Saturday, May 13, 2017

Route 278: the Expressway through my house

Readers of a certain age might remember the old Bugs Bunny cartoon 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 home.

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 home 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, 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 homes 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 homes 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 home, unbothered by the inconvenience of being relocated by a six-lane interstate.

Friday, October 28, 2016

The Statue of Liberty in Butler: the story evolves

Longtime readers may recall our surprising discovery of the Statue of Liberty on the balcony of the Butler Police station. To sum up, this eight foot-high replica - which looks pretty accurate at a distance - stands proudly in a prominent part of town, with no apparent connection to the community besides a general air of patriotism. A street in town is named for the statue's sculptor, Frederic Bartholdi, whom we later discovered was a friend of Richard Butler, the community's namesake whose rubber factory was once the largest employer in town. However, there's no prominent signage to describe the link to curious passers-by.

A bit more digging led us to discover that Mr. Butler had his own connection to Liberty Enlightening the World, as the statue is more officially known. The rubber magnate was the Lee Iacocca of his time, playing a major role in raising funds for the construction of the Statue's pedestal. As secretary of the American Committee for the Statue of Liberty, he donated the services of his rubber factory to ship miniature Statues to contributors. In recognition of his service, the French government named him a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor.

That solved one mystery, but we were still left to wonder about the origin of the police station Liberty. We figured she probably wasn't actually manufactured in Butler, since the statuettes the rubber company shipped were made by the Newton Bottle Stopper Company of New York. Still, she looks too accurate to have been crafted by a well-meaning fan.

It took us a while, but we got the answer during a visit to the Butler Museum during Morris County's recent Pathways to History weekend. According to the Butler Historical Society folks, their Liberty was one of several that were used as decoration on Liberty Island for the Statue's rededication celebration in 1986. How it got from the celebration to Butler is another question for another day; our friends at the Historical Society invited us to come back to review their substantial collection of Statue-related documents, ephemera and artifacts.

We kind of like this mystery and where it's taken us. Sometimes uncovering the story in pieces is even more fun than getting to the bottom of it in one swipe.



Friday, January 15, 2016

Winter birding turns balmy at Barnegat Light

If you're a birder in New Jersey, chances are you make the same trip every winter: you take the walk along the jetty at Barnegat Light to see the Harlequin Ducks.

They're cool little ducks that look like a paint-by-number project, with well-defined blocks of colorful plumage. Big fans of the rough-and-tumble waters next to rocky coastlines, they hang out next to the rip rap that forms the jetty protecting the eastern end of the tip of Long Beach Island from massive erosion.

Brr. This is the usual frigid jetty walk.
That dot to the right is Ivan.
Usually, Ivan and I visit Barnegat in January for a reliable look at the ducks along with Great Cormorants, Common Eiders and Purple Sandpipers. Without fail, the weather is cold and blustery, with gusts coming off the ocean, but Ivan's a man on a mission to see 100 bird species before the end of the month. More often than not, I only walk halfway down the jetty before I give up and climb down to the beach, while Ivan swings his spotting scope on his shoulder and tromps down to the birds' preferred haunt, the end.

This season, we thought we were in luck. On our planned Barnegat Light day, the weather was in the downright balmy 50 degree range, and the predicted rain was holding off for at least a bit. Would this be the year we got the birds without the frostbite? Or would we discover that the desired birds hadn't yet arrived since their more northern territories hadn't frozen up yet?

Our first stop was just outside Barnegat Light State Park, where we discovered a large group of Boat-tailed Grackles perched on the power lines. Hearing a gentle "plop" in their general direction, I warned Ivan that we might be in for a Mel Brooks "High Anxiety" moment, but fortunately the birds played nice. Still, though, their presence was a bit off season, adding a bit of concern about whether the ducks were around.

After Ivan's customary pause to pay homage to Civil War General and lighthouse architect George Meade, we turned to start our way down the concrete platform that wraps around the northern edge of LBI and leads to the jetty on the eastern edge of the park. A few birders were clustered at the bend in the walkway, but nobody was going any further down. In a moment we knew why: waves were crashing against the jetty with such force that buckets of salt water were leaping over the walkway. Neither of us had ever seen puddles on the land side of the jetty, yet here they were.


Oh crap. We weren't seeing any water-borne birds from our vantage point. They all notoriously prefer the area farther south of where normal people would hang out, and the frequency of the breaching waves was enough to nix any thought of making a run for it and hoping for the best. I myself wouldn't feel comfortable risking the walk across the rip-rap jetty.

