Thursday, April 7, 2011

A lot of history in just a few steps

Perth Amboy fits a lot of history into a very small space, notably downtown at City Hall and the adjacent Surveyor General’s office. The sign in front of the two structures notes the significance of the town in New Jersey – and, in fact, US history.

Looking at the mansard roof and whitewashed brick exterior of city hall, you’d be hard pressed to place it at its original construction date of 1713, but it is, indeed, one of the, if not the oldest public buildings in continuous use in the United States. The current exterior was part of a renovation and enlargement project done in the 1870s, and the original town courthouse structure is encased within it. Notably, this was the site of the first occurrence of a black man voting legally in the United States, just a day after the enactment of the 15th Amendment of the Constitution. Thomas "Mundy" Peterson cast his ballot here on March 31, 1870 in a referendum on changing the town's charter, and he later became a member of the commission formed to make the revisions. He was also the first African American in Middlesex County to serve on a jury and was an active member of the Republican Party.

The Surveyor General’s office next door is just as interesting in its own way. A small, somewhat nondescript white brick building, it holds the records of the Proprietors of East Jersey. Who, you ask? Well, back in the late 1600s, much if not all of the land of the Jersey colonies (East and West) was granted to individuals who likely never set foot in the new world, remaining in England and Scotland. Known as proprietors, they hired local representation to ensure their land here was managed appropriately. Thus, the General Board of Proprietors of the Eastern Division of New Jersey was created in 1684 and eventually became what was arguably the oldest continuously operating corporation in the country. The Surveyor General’s Office was where they’d meet to discuss landholding matters and determine ownership of any land created in eastern New Jersey (by buildup of silt, etc.). Members were descendants of the original proprietors who held at least 1/96th of a share, and as you can guess, the whole shebang became a bit of an anachronism over time. When the board disbanded in 1998, its records went to the state archives, but before that, they were held in this tiny building. (Incidentally, there was a similar board for West Jersey, housed in Burlington.)

Across the street there’s an open space that might qualify as a town square if it weren’t a circle. In addition to a majestic George Washington statue donated by the town’s Scandinavian residents in 1896, there’s a reproduction of the Liberty Bell which was presented to the people of New Jersey by US Treasury Secretary John Snyder after touring the state in a savings bond drive in 1950. Interesting, isn’t it, that it ended up in Perth Amboy instead of Trenton?

Of all the statuary we saw for the day (oh, including the rather dashing Earl of Perth, for whom the town is named), I most liked the large, stylized bust of Nicolaus Copernicus. Presented by members of the city’s sizeable Polish community, its column reads: “He stopped the sun/Moved the earth.” Pretty nice epitaph, don’t you think? After reading that one, Ivan and I mused over what Mama Copernicus must have made of her childrens’ relative accomplishments. For my part, I wondered if she continually chided her other son for not stopping the sun like his brother. Ivan, on the other hand, opined that she probably said that moving the earth was nice, but not nearly as nice as the sturdy bookcase her other son made for her. Either way, she probably wasn't completely satisfied. It’s always something, right?

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