator of something notable that's been replaced.

That, at least, is the case on one stretch of road in Linden. On the western side of Route 1, you'll see a large, fenced-off field; the only indication of the enormity of its previous use is the presence of big mounds of milled rubble. Across several lanes of traffic is a big-box mall and multiplex cinema of recent vintage; tall signs declare it to be Aviation Plaza.

In true 'blink and you'll miss it' fashion, you might notice one of those small square road signs with an airplane on it, the international designation for an airport, with the word "Linden" below it. And a little farther down, on the eastern side of the road, you might see a larger, but still modest sign saying "Linden Airport" at a nondescript intersection. What's an airport doing here, just a few miles down Route 1 from Newark Liberty International Airport?

Linden Airport seen from overhead. The large parking lot
and big-box mall at right were built after 1998,
replacing additional runways and older hangars.
The airfield and the empty field, as it turns out, share a common history. Between 1937 and 2005, that massive lot was 七乐彩彩票app下载 to a General Motors assembly plant where thousands of workers manufactured vehicles under just about every GM nameplate, from Cadillacs to pickup trucks and SUVs. Soon after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, however, the company's sights took to the air, bringing Linden along with it.

In early 1942, GM created the Eastern Aircraft Corporation to take over the production of the Grumman Wildcat fighters for the U.S. Navy. The Linden plant was retooled to produce planes and an airport was quickly built across the highway as a testing and commissioning field. More than 3500 planes rolled off the production line and took to the skies from Linden, built with pride by hundreds of local men and women.

Following the war, GM's Linden Assembly plant resumed production of civilian vehicles and its airport found new life. The Federal government deeded the property to the City of Linden under the condition that it continue operation as an airfield, ready for recommissioning for military use in the event of future war. Since then, advances in defensive technology make that possibility highly unlikely, but as the airport's notes, "back then it was considered a vital part of our military's strategic industrial reserve plan."

As Newark Airport grew as a regional hub and gained international status, the Linden field became a reliable landing spot for smaller commercial traffic that would ordinarily be dwarfed by passenger and freight jets. Though it lacks a radio tower of its own, New York radio and television news stations continue to count on the now-dubbed KLDJ as 七乐彩彩票app下载 for their traffic helicopters, and hobby pilots can use it as an alternative that's almost as close to Manhattan as Teterboro. The field even hosts occasional events like the Red Bull Air Race, held there in 2010.

For historians, however, ghosts of the World War II era field are virtually impossible to find. Present day Linden Airport bears little resemblance to the World War II-era test field, with only one original landing strip still in existence. The old hangars at the north end of the airfield were torn down in 1998 and replaced by newer structures tucked out of sight from Route 1. The rest of the property is now taken up by the Aviation Plaza shopping center and multiplex theater.

On the positive side, LDJ has fared much better than many of New Jersey's other airfields-turned-retail locations. Unlike South Plainfield's old Hadley Field, aviators can set down at Linden, do some last-minute holiday shopping and quickly return to the skies. It seems that the ratable-seeking Linden city government may have found the best of both worlds: maintaining its original commitment to keep the field operational for perpetuity while increasing the tax base.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Little house on the move in Mountainside

So often we find interesting stories because of a proposed, epic change to a historic property. Earlier this year, we learned about a groundbreaking African-American journalist through the campaign to save Red Bank's Thomas Fortune House. And just recently, we were introduced to the surprising, lifesaving history of the Levi Cory house, which now stands on pilings on its longtime lot in Mountainside.

I'll admit to having driven through the intersection of Mountain Avenue and New Providence Road countless times without giving much thought to the small brown house on the northwest corner. Sure, it looked old -- perhaps Colonial vintage, but so do a lot of other houses in New Jersey whose only claim to distinction are their ages.

Thus, I was a bit surprised to pass by recently and find the house elevated and festooned with several banners. One, in particular, caught my eye: a sign proclaiming the simple structure to be the original 七乐彩彩票app下载 of the Children's Country 七乐彩彩票平台, now better known as the Children's Specialized Hospital which operates just down the road.

Now that's pretty distinctive.

