Friday, January 16, 2015

The Centerton Inn: dining and perhaps a bit of plunder

Forget about old man bars. I've got a soft spot for old inns and taverns -- the historic types where it doesn't take much to imagine the stagecoach stopping along the front porch, or the locals congregating to share news and gossip. We've been to a bunch, from the Merchants and Drovers and the Indian Queen, down to the Indian King and over to the Mill Street Tavern. All were (or had been, in the case of the Indian Queen) on busy main roads in areas that have become highly developed.

That's not to say that the lesser-populated roads don't have their inns, too. Drive through the more rural parts of the state and you may just find an aging hostelry at a major intersection, amid what constitutes the densest concentration of commercial establishments for a couple of miles. That was what I found as I traveled along Route 540 in Salem County. Built sometime in the early to mid 1700s, the Centerton Inn is a three-story Colonial style clapboard building with dormer windows interrupting the roof. Squint a little and you can very easily envision travelers dismounting their horses for refreshment and, perhaps, a night's stay.

In its day, the crossroads where Centerton Inn stands was an important one. Not only was it a significant stop on the coach route between Philadelphia and the then-vital port of Greenwich, it also connected Cumberland County to Great Egg Harbor. The Inn reportedly became not only a gathering and eating place, but a cargo storage area due to its strategic location.

According to some sources, the inn may have actually held munitions for the Continental Army, perhaps those sent by our French allies. Congressionally-approved privateers were doing a brisk business of capturing British supply ships and storing their plunder at Great Egg Harbor, so it's within reason that some of that merchandise could have had a temporary stay at the Centerton. That said, I haven't been able to nail down sources to confirm or deny. Others say that the Marquis de Lafayette frequented the tavern when he was in the area, an assertion that could be even harder to prove, unless, of course, he used his Diners Club card to settle the tab.

Unlike the Merchants and Drovers, Indian King and Indian Queen, the Centerton Inn has modernized somewhat and continues to serve meals to hungry travelers and locals alike. We didn't stop by to eat, as we were on our way to nearby Parvin State Park for some birding, but perhaps sometime in the future we'll have the chance to partake.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Rock around the Revolution: New Jersey in Chicago?

No matter where you go, you're bound to run into New Jersey. I just wasn't expecting it on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, embedded in the side of a Gothic building.

Admittedly, I found this one about 20 years ago, back when my New Jersey history maven cred was in its infancy. Yeah, I'll admit it: I was the one hanging around the Excellent Diner in Westfield, reminding people that the state was once home to four, count 'em FOUR pre-fab diner manufacturers. It was well before Ivan and I met, and while I did my share of exploring, it didn't yet involve birds.

Anyway, a friend and I made a weekend visit to Chicago for its annual Blues Festival and whiled away some free time enjoying the city's amazing downtown architecture. As we walked past the Chicago Tribune building, I noticed something very unusual: embedded within the uniform granite blocks of the walls are scores, maybe hundreds of irregularly-shaped stones, each labeled with a description and a place.

At first, I figured they might represent locations in Illinois, but as I sought more out, I noticed they came from many states, and even historically significant places in Europe, Asia and beyond. Tribune publisher Robert McCormick had started the tradition before the building was erected, asking the newspaper's correspondents to deliver rocks and bricks from historically significant places. The tradition continues today, with portions of the Berlin Wall and World Trade Center girders incorporated in the building's walls.

There would be no justice if there was no rock to represent New Jersey. Had the Trib assigned a correspondent to the state, and if so, had he (or she) taken the assignment seriously?

The answer came pretty quickly:

Yup: a stone from the Battle of Trenton. I searched farther and found one labeled ambiguously as "New Jersey Washington's Landing after crossing the Delaware River." Another was flatter and browner -- "Revolutionary Battlefield Princeton, New Jersey." Mixed among rocks from Prairie DuChien, Wisconsin, Great Wall of China, Hawaii's Pearl Harbor and Omaha Beach in Normandy, Princeton actually gets another shout-out from the Trib building, with a squarish rock from "New Jersey Princeton University."

