Tuesday, November 18, 2014

John Fitch: a man with a head of steam

New Jersey was fertile ground for the development of the steamboat industry, whether in Nicholas Roosevelt's side-mounted propulsion wheel or Cornelius Vanderbilt's ferry operations between New York and New Brunswick. And, of course, there was John Stevens, who established the first steam ferry operations between Hoboken and Manhattan.

One man, however, beat the rest of them to the punch, however imperfectly. In 1787 John Fitch proved that a boat could be propelled by steam engine, using a series of interconnected oars to row through the water.

Why, then, do we hear so little about Fitch and much more about Robert Fulton and his steamboat Clermont?

Fitch, as it turns out, is a classic case of a creative mind whose personality appears to have gotten in the way of his success. Born in Connecticut in 1743, he had little formal education but studied astronomy, math and geometry on his own as he tried to forge a work life that suited his interests. He attempted an apprenticeship as a clockmaker without much success before eventually making it to Trenton as a silversmith, losing his business during the British occupation of the city in 1776. He briefly served as a gunsmith to the New Jersey militia after losing his commission in a dispute, and also provided beer and other supplies to troops at Valley Forge. By the end of the war, he was surveying land in the territory that eventually became Ohio, where he was captured by Native Americans and turned over to the British.

Following his release from captivity, Fitch came back east to Pennsylvania to work on his ideas for a steam-powered boat. Collaborating with clockmaker Henry Voigt, he developed a proper steam engine and installed it on a boat outfitted with mechanized oars on port and starboard sides. Hoping to get funding or an endorsement from the federal government, he invited members of the Constitutional Convention to the 1787 demonstration on the Delaware. Many attended and were impressed as the boat moved forward an a slow but respectable three miles an hour. However, no backing was forthcoming.

Why is John Fitch not known as the inventor of the steamboat? There seem to be a few factors at play here. First, his invention came at a particularly inauspicious time in the development of the legal system in the United States. The Federal patent office had yet to be created, leaving intellectual property protection to the individual states. That meant an arduous trek to the capitols of all of the states, or at least those where competition or theft of his idea was most likely. He brought a working model of the boat, hoping to impress the legislatures and the scientific community with the genius of his design.

Perhaps more telling, he doesn't seem to have had the right personality. He was either a bad salesperson, or maybe he just rubbed people the wrong way. During his 1786 tour, he got less than encouraging feedback from Philadelphia's American Philosophical Society, where Benjamin Franklin held sway. The Virginia legislature was unimpressed, favoring the design of its native son inventor James Rumsey, who'd already secured George Washington's endorsement. The only place where he seems to have gained some sway is New Jersey, which granted him an exclusive 14-year franchise to build and operate steamboats. That endorsement in hand, he built the full-sized boat the Constitutional Convention observed in 1787.

Fitch is commemorated not far from
Trenton's minor league ballpark.
By 1788, Fitch had received patents from Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia and had attracted sufficient financing to build a new boat that ran the route between Philadelphia and Burlington. Two years later, a third boat was running between Trenton, Burlington, Bordentown, Wilmington and Philadelphia, a route that appears to have made as little sense to potential customers then as it might today. He may have created mechanically-sound equipment, but he seems not to have had a very strong understanding of market forces or customer demand. Stagecoaches could still reach his destinations faster, despite the steamboats' improved speed of eight miles an hour. Rather than seeing his craft as viable transportation, many viewed it as a curiosity or a stunt. His company was soon out of business.

When Fitch finally received his federal patent in 1791, he was infuriated to learn that Rumsey's design had been recognized by the patent office as well. Rather than getting the patent for the steamboat concept, it was for the particular design, as was Rumsey's, leading Fitch's investors to abandon him for other opportunities. Additional attempts to secure funding -- this time in Europe -- and demonstrate his newly-conceived steamboat innovations met with indifference, further angering him. Giving up hope on the steamboat, he headed west to Kentucky in 1796, apparently hoping for a better reception there.

He got none and died within months of his arrival, some say of poor health, others say of worse. According to some reports, he struck a deal with a tavern operator to provide him with room, board and a pint of whiskey a day in return for a few hundred acres of land. He planned to drink himself to death. When that didn't work, he committed suicide with an overdose of opium. He's buried in Beardstown, Kentucky, his grave marked with a modest military stone that notes his Revolutionary War service. He was moved there from his original pauper's plot through the actions of the John Fitch chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Some sources claim that Fitch endured bipolar disorder, that his emotional extremes fueled both his creativity and the less admirable personality traits that drove away investors. What is known is that inventing is a difficult trade, with people of many temperaments and similar ideas often competing for the ultimate prize. It's possible that if Fitch had possessed Fulton's ability to make steam travel more economically viable, he'd have been better able to capitalize on the technology.