A bit of research found that the house was built in 1810 by a prominent Elizabeth resident, Jonathan Woodruff. His family lived there until 1851, when the property was sold to Levi Cory, who also owned a farm about a mile down Mountain Avenue. Influential in his own right, he became the first mayor of Mountainside when the community separated from Westfield in 1895.

Before that separation, though, Cory played a supporting role in improving the lives of countless children. Moved by the plight of poverty-stricken boys and girls living in the slums of New York City and Newark, several Westfield residents organized to offer them a summer respite. Cory rented the house to the group, and by 1892, the Children's Country 七乐彩彩票平台 was welcoming needy kids for two weeks of fresh air, sunshine, nature and plenty of room to play. Nearly 60 youngsters stayed at the 七乐彩彩票app下载 that first summer, and when they went 七乐彩彩票app下载, they brought new clothes and shoes back to the city along with their memories.

It didn't take long before the 七乐彩彩票app下载's managers realized that many of their guests needed more than a break from city stress. Coming from poverty, many of the kids required medical attention, and several local doctors and nurses volunteered their services. The need was so pronounced, in fact, that when the 七乐彩彩票app下载 was incorporated in 1893, its leaders defined its purpose as "the care, nurturance, and maintenance of sick, injured, infirm, indigent, orphaned, and destitute children and the training and education of persons, both male and female, to act as nurse."

The need for medical care among these children soon outgrew the Cory house, prompting the 七乐彩彩票平台 organization to buy property a few hundred yards down New Providence Road and build a proper hospital. Known as the Children's Specialized Hospital since 1962, it's still changing the lives of boys and girls for the better.

As for the house, it's changed several times since Cory's widow Harriet died in 1905, most recently housing a realtor and an interior decorator. The desirable corner property was sold to a developer who fortunately agreed to give the house to the Mountainside Historic Restoration Committee, provided they could raise the funds to move it.

Mountainside is no stranger to historical structures on the move, having witnessed the relocation of the 1760's era Deacon Andrew Hetfield house in 1985. When the Cory house leaves its longtime lot, it will cross Route 22 to join the Hetfield house and the Borough Library on Constitution Plaza. Once it's there, the Historic Restoration Committee plans to honor the spirit of the Cory house's most notable contribution to the community: serving children. Instead of providing medical care, though, it will be 七乐彩彩票app下载 to a museum dedicated to telling the story of the town's kids, from scouting and sports to education and, yes, the role of the Children's Country 七乐彩彩票平台.

If you've ever been interested in seeing a house travel down a road, you still have a chance. The house's planned October 5 move was delayed due to structural issues that came to light less than a day before it was to happen, and the Committee will be announcing the new date on its . In the meantime, you still have a chance to contribute to the move and the eventual restoration.


Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Breaking the Color Barrier at Shady Rest

There seems to be something about Union County and historic golf courses.

First, there was the Oak Ridge Golf Course in Clark, whose grounds and clubhouse witnessed portions of the Battle of the Short Hills during the Revolution.

And recently I discovered the Shady Rest Golf and Country Club, now operating as the Scotch Hills Golf Course in Scotch Plains. While portions of its clubhouse date back to the 1700s, it's notable for two distinctions far more recent: its status as the nation's first African-American owned and operated country七乐彩彩票登录 club, and as the 七乐彩彩票app下载 course of John Shippen, the first African American golfer to play in the U.S. Open.

Originally owned by Ephraim Tucker and later the site of George Osborn's Tavern, the house and surrounding 31 acres of rolling fields were purchased by the Westfield Golf Club in 1897. The organization converted the farmland to a nine-hole golf course and renovated the farmhouse/tavern into a clubhouse, opening the club in 1900. While the course was popular with its members, the surrounding neighborhood was equally as attractive to the growing African American community that settled there, reducing the acreage available when the club wanted to expand its course to 18 holes. Rather than getting into land disputes with its neighbors, the WGC chose to merge with its Cranford counterpart in 1921, relocating both organizations to the current site of the Echo Lake Country Club.