The Trib's New Jersey correspondent was apparently a bit of an overachiever, delivering four rocks back to HQ. Granted, he took the easy way out, grabbing specimens from four places no more than 15 miles from his presumed Trenton bureau office, but their significance is unquestioned.

And, well, from what I can surmise, there are more rocks from New Jersey embedded at the Trib than from any other jurisdiction of its type within the United States, maybe the world. This list gives you an idea of what's there... it may not be complete, but it's still staggering to see how well we're represented, and you don't see a heck of a lot of other Revolutionary-era sites on the list, either.

If you were going to send a New Jersey stone to the Trib building, what would you choose?

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Keeping track: railroad vestiges lead to a storied past

It's not all that unusual to run across railroad tracks while wandering around New Jersey. With a few thousand miles of track laid over the past 185 years or so, any trip within the state is bound to have you hearing the "clunk-a-clunk-a" of tires over tracks, or traveling beneath a railroad overpass.

However, when you see tracks that look like this:

you stop and take a look. And when you run into them at two different locations over the course of a couple of weeks, you get curious. The first occurrence was in Hightstown, where the stones and rails were placed near North Main Street downtown. The second was within a 15 minute drive, at historic Dey Farm in Monroe Township. Connecting rails were pulled away years ago, leaving these two segments as utter curiosities. The stone is virtually the same as the sleepers we've seen on old Morris Canal planes, though with gaps in between rather than in abutting blocks, making us wonder when the now-common wooden railroad ties came into vogue. And where did this railroad go?

We'd stumbled on vestiges of the Camden and Amboy, the first railroad built in New Jersey, incorporated in 1830 and chartered on February 15, 1831. How old is it? It's so old that the first train that rode the tracks was pulled by horses.

The Monroe stretch is pretty short
and offers new homeowners
the frustrating reality that while they live
near the railroad, it'll get them nowhere.
The Camden and Amboy was the realization of the ambition of John Stevens, who we know from his earlier forays into steamboats, namely the establishment of the first regular steam ferry service between Hoboken and Manhattan. While he successfully laid a small bit of track on his own property to run a British-built engine, it was left to his sons Robert and Edwin to take the concept to a larger scale.

The first stretch of the railroad linked Bordentown through Jamesburg to South Amboy via horse-drawn cars. Rails were spiked down onto granite sleeper stones reportedly produced by inmates at New York's Sing Sing Prison. Only when shipments were late did Robert Stevens consider laying the rails on squared-off wooden crossbeams, creating a more reliable bed that prompted him to replace all of the granite with wood. Stevens was also responsible for the development of the "T" shaped track and railroad spikes we're accustomed to; used together, they provided a smoother ride overall.

As workers continued laying track, the Stevens brothers purchased their first locomotive, the John Bull, from a Newcastle, England manufacturer. In a situation that's familiar to anyone who's bought Ikea furniture, the engine arrived in several pieces and without instructions for assembly, leaving railroad mechanic Isaac Dripps to reason it out though he'd never seen a locomotive before.

It would be another two years before the engine would serve the line, but Robert Stevens cannily made a test run in November 1831 to give select New Jersey legislators and other dignitaries a chance to enjoy the new technology. This, perhaps, was an early taste of the outsize influence the company would have over government officials in its most powerful years; at one point years later, pundits would jokingly refer to New Jersey as the "State of Camden and Amboy."

In fact, the C&A secured a monopoly on transportation across the state's waist, merging with the Delaware and Raritan Canal Company by a 1831 act of the Legislature that created "the Joint Companies." Passengers would travel by rail, while the canal would handle freight shipments from Bordentown to New Brunswick. The new company agreed to pay the state a $30,000 annual franchise fee that effectively financed government operations. By 1834, the railroad finally reached the breadth of the state between its namesake cities, later buying out rivals to extend its chokehold.

The history of New Jersey's railroad industry is long, complex and loaded with intrigue that would confound J.R. Ewing (consider, for example, Hopewell's frog war). Ultimately, the C&A was bought out by the larger, more powerful Pennsylvania Railroad in its quest to control New Jersey's transportation system, but it had already made its mark as a true pioneer.