Fitch's onetime hometown of Trenton recognizes what many of his contemporaries may not have: his genius and perseverance. The first of two memorial boulders was placed at the site of the Old Wharf along the Delaware in Fitch's name in 1921, with the nearby highway rechristened John Fitch Way from the site to Assunpink Creek.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Cut... and print! An Episcopal priest invents film in Newark

Newark has attracted more than its share of creative thinkers who've made huge contributions to their professions and industries. As we learned earlier this year, scientist James Jay Mapes revolutionized agriculture through experiments on his farm in the current-day South Ward. The prolific Seth Boyden had his own lab in Newark to develop new methods of producing patent leather and malleable iron. And, of course, New Jersey's most prolific inventor, Thomas Edison, set up shop in the city before moving operations to the more rural Menlo Park.

Rev. Hannibal Goodwin
A less likely Newark inventor came to mind on my recent stop at the Plume House, now more familiar to Newarkers as the rectory of the Episcopal House of Prayer. Reverend Hannibal Goodwin lived in the home during his service as the church's rector from 1867 until his retirement in 1887. No doubt he served the congregation well, but he's better known for his work outside the ministry.

Like many inventors, Goodwin was driven by a problem in need of a solution. Wanting to make Bible lessons more interesting to his congregants, he started using images printed on glass plates, projected through a stereopticon or "magic lantern." The plates were subject to cracking and breakage, leading him to seek out another transparent material that would be more flexible and immune to damage. Rev. Goodwin took to the workshop and lab he'd assembled in the attic of the Plume House, looking for a solution. He wasn't a chemist by training but taught himself sufficiently to work on a solution without blowing the roof off the rectory.

Newark was already becoming a center for the development of plastics, but apparently none with the properties Goodwin sought. Celluloid pioneer John Wesley Hyatt had relocated to Ferry Street in Newark in the 1870s to manufacture false teeth, billiards balls and other durable solids, but apparently hadn't seen the potential for photographic use. Amateur photographer Rev. Goodwin did. After some experimentation, he developed cellulose nitrate photographic film, also known as flexible celluloid film.

House of Prayer: birthplace of flexible film.
Courtesy Historic American Buildings Survey
Goodwin quickly realized that he hadn't just solved the problem of cracked Bible illustrations, he'd also opened the door to a new trend in photography. Upon his retirement from the Episcopal church in 1887, he filed a patent application for a "photographic pellicle and process for producing same," noting that the invention was for a "transparent sensitive pellicle [membrane] better adapted for photographic purposes."

Though he was first to the U.S. Patent Office with the concept, Goodwin's application wasn't immediately accepted. His lack of formal training as a chemist showed in the lack of detail and need for further clarification and amendments. Meanwhile, others, including George Eastman, came forth with more nuanced and complete petitions for patent. By the time Goodwin was awarded the patent in 1898, Eastman Kodak had been manufacturing and selling flexible film using its own processes for several years.

Goodwin unfortunately lost the opportunity to make up for lost time. Patent in hand, he incorporated the Goodwin Film and Camera Company in 1900 but died in a street accident before production started. His wife sold the company to Anthony and Scovill (later known as Ansco) which sued Eastman Kodak for patent infringement. After more than a decade of dispute in the courts, Goodwin's rightful place as inventor of flexible film was confirmed.

Consider that within the radius of just a few miles, New Jersey holds three locations crucial to the birth and growth of the film industry: the attic of a small Dutch colonial house in Newark where the film itself was born, Edison's West Orange lab where the motion picture was invented, and Fort Lee where the studio system grew from infancy to a major industry. Rochester, Hollywood, eat our dust!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Hessians in the Ice Box: the hidden history of one of Newark's oldest homes

People sometimes tend to forget that New Jersey's largest cities are among our oldest. Take, for example, Newark. Gleaming new buildings are being constructed along Broad Street downtown, but if you look carefully around the city, you'll also see sandstone structures that were built before the American Revolution. One of the oldest, if not the oldest, stands precariously between an Episcopal church and an overpass for Interstate 280.

Built around 1710, the Plume house is remarkable for more than its age. Originally, I stopped by to track down its 19th century acclaim as the birthplace of an new technology that spurred the development of the entertainment industry. Then I discovered that it has the distinction of playing a small but telling role in the American Revolution. Today, we'll focus on that part of its history.