Seeing an opportunity to organize a country七乐彩彩票登录 club for the regional African American community, the Progressive Realty 七乐彩彩票app下载 stepped in and bought the property. What resulted was Shady Rest, marketed as a place "where respectable men and women can come and enjoy the real and outdoor life, and indulge in wholesome, healthful sports, as Golf, Tennis, Croquet, Horseback Riding and Shooting.”

It didn't take long before the club attracted the cream of both the athletic and artistic worlds. Well before she broke the Grand Slam racial barrier with her win at the French Open, Althea Gibson won the club's mixed doubles championship with her coach Sydney Llewellen. The club also became well known for its entertainment, drawing jazz legends including Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughn, Count Basie and Ella Fitzgerald, who enthralled club members while others enjoyed the music from outside Shady Rest's gates.

Perhaps most notable, however, is its association with John Shippen, the first American-born competitor in the U.S. Open. A 16 year old self-taught golfer, he'd broken the sport's unspoken color line in 1896 when he played in the Open at the course where he caddied, Long Island's Shinnecock Hills. Later playing in four other Opens, Shippen was nonetheless denied membership in the Professional Golfers Association due to its exclusionary policies. Their loss, however, was Shady Rest's gain; he served as the club's pro from 1931 until 1960. (More information on Shippen's life and achievements is available on an informative maintained by a foundation organized in his name.)

Like many other organizations, Shady Rest experienced financial strains during the Great Depression, and the town of Scotch Plains acquired the property through a tax lien. Assuming operation of the club in 1964, the town converted it to a public course, which it remains today. To the eyes of this very novice duffer, the rolling hills of Shady Rest appear to be a nice challenge for an afternoon on the links, and the greens fees are more than reasonable, even for non-residents. There's even a very attractive miniature golf range for those who would rather limit their frustrations to a minimum.

If recent events are any indication, the people of Scotch Plains know the treasure they have in Shady Rest. Listed among the state's 10 most endangered historic sites by Preservation New Jersey in 2008, the course and clubhouse were recently granted nearly $140,000 by the township council to finance repairs. While the old farmhouse is unrecognizable beneath the renovations and additions made since Tucker and Osborn owned it, it's well worth preserving for what it represents: the social and recreational pursuits of the black middle class in New Jersey.


Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Somehow, maybe even by mistake, a historic battle site in Union County has been masquerading first as a golf course, and now as a passive recreation area. And as it turns out, it might also have played a role in the freedom of scores of enslaved people before the Emancipation Proclamation.

These days, Oak Ridge Park, on the border separating Clark and Edison, looks a fair deal like the county golf course it once was. With just moderate inclines scattered from place to place, it was probably a fairly easy challenge for new golfers and a reliable walk in the park for the senior duffers. Sand traps and tee boxes have been removed, but much of the macadam pathway is still available for strollers or cyclists who want to get some exercise without battling traffic.

An older 七乐彩彩票app下载 stands near the parking lot, looking a lot like a Colonial-style clubhouse. Or a Colonial era 七乐彩彩票app下载, which is how it started its life. Before we get to the house, though, we'll tackle the battle.

Not many people know about the Battle of the Short Hills, and I'll wager that if you asked anyone where it took place, they'd tell you it was somewhere in Millburn. It's an understandable assumption, but incorrect. Depending on which historian you consult, you might hear the location referred to as Flat Hills, or Metuchen Meeting House, or even Westfield.

What's known for sure is that a conflict took place on June 26, 1777 in present-day Scotch Plains and Edison, on land known as the Ash Swamp. The British, led by Lieutenant General William Howe, had left Staten Island for points near New Brunswick earlier in the month, attempting to draw Washington and his troops from their perch in the Watchungs at Middlebrook. Having failed to engage the Americans, Howe began to lead his men back toward Perth Amboy.

Washington, however, ordered his troops to follow the British, sending General William Alexander (Lord Stirling) and the 2500 men under his command to harass the Redcoats. While Stirling's outnumbered troops may be said to have lost the skirmish, the battle is considered to have been a strategic win for the Americans. The British horses became mired in the thick swamp, allowing Washington the opportunity to move to more secure ground. (Longtime readers might also recall that the aftermath spawned the local legend about Aunt Betty Frazee, who bravely challenged Cornwallis' request for her freshly-baked bread.)