Have you seen other portions of the C&A?

Monday, January 5, 2015

Peregrine falcons: making a living in New Jersey

January is always a great time for birders, despite the prevailing cold weather in New Jersey. Those of us who keep lists of species we see during the year start from a clean slate, and a sighting of a common House Sparrow or Rock Pigeon on New Year's Day is just as exciting as finding the rarest of the rare at any other time.

Funny thing is, this year started with an unusually large number of birds not always commonly found. Sure, we'd probably see them at some point in the spring, or maybe even February if we were lucky, but our January 1 jaunt around Morris County and Wallkill National Wildlife Refuge yielded some beautiful early views. For example, we spotted individuals from three different owl species, already more than I'd seen all of last year. Two days later, I got my first-ever look at an Orange-crowned Warbler, an infrequent visitor to the state at this time of year.

This Peregrine Falcon regularly perches
on the Statue of Liberty's Crown
in New York Harbor and visits Ellis Island, too.
The ones that truly got me, however, were the Peregrine Falcons we spotted first at DeKorte Environmental Center in Lyndhurst, and then at Laurel Hill Park in Secaucus. It was the first time I could remember seeing Peregrines at two different locations on the same day.

Some folks may rave over Bald Eagles (and rightly so), but there's a special place in my heart for Peregrines. The world's fastest bird when it goes into a dive to snatch prey, this impressive falcon made its home on the cliffs of the Palisades before falling victim to hunters, egg collectors and the pesticide DDT. Once common, the species was virtually eliminated from the Eastern United States by the 1960s. As with the Bald Eagle and Osprey, biologists worked to reintroduce the species after DDT was banned, aiming to raise the population to eight to ten pairs statewide.

My own interest in Peregrines was piqued about 20 years ago, when a coworker mentioned he'd helped a team from the Department of Environmental Protection Division of Fish and Wildlife band some chicks at a nest in Kearny. An adult pair had chosen to raise their young high up on a wall of an electric generating station, and my friend had a video of the process where biologists fit the young with avian ID bracelets for future study. I was transfixed watching the little ones, both fuzzy-cute and fierce, as well as the mother, whose protests were silenced merely by draping an old towel over her head. The leg banding struck me as a ritual that demonstrates the careful balance between humans and the creatures we share the world with. They trust the banders to do no harm; banders respond with care and continued stewardship.

From there, I started noticing more and more references to Peregrines popping up. While some have returned to nest on the Palisades, others have found manmade cliffs -- skyscrapers and bridges -- equally as suitable for bringing up their young. Jersey City's 101 Hudson Street building has hosted a nestbox and nest cam for several years, allowing fans to follow the progress from egg laying to fledging young from a safe distance. Another acquaintance reported being startled by a rapidly diving bird picking off a pigeon not 10 feet away as he was eating his own lunch outside an office building in Newark.

Peregrines are still on New Jersey's Endangered Species List, but their numbers continue to grow. While we were gazing at the individual perched atop a railroad bridge crossing the Hackensack River near Laurel Hill, I wondered whether it was related to the one we'd just seen on a high-voltage tower a few miles away at DeKorte. Had they hatched in Jersey City, or maybe upriver in a box below the Route 3 bridge? Were they related to the Kearny Generating Station chicks in my friend's video? Or maybe they'd come all the way from the Palisades, their eggs laid in nests built where so many generations had started life for eons?

We could have found out, if we'd been able to read the birds' bands for their distinctive ID numbers, but it's just as well we didn't. It's the possibilities that make me truly happy for the Peregrines' viability in New Jersey. In a marshland that is, itself, in recovery, these amazing creatures are making their way.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Phew! It's been a year!

New Jersey’s 350th anniversary year is coming to a close, and I'm constantly amazed by how many more topics, events, people, places and birds pop up, just waiting for us to research and share with you. Just when we think we've found about as much as we can possibly find, we stumble upon another hidden spot, a reader sends an intriguing lead, or research on another topic leads to a completely different story.

