Today, Perth Amboy is known as a gritty industrial town whose most productive days are behind it. That reputation belies a storied past going back to the earliest days of settlement in New Jersey. Visit the community, and you’ll find it’s the site of the oldest public building still in use, the first casting of a vote by a black American after the ratification of the 15th Amendment, the first Episcopal parish in the state, and oh, yeah, the first capital of New Jersey.
Indeed, Perth Amboy became an important colonial city because of its prime location on Raritan Bay and the adjacent Arthur Kill that runs between New Jersey and Staten Island. In its heyday, this brought any number of shipping concerns and, eventually, substantial manufacturing to the city. Today, the waterfront is dominated by some nice houses up on the adjacent bluff, a small marina, and a very pleasant walkway running alongside the Arthur Kill. Given the time of year, it was pretty quiet when we visited, with just a few people fishing off a pier, but one could imagine that the area might hum with activity once the pleasure boats are back.
Back in Revolutionary times, Perth Amboy’s location at the mouth of the Raritan River made it the ideal spot for the state capital, and a prime target for occupation by the British. Looking at how closely Staten Island sits across the Kill, it’s not surprising that the Redcoats would see Perth Amboy as a steppingstone from the New York they captured to the colony they tried but failed so many times to capture.
Indeed, the two sides alternated possession of the town, and it was where loyalist Governor William Franklin (son of patriot/Renaissance man Ben) was arrested in June 1776 by the Americans, who took his home for their own use. Ol’ Ben also visited Perth Amboy with John Adams and Edward Rutledge just a few months later on their way to Staten Island to discuss an end to the war with Sir William Howe. Presented with the option of surrender, the patriots refused, but their actions allowed Washington and his troops additional time to retreat safely to New Jersey after the Battle of Long Island.
With this enlightening information in hand, and very few birds to check out on the bay, we chose to find out what City Hall had to teach us. But first, we made a very interesting detour…