It's not clear if the house at Oak Ridge played a role in the battle, or if it sustained any damage, but it clearly witnessed the conflict. Known as 七乐彩彩票平台stead Farm or 七乐彩彩票平台stead Plantation, it was built sometime around 1730 by Shubal and William Smith. In the custom of the times for many large farms, the Smiths were slaveholders, and records show that both slave quarters and a cemetery were located on a portion of the property that's now on the other side of present day Oak Ridge Road. Slavery was legal in New Jersey until 1804, when gradual emancipation was instituted.

Interestingly, in the years after the Smiths owned the plantation, the property may have evolved from a workplace for slaves to a temporary haven for those escaping bondage. The 七乐彩彩票app下载 was eventually purchased by Quaker abolitionist and jurist Hugh Hartshorne Bowne, who is known to have been active in the Underground Railroad. While there were no prominent URR routes through Union County, it is known that conductors often stopped at nearby Rahway for fresh horses before continuing the journey to Jersey City. Bowne's cousin George Hartshorne was also known to have harbored escaped slaves in his Clark 七乐彩彩票app下载, raising the possibility that the house at Oak Ridge might have taken in the occasional informal guest as well.

Whether this story will ever be told on the property is anyone's guess. Since the county closed the golf course in 2009, there have been infrequent talk about the future of the site; most recently plans were floated to build an ice rink. The house seems to be safe, or at least not scheduled for destruction or radical renovation.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Jingle bells across the Arthur Kill?

Just when you think you've heard about every Revolutionary War story about New Jersey, something else pops up.

A while back I wrote about American troops camping beside the Rahway River in Cranford during the winter of 1779-80. While others were stationed at General Washington's winter headquarters in Morristown, General William Irvine's men were part of the forward defense against potential raids by the British troops stationed on Staten Island. The Redcoats would often come to New Jersey in attempts to steal food and supplies from the locals and had even tried to kidnap Washington.

Morristown gets all the press, but soldiers stationed at the little-known cantonments in Cranford and other communities closer to Staten Island actually had a better time of it. Though everyone had to deal with the heavy snows and cold weather, it was far easier for commanders of the smaller groups to keep their troops fed and housed.

In the midst of this hardship, Washington formulated a daring plan to attack General Wilhelm von Knyphausen's British troops on Staten Island. The narrow Arthur Kill was frozen, offering a rare solid surface for troops to cross from Elizabeth or Perth Amboy. Perhaps Washington was thinking that American forces would be able to reprise the surprise Trenton raid that had turned the tide of the war for the Americans in December 1776.

General William Alexander (a.k.a. Lord Stirling) and Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Hamilton met at Crane's Mills on January 13 and 14, 1780 to finalize the tactical aspects of the plan to be executed the following day. Rather than using Durham boats as Washington's troops had in the Delaware crossing, the Americans would be able to use land-based transportation: sleighs.

Yes, you read that right: sleighs. In what's been deemed one of the strangest military operations of the Revolution, Stirling and Hamilton mustered 500 sleighs to transport 2500 troops across the Arthur Kill. One would guess that the secrecy of the operation meant they didn't include jingle bells to the mix.

There's a good reason why there's no famous painting of this crossing to pair with Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze's Washington Crossing the Delaware. Depending on which data source you consult (and there aren't many), the attack was cancelled either because the British had caught wind of it, or due to extreme cold weather. This, however, didn't stop Washington from ordering several smaller incursions on Staten Island throughout the winter months.

Six months later, von Knyphausen would lead these British troops unsuccessfully in the Battles of Connecticut Farms and Springfield. You have to wonder whether those conflicts would have happened had the sleigh attack on Staten Island been executed successfully.


Monday, May 13, 2013

Hiking the wilderness over Route 78

Even when you think you have a pretty good idea of what a site holds, it's always worth checking out a stray trail or two. Recently I discovered a narrow, unblazed footpath along Watchung Reservation's Surprise Lake and found my way to a whole new habitat I'd never known to be accessible. Ivan and I explored a bit farther a few days later, eventually finding the lake's marshy conclusion, hard by a sound barrier separating it from the roar of Route 78 traffic. I'd always figured that the waterway had to end somewhere; I'd just never bothered to try to get there.