Here are just a few (well, more than a few...) of our favorites from 2014:

Our favorite inventor, Thomas Edison, continues to inspire, even though his Harrison lightbulb factory is long gone and the Portland cement factory in Stewartsville has been adapted for other purposes. While his Menlo Park workshop was long ago shipped to Michigan, the re-interpreted museum on his lab site off Lincoln Highway tells the story of his many inventions.

Liberty and Prosperity, baby!
Speaking of inventors, we met several this year, including a seemingly unlikely Episcopal priest-chemist who derived the formula for flexible photographic film and the irascible Trentonian who arguably was the first to develop the steamboat.

Industrial New Jersey New Jersey’s industrial history keeps popping up in the most interesting places, including a former nail factory grounds turned park in Bridgeton, a World War munitions plant turned Atlantic County park, and the one-time piano and organ capital of the world, disguised as a lovely Warren County town.

Our perpetual search for avian visitors brought us to the first New Jersey sighting of the Neotropic Cormorant and the third-ever sighting of the Whiskered Tern. And, of course, there’s the annual wild goose chase to find rarities among the herds of Canada Geese wandering open farm fields and corporate lawns.

A search for the rarely seen King Rail led me to discover other treasures in Bayonne, including a world-class links golf course and the distinctly agricultural heritage of what was once the world’s largest petroleum refineries. Earlier in the year nature had brought me to vestiges of the city’s contribution to the American war effort of the first half of the 20th century, the ELCO electric boat works that had built the iconic World War II PT boat.

During one of my Hidden New Jersey library appearances earlier this year, an attendee asked why I wasn’t talking more about roads themselves, rather than things we find on the side of the road. Good question, as we keep finding out interesting things about the thoroughfares we travel. Some take the path of the Revolutionary-era Washington-Rochambeau Route, while others are the vestiges of a highway envisioned to honor our 16th president. Then there's the pretty much inaccessible monument that honors a man who dedicated his career to the fight for good roads (boy, do we need him now!).

And while we’re talking about thoroughfares, I'm still absolutely gobsmacked about what we’ve learned about the Morris Canal. Between our engineering lesson at the Jim and Mary Lee Museum and our stop to visit a lightly-restored excavated inclined plane at Montville, I’ve got a newfound respect for this onetime express route through the hilliest part of the state. Wandering the now-quiet landlocked port towns of Port Colden and Port Murray opened my eyes to the canal’s impact on local commerce.

We found religion, too! Not really, but travels in the southern part of the state gave us an up-close look at how communities of faith have shared fellowship in more rural areas. A tiny shul in Cumberland County stands as a reminder of the vibrant Jewish agricultural community that once farmed the surrounding fields. The Methodist camp at Malaga is as observant today as it was at its founding, with cottage owners held to strict religious requirements.

And, as always, we found plenty to recommend New Jersey as the Crossroads of the American Revolution. Researching one of our favorite lighthouses led to a surprising story of Sandy Hook as a loyalist stronghold during the war, while travels in Passaic County led to the rarely-told stories of patriot mutinies during the darkest days of the war.

On the more positive side, we discovered the stories of some pretty kick-butt Revolutionary Neighbors, including a sculptress-turned-spy, a healer who became the defacto doctor for her community during the war, and a Newark farmer who took matters into her own hands when Hessians attempted to take over her homestead.

What’s in store for 2015? We’re still mulling over invading Delaware, but even if we don’t, we’re convinced it’ll be a busy year. Between chasing down rare birds, taking on speaking engagements and finding even more obscure New Jerseyana, we’re looking forward to learning right along with you!

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Washington's Crossing: more than meets the eye

It's not exactly hidden New Jersey, but the annual reenactment of General George Washington crossing the Delaware River was a bit of an eye opener for me when Ivan and I attended this Christmas.