The view looking north from the beach.
That water to the right is what washed up over the jetty.
Never one to declare defeat easily, Ivan reasoned that we'd just have to walk down the beach. Fine by me. Maybe we'd be able to get on the jetty farther down, or maybe the birds would be someplace we could see them. Either way, we weren't giving up. We'd driven all that way, and the chances of getting back to Barnegat before the end of the month were pretty much nil, so we had to make the best of this visit. Maybe we'd find some unexpected species along the way. You never know.

And indeed we did, hiding in the detritus along the tideline. If I hadn't seen the movement out of the corner of my eye, we would have missed a couple of Ruddy Turnstones foraging for food. Maybe they were a little freaked by the weather, too, as they didn't appear too worked up about us being just steps away.

Our reward for all that walking was a host of ducks braving the rough waves in the waters off the beach just west of the end of the jetty. Difficult as they were to focus on as they bobbed up and down on the surface, we eventually ID'd not only the Harlequin and the Common Eider, but found some Black Scoter and Long-tailed Ducks, too. And a Great Cormorant was perched, as is customary, on one of the towers out in the water.

Satisfied, we made our way back toward the lighthouse, happy to have made the call to walk the beach. Nature wasn't done with us, though. As if on cue, a small bird flew past us to perch on a bush along the dune. A run of the mill sparrow perhaps? No, a Snow Bunting, a bird we thought we'd have to make another long drive to find this month. Maybe the birding gods were smiling on us after all. At least we got our reward for persistence.



Thursday, September 10, 2015

The star of Bethlehem? An Edison mystery in Hunterdon.

Once again, it was proven to us: travel around North Jersey and you're bound to find something related to Thomas Edison.

This time, it came when we made a left turn off Route 57 West, passing Earle Eckel's Autogiro Port on our way southward to points unknown. After an enlightening stop in Asbury (more to come on that soon), we found ourselves driving on an undulating road through beautiful farmland. We weren't quite sure where we were, except that we'd left Warren County.

The unusual two-story springhouse next to the sign
that started our mystery.
And then, there it was: a Hunterdon County historic marker. Titled "TOWER HILL FARM," it continued, "Dating back to the 1840s, this farm was purchased for Thomas Edison's storekeeper, Frederick Devonald, in 1932 and remained in the family until 1983. Unusual springhouse consists of two levels."

Devonald was a name I hadn't come across in my reading on Edison's life and career, leading me to believe that he wasn't one of the Muckers, the tight-knit group who worked closely with the Old Man on his experiments. He's not referenced in two of the latest and most comprehensive Edison biographies, nor does Mucker Francis Jehl mention him in his Menlo Park Reminiscences. Who was this mystery man?

Considering that Edison's Stewartsville Portland cement plant is a 12 mile drive away from Tower Hill, I wondered if he'd been one of the many employees who'd never worked in either Menlo Park or West Orange. And who had purchased the land for Devonald a year after Edison's death? Was the gift connected to his work service at all, or was I just reading too much into a sign author's attempt at economical writing?

Back at Hidden New Jersey HQ, we set ourselves to finding out. Checking first with Hunterdon County Parks and Recreation, we discovered that in addition to the stone springhouse we'd seen, the property hosted a farmhouse that had been built in 1848. Interestingly, the Parks and Rec website said that other Devonalds than Fred -- Ira and Margaret -- bought the farm in 1932 as a family weekend retreat, with three of them eventually making it their full time home. Records of the 1920 census list Ira and Margaret as two of the eight children being raised by Fred and his wife Julia in Orange.

There went my supposition that Edison had bought the property for Devonald, but what about Fred's job? His family being from Orange made it doubtful that he worked at the Stewartsville cement plant. Was he, in fact, one of the keepers of the famous storeroom in the Building 5 machine shop at the West Orange lab? The wondrous room that Edison famously claimed to have everything from the hide of a rhinoceros to the eye of a United States Senator, all in order to speed the process of invention?

As it turns out, it's entirely possible. A search of the online archives of Rutgers' Thomas Edison Papers project reveals more than 70 documents referencing or signed by Devonald, mostly related to the procurement of supplies for the storeroom. One even went directly to Edison at his Ogdensburg iron mines, asking for approval to purchase chemicals. (Edison asked for prices and said he'd see Devonald to discuss.) Another source noted that Fred once turned to Julia, herself an Edison employee, to make a motion picture screen.

And that leads us to Fred's brief star turn. While not a key employee, he was accorded a role in the development of one of Edison's most noteworthy inventions -- literally. A small room on the second floor of the West Orange labs was, in effect, the world's first motion picture studio, and the Edison movie making team needed animated subjects to test the kinetoscope technology. Hams like Mucker Fred Ott were more than happy to fake a sneeze for the cameras, and it seems that Devonald was open to participating, too. You have to wonder if he's one of the men in the brief dance scene in this film. We may never know which one of the subjects he was, and he certainly didn't go on to screen stardom. But it does go to show: in the right work environment, you can have a lot of fun if you show a little personality.