It's really quite a beautiful place, if you can ignore the constant hum of interstate traffic. Choked with lilypads and wetlands grasses, the marsh is 七乐彩彩票app下载 to a number of aquatic birds, including two of my personal favorites: wood ducks and green herons. They're both fairly shy species, and our arrival caused a few to wing off to other hiding spots somewhere on the lake, but others simply swam to more secluded areas where we couldn't track them. From a wildlife viewing perspective, the place couldn't be more accommodating. Earthen berms cross the lake at two locations, allowing people (and horses in one area) to get a sense of the full length of the lake by basically standing on it. The first time around, we crossed the farthest berm out and returned to our starting point via another narrow path. It brought us up an embankment nestled against the sound barrier, the trail wandering a hundred feet or so away from but parallel to the lake's edge. Eventually we made it back to the point where I'd concluded my original exploration, and we returned to the car via the bridle path.

On our second visit this past Sunday, we discovered that the recent rains had created a stream across the start of the footpath, so we had to start our journey on the bridle path. Getting out to the berms was easy enough, and we crossed back to continue the trip. This is where we got a bit tripped up. Instead of taking the lower path that would have had us retracing our steps from the last time, we took the upper path that led uphill and closer to the sound barrier. Thing was, we didn't realize it until we were well down the path.

七乐彩彩票app下载Route 78 bunny bridge
Route 78 overpass: a deer's eye view.
Something seemed a bit off. First, there was a steady stream of water coursing down the path. It wasn't troublesome, but it seemed like storm sewer water looking for level ground. The last time we were there, it hadn't rained for several days, so that wasn't a clear sign we were on the wrong path. Second, this route seemed noisier. I remembered hearing the dull roar of Route 78 traffic before, but I didn't recall it being so close. And third, the farther we got along the path, the more different the foliage was. Rather than a lot of underbrush, we had a pretty clear path through a tunnel of honeysuckle. It smelled wonderful, but still, it was a little offputting.

The noise issue seemed weird but only got stranger when I sensed the hum of traffic below us. Could we be on the famous Watchung Reservation bunny bridge?

If you're familiar with Route 78, you know that a series of bridges pass over the road in the Mountainside area. The easternmost carries Glenside Avenue across the highway, the westernmost holds an abandoned road that once led to a Nike base, and the one between them is covered with plants and trees. That wooded one is the bunny bridge, or wildlife overpass.

Why build a bridge for mammals and reptiles? The short answer is compromise. Originally, Interstate 78 was slated to run directly through Watchung Reservation, the largest plot of preserved land in Union County. Environmentalists and local residents held up construction for years, seeking an alternate route or perhaps to stop the road altogether. Meanwhile, the Federal government continued building and opening other segments of the highway, forcing travelers to find another route through the Mountainside/Summit/Springfield area.

To get the road built, government officials agreed to move the road to the edge of the Reservation and excavate a right-of-way into the Second Watchung ridge to lessen the sound impact. They also built a bridge from the main part of the Reservation to the thin sliver remaining on the westbound side of the highway, allowing wildlife to move easily between the two areas. With those elements in place, the road opened in 1986. Depending on who you talk to, the bunny bridge has been either accepted or shunned by animals.

Coincidentally, I'd recently gotten an e-mail from Hidden New Jersey reader Darian Worden, relating his own adventure on the bunny bridge. I thought we might be following his footsteps when we heard the humming traffic, but we weren't. A paved road and chain link fence joined us as we walked, raising a new discovery. I hadn't realized it, but the Glenside Avenue overpass also carries its own lane of vegetation and, presumably, the occasional mammal. We kept walking and eventually came to an athletic field where a girls' soccer league game was taking place. It was kind of like being in Field of Dreams, but without the baseball bats.