This year's reenactment looked nothing like this.
Washington Crossing the Delaware, Emanuel Leutze.
Metropolitan Museum of Art collection,
gift of John Stewart Kennedy, 1897
Every American school child learns the story of the crossing and events that led to it, or should. Having lost the Battle of Long Island and Forts Washington and Lee in the summer and fall of 1776, Continental troops retreated across New Jersey to the relative safety of Pennsylvania. During these bleak days, morale plummeted and troops deserted in droves, having lost confidence in Washington's leadership. Philosopher and pamphleteer Thomas Paine, traveling with the retreating forces, was inspired to write some of his most famous words in The American Crisis: "These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman."

Washington knew that he would have to make a daring move to save the young nation that had been born with the Declaration of Independence less than six months earlier. While a diversionary attack would be waged farther downstream, he would lead 2400 men across the Delaware about eight miles upstream of Trenton on Christmas night. Once ashore they'd split up and march southward to surprise and engage Hessian troops at their winter quarters.

Today we know that Washington's plan succeeded. Wins in three battles over the following ten days gave the Continental Army a much needed shot in the arm and the encouragement to continue fighting for the cause of freedom. Artistic representations of the Delaware crossing are part of our shared vernacular and are used everywhere from New Jersey's contribution to the state quarter series to The Simpsons.

But... you don't really get it until you see it. At least that's what I came to realize as Ivan and I stood on the banks of the Delaware this Christmas, waiting for the reenactment of the crossing.

When we arrived at Washington Crossing State Park that morning, skies were cloudy and the temperature around 50 degrees. Winds were blustery, though, and while there were no ice floes as there were on the original night, the river current was running briskly. We walked across the narrow bridge that spans the river to get to the Pennsylvania side, where the small town of Washington's Crossing was buzzing with a growing number of reenactors and spectators. Altogether, the group may have totalled about half the number Washington had with him that night. A few Durham boats had already been brought down the riverbank and positioned in the river, only a small representation of the number that the general had commandeered for the crossing.

The relatively warm weather and all of the hubbub made it hard to envision what Washington and his troops faced on that stormy, bitterly cold night in 1776. Even when we returned to the New Jersey side to await their arrival, the event was taking on a carnival atmosphere. Children chased each other between chatting adults, the local Lions Club was selling hot chocolate and a historian was describing the events that led up to the fateful night.

As we often do, Ivan and I had brought our binoculars for some casual birding as we waited for the event. They came in handy as we gauged how close the crossing was to starting; when the reenactors walked down toward the boats, we probably had a much better view than most of the people on the Pennsylvania side, but it still seemed to be taking a long time.

"Eagle," Ivan said, looking over the Washington's Crossing Bridge. Indeed, a nearly-adult Bald Eagle was soaring overhead, unnoticed by the people around us but entirely fitting for the event. It circled once or twice and then winged away, perhaps looking for someplace a bit less crowded to set down in a tree.

And finally, a small party of about six or eight reenactors made their way into the smallest of the boats -- a bateau -- to make the initial foray across the river. We're accustomed to thinking of Washington and his men rowing directly across the Delaware in more or less of a straight line, pushing blocks of ice aside along the way. Bergs weren't a factor for the 21st century patriots, but the current seemed to be. First struggling to row a few hundred feet upstream, the crew valiantly started making their way across in somewhat of a V pattern. For a bit, they seemed to be losing to the force of the river, leaving me to wonder if they might actually end up traveling to Trenton by boat rather than possibly reenacting the march.

We're so accustomed to seeing history represented in movies with action-heightening editing and dramatic music that an actual reenactment can seem tedious by comparison. Watching the struggles of the batteau men, however, seemed so much more realistic and perhaps truer to history, even if the weather, time of day and river conditions weren't consistent with the actual event. Were they going to be able to make it to New Jersey safely? We didn't know. Would all of the boats make the trip, or would the organizers decide conditions weren't right to finish the reenactment? Only time would tell.

The uncertainty, more than anything else, made an impression on me. Washington truly didn't know if his plan would work. He wasn't sure that all of his troops and their horses and equipment would make it across the Delaware, and in fact, it took hours longer than he expected. Further downstream, the diversionary attack was aborted without his knowledge. If the crossing we were watching had been cancelled, it would have been disappointing but not a tragedy. Had Washington's not worked, the future of the United States would have been in question.