Friday, August 28, 2015

Backed up on the road to Sandy Hook

On a warm summer Sunday, we weren't surprised to run into people just trying to make it to Sandy Hook. What surprised us was how long ago they'd started their trip and the massive delay they suffered -- maybe New Jersey's first huge traffic jam. Certainly, it was the biggest hassle anyone has experienced in trying to get to the shore.

We'd started the day avoiding all things beach. In fact, we were at a sod farm in eastern Mercer County, looking for 'grasspipers' - a general description of the shorebirds that hang out in grasslands. The fields weren't quite as productive as we'd hoped, leading us to wander a bit aimlessly until we found ourselves in the western Monmouth County community of Allentown.

Full of Colonial, Georgian and Federal-style buildings dating to the earliest days of the nation, Allentown was built around an old grist mill on Doctors Creek. A picturesque mill pond offers a nice focal point to downtown and, of course, is irresistible to intrepid birders. The part downtown isn't quite so interesting -- it's the part that extends back to the residential areas that's tempting.

Finding the right road wasn't hard -- it's called Lakeview Drive. Before we got to the lake, though, we noticed an old graveyard by the side of the road. The landscape is well tended, the grass is short, but its old stone border wall has seen better days, and its grave markers are well worn. In a lot of ways, it's not much different from any number of other small cemeteries dotting the more remote areas of New Jersey.

Not exactly a rest area, but sufficient for the need.
What got our attention was a shorter stone flanked by two American flags. According to the plaque affixed on top, we'd stumbled on the pit stop for somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 travelers who were just trying to get to the shore during some of the hottest days of June.

This seeming horde of Bennies weren't headed to sun, fun and maybe some debauchery on the Boardwalk. They were members of what was acknowledged to be the best trained fighting force in the world: the British Army of 1778.

Led by General Sir Henry Clinton, the troops had left Philadelphia and were on their way to the British stronghold of New York at Manhattan. Originally, the plan had been to evacuate troops via ship down the Delaware River and around New Jersey northward, but a shortage of transports forced a change of plans to an overland route. Crossing the Delaware, the troops moved in a northeasterly direction through Mount Holly and beyond.

The trip was arduous. Heavily encumbered by a 12-mile long wagon train of equipment and supplies, the Brits and had been struggling to make their way despite demolished bridges and harassment by local Patriots. Even nature seemed to be conspiring against them: thunderstorms, mosquitoes and oppressive humidity made the trek especially onerous.

After encamping at Allentown overnight, Clinton decided to direct his troops toward Sandy Hook. It was a logical move: the British had captured the peninsula over a year before and fortified it against attack, though Patriots occasionally attempted raids to disable Sandy Hook Lighthouse. Several British naval vessels were usually stationed offshore as further protection, and from there, safety in Manhattan was just a reasonably short sail away.

Clinton and many of his troops eventually made it to Manhattan, but not without a serious fight, and that's an understatement. General George Washington, seeing an opportunity to strike, advanced the Continental Army to confront the British at Monmouth Court House - present day Freehold. The battle that ensued on June 28, 1778 was the largest artillery battle of the American Revolution and one of the longest engagements of the entire war.

Consider that the next time you're stuck in shore traffic.


Thursday, August 20, 2015

Black Gold, Texas Tea: the hidden corporate headquarters in Flemington

For many years, New Jersey had the reputation of being the home for corporate headquarters. It seemed that if you were a Fortune 500 company, you either located your CEO here or had a major installation somewhere in the state. Some of them moved here from more expensive digs in New York City, finding good transportation routes and pleasant suburbs to attract employees. In any case, it wasn't hard to pick out the corporate HQs dotted along our highways, with their sprawling lawns and low-slung buildings. 

Curiously, as I discovered recently, one of the largest and most famous among them had much more modest digs on a small lot in Flemington. You might know that corporation as ExxonMobil. Back then, it was Standard Oil of New Jersey.

To say that the history of Standard Oil is complicated is a vast understatement, and I couldn't hope to explain it all in a readable blog post. For the purposes of today's story, what you really need to know is that at one point in the 1930s, the corporation's headquarters technically was a lawyer's safe on Main Street in the Hunterdon County seat. John D. Rockefeller's oil behemoth was broken up in a 1911 Supreme Court antitrust ruling, with Standard Oil of New Jersey (or Jersey Standard) being the largest of the resulting "baby Standards." Operating refineries at Bayonne and Linden, it continued to evolve after the mandated breakup, making several acquisitions and eventually becoming the world's largest oil producer.     