The land on which the sandstone house sits was deeded to early Newarker Samuel Plum in 1673 as part of the original partition of the region. A large farm with orchards, it was then well outside the heart of Newark, which was far smaller than it is today.

Annetje Van Wagenen Plume came to live at the house after her marriage to Samuel's grandson, Isaac Plume, in the mid 1700s. Together with Isaac's children and their mutual offspring, the pair kept the farm going until 1776, when Isaac joined the patriot cause as part of the Essex County Militia.

Ann and the children were on their own during the winter of 1777, when Hessian troops made their way to Newark after the Battle of Long Island. Located on the northern edge of town, the Plume farm and homestead was an easy and quick target. Hungry from the march, the enemy troops pushed their way into the house, demanding food for themselves and their horses.

Washington's troops had already retreated westward, leaving the area undefended and the Hessians emboldened. Figuring they'd encounter little resistance, they rummaged about the house, but when they started chopping her furniture for firewood in the main room, Ann had had enough. According to legend, her demands that they stop were countered by an officer's threat that he'd shoot her unless she shut up and left them alone. Angered, she let loose what was then a raunchy phrase for what might have been termed a proper woman: "Ram's horn if I die for it." The officer laughed in surprise and relented, telling his troops to move out to the yard.

Ann's frustration grew the longer the Hessians stayed on her property. A few days after the wood chopping incident, she saw a chance for revenge. Noticing one of the soldiers venturing into the ice house for some fresh milk, she quickly shut the door behind him and barricaded it. Muffled by the thick walls of the ice house, the soldier's protests and cries for help went unanswered by his comrades, who left in haste the next day when rumor spread that Continental soldiers were on the way. As the story goes, she turned the milk thief over to the Jersey Blues a few hours later, receiving his metal helmet as a reward.

Even without her daring during the Revolution, Ann was a remarkable woman for her time, having inherited substantial land holdings from her father. All of the properties became Isaac's at their marriage due to estate laws of the time, but she regained them all after his death in 1799. As a property-owning widow, she was entitled to vote before the right was taken away from women in New Jersey in 1807. By the time of her death in 1816, she was worth more than $100,000, a significant sum for the day regardless of one's gender.

As for the house, there's much more to be said, both of further history and of an uncertain future. Stay tuned for more...

Friday, November 7, 2014

The proof is in the pudding(stone)

Virtually since we started exploring, Ivan's been extolling the virtues of a a certain type of stone that's rarely found anywhere but a small part of Northern New Jersey. Here's his account of this remarkable, rustically-beautiful rock.

When we think of hidden New Jersey, we have come to consider the historic buildings, the out-of-the-way natural areas or long departed personalities that graced, or still grace the Garden State. However, perhaps the most hidden aspect of the state is the bedrock that sits many yards below our feet as we explore the “surface” Jersey. Geologic history has literally shaped our state with much of the area north of the Raritan Bay made up of rock that dates back to a time that predated the dinosaurs, while the southern part of the state consists of sediments that were deposited long afterward.

Green Pond conglomerate in place on Green Pond Road in Rockaway
Occasionally some “buried treasure,” in the form of distinctive rock formations, finds its way to the surface as a result of erosion or modern day construction. Glaciers have also exposed some of the state’s foundation or have transported rocks from one location to another.

A famous example of these out of place rocks (known as glacial erratics) is Tripod Rock in Morris County. A frequently found glacial erratic in the Montville and Boonton area is a distictively attractive rock known as Green Pond conglomerate. It's part of a larger rock formation that stretches from the New York State Thruway southwestward all the way down to Route 80 in Morris County. Alternately, it's known as Schunemunk puddingstone after another of its locations, on New York's Schunemunk Mountain. The United States Geologic Survey website has a page dedicated to Green Pond Conglomerate so I have no problem claiming this rock formation in the name of New Jersey.

A conglomerate is a rock that consists of a matrix that has pieces or fragments of other rock (known as “clasts”) mixed in. “Puddingstone” is a more colloquial expression that refers to this uneven mixture of rocks. In the case of Green Pond Conglomerate, the matrix is a reddish purple siltstone with white quartz fragments as its clasts. What I had found out however, is that these erratics are not far from home. They originated as a formation in Green Pond, a section of Rockaway Township. The matrix consisted of a reddish silt or clay that eventually hardened into rock during the Silurian period about 420 million to 445 million years ago. There the rock sat minding its own business until about 50,000 years ago when the Wisconsin Glacier slid across what is now New Jersey to slice off chunks of our hero to deposit the fragments across northern Morris County.