Ultimately, in 2014 all of the boats made their way to New Jersey, their crews welcomed by loud applause and cheers from a happy crowd. Reenactors got into formation and marched across the bridge back to Pennsylvania, many of them undoubtedly looking forward to a big Christmas meal.

For the rest of us, they'd provided a memorable insight into the realities of one of the pivotal events in our forefathers' fight for independence. It's one I'll not soon forget.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

American Freemasonry, Colonial land battles and corruption: Made in Trenton?

Sometimes when we find a historic spot, it sets us down a path of research that lands me in a far more different spot that I originally expected. Such was the case with a modest fieldstone building at the corner of Barrack and West Lafayette Streets in Trenton.

Amid all of the government buildings scattered around our state capitol, this historic Colonial-era property tells a unique story. Now hosting the Trenton Visitor Center, the small two-story building began its existence as one of the oldest Masonic temples in the United States. While the local lodge it hosted was founded in 1787, its existence in Trenton arguably gives it standing as the spiritual birthplace for American Freemasonry nearly 300 years ago. And as I was checking that out, I found a personality who would probably garner about the same reaction to his actions today as he did in Colonial days.

Freemasonry itself has gained a reputation for mystery and intrigue over the years, but at its core, it's a fraternal organization with roots in medieval English trade guilds. Many of us are familiar with the Founding Fathers and signers of the Declaration of Independence who had masonic ties, from Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock and George Washington to New Jersey's own Richard Stockton, but the organization has much earlier ties to the colonies.

While some sources say that Pennsylvania hosted some of the first Masonic lodges in the New World, they appear not to have had the official backing of the governing body. According to the WPA Guide to 1930's New Jersey, several masons in the colonies of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania petitioned the Grand Lodge of England, for a provincial grand master, or leader, to preside over Masonic activities in the region. Trenton resident Colonel Daniel Coxe was selected for the post in 1730, thus becoming the first Mason to hold the post in the New World.

Coxe himself was here essentially as a real estate manager. His father, Dr. Daniel Coxe, had purchased substantial holdings in West Jersey in the late 1600s, becoming governor as a result despite never visiting the colony. The younger Coxe arrived in West Jersey in 1702 at the age of 28, living first in Burlington before moving to Trenton as the city's political and social standing grew within the colony. Frequently traveling back to England to manage his father's land holdings, he'd become a member of the Mason's lodge at the Devil's Tavern at Temple Bar in London.

Regardless of his social standing in England or Freemasonry, Col. Coxe became a less than popular guy in New Jersey, largely to his zealous defense of a tract of property his father had owned in the Hopewell area. It seems that when the elder Coxe sold his New Jersey properties to the West Jersey Society, there may have been some irregularities with the paperwork, meaning that the folks who later bought the property from the Society didn't actually own it. As far as they were concerned, the younger Coxe had no claim on the land, though the courts eventually ruled in his favor. To stay on the land they thought was theirs, the disputed owners had to either purchase or lease it from Coxe, or leave on their own. Otherwise, they'd be evicted.

Some of the owners paid up, realizing they had little leverage against Coxe's political and social standing. Others hired a lawyer in a futile effort to plead their case in the courts. Prospects there were dim: Coxe had been appointed as a justice on the New Jersey Supreme Court, leaving little doubt how any further appeals would be received. Some angry former property owners, frustrated by what they saw as an impossible situation, burned Coxe in effigy.

Several left the colony altogether, migrating south to form what became known as the Jersey Settlement in Rowan County, North Carolina. It might have been the first case in which New Jerseyans were so frustrated by official corruption that they voted with their feet.

Was the paperwork truly muddled during the transactions between Dr. Coxe and the West Jersey Society, or had the entire incident been a Machiavellian attempt to maintain control of valuable real estate? Right now your guess is as good as mine, but initial research suggests this disputed land grab may have been one of the early grievances in the growing appetite for independence from British rule. More to come!