Flemington has never been known to be a big oil town, nor has there ever seemed to be a potential for anyone to strike black gold somewhere off Route 31. And, in fact, there doesn't seem to have ever been a Standard Oil office anywhere in town, except maybe for a desk and chair at a filling station. This was not a traditional arrangement by any means.

As you might have already guessed, the company's reasons were purely economic. In one word, taxes. New Jersey law at the time stated that a company was headquartered where its incorporation papers were housed. By moving its headquarters from Linden to Flemington in 1937, Standard Oil was able to shave its tax bill by 80 percent. The company's operations continued without missing a beat.

Exxon corporate histories say nothing about this move to the heart of New Jersey's farm country, though I guess it's not surprising. The fact that the company had previously moved its headquarters to Linden from Newark to save a half-million dollar tax payment leads me to believe that the stay in Flemington was a relatively brief one, lasting only until a more attractive tax haven could be identified.

Despite Standard Oil's penchant for bending the rules, it's likely that its new neighbors in Hunterdon County wouldn't have minded a bit that the company had done this bit of corporate legerdemain, if they even knew the move had occurred. The boost in revenue to the county meant their own tax bills would decrease. While no new jobs were created, nor was there any additional burden placed on local roads and utilities. Maybe they hadn't struck oil, but who ever complained about lower taxes?

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Eggs came first in Flemington (at least that's what we figure)

When I was in the fourth grade, my teacher gave me a project that opened my eyes to the diversity of our state. Everyone in our class had to write a report about a randomly-assigned county in New Jersey and present it to our fellow students. With 21 kids in the class, we were all guaranteed to learn about areas of the state we knew little of.

I got Hunterdon. Hunter-who? Clear across the state from my Union County home, I'd never heard of it. Dutifully, I sent a letter to the courthouse in Flemington, wondering what this far-off place had in store for me.

A few weeks later, I got a big manila envelope from the Hunterdon County clerk, loaded with pamphlets chock-full of facts and figures. While some of my classmates had gotten pretty tourist brochures featuring shore locations or historic sites in their assigned counties, the data-laden Hunterdon literature made one thing very clear: the county was where food comes from. And it was big business.

I was reminded of this recently as Ivan and I wandered just a block off Main Street in Flemington and came upon an office building labeled "Old Egg Auction Prestigious Offices." With a liberal number of rooster statues strewn about, the building clearly had been repurposed after an industrial past.

A county historic marker told the tale: "FLEMINGTON EGG AUCTION. The country's first, and, at one time, the largest cooperative egg auction operated here from 1932 until the death of the egg business in the 1960s."

The "first and largest" fit perfectly with my childhood impression of Hunterdon County, but what was this about the death of the egg business? Isn't that just a little dramatic? I mean, I'd had a Taylor ham, egg and cheese that morning for breakfast. Obviously, this warranted a bit more research once we got back to Hidden New Jersey headquarters.

Our usual sources gave but a hint of information. Published a few years after the auction's founding, the Flemington chapter of The WPA Guide to 1930s New Jersey noted that the auction had started in 1930 to ensure the county's poultry farmers could attract better prices for their wares than they presumably could by seeking buyers independently. More research revealed that the auction had operated from the basement of one of the downtown stores before moving to a Park Avenue factory that had once housed the Empire Glass Company. Not long afterward, the Flemington Egg Auction expanded to live chickens and other livestock, eventually becoming a model for other agricultural cooperative auctions around the country.

That was just the start. These days, the big Mid-Atlantic chicken states are Delaware and Maryland, but poultry was big business for New Jersey in the early- and mid-20th century. More than 1200 egg and livestock producers participated in the Flemington Auction in the late 1940s, and Hunterdon County wasn't even the largest poultry producer in the state. By 1956, sales of meat chickens and eggs accounted for nearly a third of all farm cash receipts, and we were fifth among all states in egg production. The Egg Auction alone was pulling in about $2 million a year.

Not long afterward, the tide turned, as oversupply and grain prices led egg producers out of the marketplace. Undoubtedly, improved transportation systems made it easier for lower-cost southern factory farms to ship fresh product to New Jersey at competitive prices, too. Maybe the egg business didn't die, but its New Jersey division wasn't doing very well. Farmers around the state, Hunterdon included, were discovering their land was worth more to developers than it would ever be if they continued producing eggs. Starved by a lack of suppliers, the Flemington Auction closed in 1976.

Its property festooned with painted rooster statues, the Old Egg Auction building got us thinking about evolution -- not just the fate of the egg industry, but the old chicken-and-egg question. In Flemington, the egg was clearly sold at the auction before chickens ever came before the gavel. Will it ever come back to roost? That's a debate for another day.