We hadn't found the bunny bridge, but something even odder (at least I think so). A view of the map shows that our path leads to additional county open space, but I'm not sure that deer are welcome there any more than they are throughout suburban New Jersey. I guess if you want to walk across Route 78 in relative safety, it's a place to do it, but you'd have to go through a bit of trouble - and mud - to do it.

(Incidentally, if you'd like to check out Darian's account and photos of the bunny bridge, surf on over to .)

Monday, March 25, 2013

Free Acres is the place to be...

If it hasn't already become obvious, I'm intrigued by planned communities. There's something fascinating about an enclave where people choose to live together based on a common noble belief, as long as it's benign.

Such is the story of Free Acres, a 70-acre residential community nestled in the Watchung Mountains. Roads barely wider than a driveway will bring you through a peaceful wooded settlement of 七乐彩彩票app下载s, some bungalows, others the size of an average subdivision house. Just inside the boundaries from the outside road is a two-story red farmhouse, which serves as the community gathering place.

Founded in 1910 by a preacher's son named Bolton Hall, Free Acres was started as an experiment of the "single tax" philosophy of Henry George. A writer and economist by trade, George believed in the common ownership of land for the community's benefit. Or, as the association constitution says, "all shall be mutually helpful and free from all forms of monopoly of natural resources, in order to secure to all equality of opportunity and a full reward of efforts." Land was considered a mutual birthright of humankind, to managed democratically.

Hall purchased the Murphy farm on the border of Berkeley Heights and Watchung, dividing it into lots that 七乐彩彩票app下载owners lease from the community association. Residents aren't required to be advocates of the single tax concept, only to adhere to community rules. Land-based regulations have been modified from the Hall concept over the years, but the general concept remains. Each lease is a 99 year contract, which resets every time a lot is transferred to a new lessee through inheritance or purchase of the 七乐彩彩票app下载 on it. Lease fees go into into a fund to maintain common roads, the farmhouse and community pool, as well as paying local property tax on the 70 acres. If costs of managing the community rise, the annual fee goes up for each renter, regardless of any improvements made by the lessee on his or her lot. 七乐彩彩票平台owners pay local taxes to the municipality, based on the value of their houses.

The common ownership concept has some interesting byproducts: residents are forbidden to build fences, and no trees can be cut down without permission from the association.

Business aside, Free Acres started as a summer colony with an artsy feel, with about 50 people summering there by 1920. Performers like Victor Kilian and a then-unknown James Cagney joined writers like journalist Konrad Bercovici and fantasy novelist Thorne Smith, raising tents in what must have felt like a heavenly respite from the sweltering New York summers. Borrowing from the theories of Arts and Crafts designer William Morris, residents created guilds to manage their many dramatic and artistic pursuits within the community.

Eventually, as we've seen from our travels to Mt. Tabor and Pitman, residents started building small shacks, many of which were winterized during the Great Depression. Though there was no common religious belief as there was in those other communities, Free Acre-ites enjoyed good fellowship and an enjoyment of their surroundings. In fact, it may be that the lack of a stated ideology was what keeps Free Acres vibrant to this day, while so many other utopian communities have organized and disbanded in New Jersey.

When I drove through Free Acres last week, I found the enclave surrounded by, yet separate from, the suburban community that's grown up around it. The feel was very much like a small summer community somewhere in the Poconos. Narrow roads and a 15 mile per hour speed limit definitely slow things down, but you really don't feel in a hurry while you're there. And even with the trees still lacking leaves, the embrace of nature brings an almost magical feeling to the place.

The reality of late 20th century development has had its mark on the community, though. Several of the bungalows have clearly been expanded substantially, and some residents have started from scratch and built larger 七乐彩彩票app下载s that look as if they'd be better suited to the surrounding tract developments. Unfortunately, the property was also affected by the construction of Route 78; a buffer of woods and a sound barrier do their best to tamp the audible rush of traffic in the distance.

Still, Free Acres has its nirvana-like aspects and surely has a calming effect on those who live there. If you want your 七乐彩彩票app下载 to be a placid retreat within an easy commute to Manhattan, it's hard to imagine where else you could settle. It may no longer be a place where free spirits go to avoid the woes of a flawed world, but it's one place where you can have good neighbors without fences.