Over the years, Green Pond Conglomerate has been prized for its decorative qualities and has been used to construct stone walls and other landscaping and construction features on many residential and commercial properties. However attractive it looks as part of these structures, I recently had an interest in finding it where it originated so Sue and I took a ride to Green Pond to find the mother lode. Turning off Route 23 in Newfoundland onto (what else?) Green Pond Road, we could easily see the imposing ridge of Bearfort Mountain to our west. The ridge paralleled Green Pond Road, as we traveled south, so whenever we saw a side road to our right we turned in hopes of getting closer to the ridge that must have been the source of the conglomerate. We soon found ourselves in the Green Pond, a lake community that sits on the shore of… you guessed it: Green Pond.

Luckily, we found a small dirt parking lot that serves a trailhead. A friendly homeowner was seeing to her flower garden and was happy to let us know that the conglomerate could be found in the area. Unfortunately, we weren’t dressed for hiking so we passed on a trip along the trail but we could see a characteristic color to the ridge in that area. Even better, however was when we continued south on Green Pond Road and found a large outcropping of the conglomerate evident as a result of the cut that was made to construct the road, itself. We had found the origin of the rock formation that bears the name of one of New Jersey’s own communities. It was certainly worth the drive.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Palmer Square: Vintage Colonial charm, circa 1937

Walk around Princeton's atmospheric Palmer Square, and you'd be excused if you thought parts of it had been there since the American Revolution. Small shops with brick facades are interspersed with wood-faced neighbors, and the picturesque Nassau Inn stands in the center, seemingly having been there forever.

However, Palmer Square is much younger, a planned development built in the 1930s. Its construction brought the destruction of a local institution with a legitimate link to colonial times, as well the relocation of a thriving African-American community.

A portion of Palmer Square, Fall 2014.
Given how central Palmer Square is to the contemporary image of Princeton, and how convincingly old it looks, it's difficult to conceive the town before it was built. Edward Palmer, a Princeton alumnus and heir to the New Jersey Zinc fortune, envisioned a mixed-use development that would become the new focus within the town. In the late 1920s he began to quietly acquire property just a few blocks west of the University gates, between Nassau Street and Jackson Street. He hired architect Thomas Stapleton to design shops and office buildings that, though united, would appear to have been built over an extended period of time.

Typical for 20th century redevelopment projects, Palmer's vision meant displacement for some of the community's less prominent residents. In this case, it was members of the black community, many of whom worked in service positions around town and at the University. As the land for the project was cleared, residents were moved eight blocks north of their previous neighborhood, creating a new 'edge' of town. With them went several houses; new dwellings were built for those whose homes couldn't be salvaged. The project also erased two roads: Baker Street, which intersected Nassau, and Nassau Place, which had been a service road for coaches.

The original Nassau Inn (College Inn) on Nassau Street.
Photo from the Historic American Buildings Survey/
Library of Congress
The Nassau Inn was was to be the focal point of the development, but ironically the lovely Colonial-style building we see today took the name of a 1757 structure that was razed in the name of progress. Originally built of brick imported from Holland, Judge Thomas Leonard's home was known as the finest in Princeton for its day, and eventually became widely known as the place to stay as the town became an important stop on the stagecoach route.

A hotel since 1769, the original Nassau Inn had stood directly on Nassau Street, eventually absorbing the adjacent Mansion House built in 1836. At its start, the inn had been known as "The Sign of the College" or "College Inn," and had hosted commencement dinners for the original College of New Jersey until the Revolutionary War forced an end to the tradition. According to local lore, Paul Revere and Thomas Paine visited during wartime, as did several signers of the Declaration of Independence.

In later years, the building hosted the annual commencement ball, though Princeton students were ordinarily forbidden from visiting the tavern. According to notes from the Historic American Buildings Survey, New Jersey Legislature committees often held meetings at the inn, as well. It appears that by the time the building was brought down, it bore little resemblance to the hostelry Washington Irving had visited on an 1813 stop in Princeton.

Though the neighborhood -- and the Inn -- had received their death warrants in the late 1920s, the advent of the Great Depression put the project on hold until 1937. The WPA Guide to 1930s New Jersey notes that construction was to be completed by 1941, but in reality, pieces and portions of the project have evolved over the decades. More stores, an office building and luxury apartments have all been added in the past 20 years.

As for the old inn, only a few relics remain: a stone platform that now graces the Nassau Inn's Yankee Doodle Tap Room, and the old Nassau Inn sign salvaged by Princeton students in 1937.   

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 home 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 another map 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!