Thursday, February 28, 2013

Paging through New Jersey at the Old Book Shop in Morristown

During my earliest days at Rutgers, I was thrilled to find a used book store on Easton Avenue in New Brunswick, just a block from campus.

"Ah," I thought as I walked through the door of Old York Books. "This is what college is all about: wandering through tomes and tomes of scholarship and prose." (I was a young and naive English major. Sue me.) I left that day with a set of F. Scott Fitzgerald novels and an intention to return. Sadly, the place closed up shop on Easton and moved to a sketchier part of town, eventually disappearing to points unknown.

Thus, when a friend mentioned the Old Book Shop to Ivan and me a few months ago, my ears perked up. My reading preferences may have changed from fiction to history and American studies, but the lure of the used book store still appealed. Our friend mentioned that the shop specializes in New Jersey history, and he'd found something obscure there, which, of course, drew me to the possibility of finding something similar. We didn't make any solid plans to go, preferring instead to put it into the mental file cabinet for the next time we found ourselves in Morristown.

Conveniently, one of our readers brought the place to mind a few weeks ago by sending me an e-mail about Pinelands-themed books that could add some perspective to our travels. I can always head to the library or scan the internet for data to inform our posts, but there's nothing quite like having source materials right at my fingertips. I've already got my favorites, but there's always room for more. Ivan was more than game for a used book foray; he's made some great finds in the past, including a Civil War recollection by Abner Doubleday that had a contemporaneous news clipping of his obituary pasted inside the back cover. We agreed that we'd make a stop at the shop after our Saturday birding.

Had the Old Book Shop
been in business in 1780,
Washington, Hamilton and Lafayette
definitely would have checked it out
after Benedict Arnold's court
You'd figure that a place called the Old Book Shop, doing business in an old town, would be somewhere within the shopping district, right? In Morristown, that would most likely be near the Green, which would also get us in the right place to make a side trip to the statues of Washington, Hamilton and Lafayette. I was wrong. Fortunately Ivan knew where we needed to go. Once off 287, he maneuvered down a few streets and we ended up on the outskirts of town, headed toward the county jail.

And then, there we were. Blink, and you could have missed it. The shop is in a nondescript brick building along with a bail bonds office, not the usual neighbor for a book store. On an atmospheric level, it's a bit less interesting than the previous location on Spring Street, which was reportedly the site of Benedict Arnold's first court martial.

We walked in to see a very utilitarian environment: rows of books on several aisles of plain shelving, subject matter marked with handwritten labels. The owner was sitting at a table near the door and greeted us as we walked in, but to be honest, I didn't really stop to say hi. Ivan may have, but I went straight for the stacks.

Out of the corner of my eye I noticed that the far wall appeared to be dominated by paperback fiction, but I didn't give it a second look. I was looking for U.S. history and, of course, New Jersey reference books.

First, the history: I was looking specifically for anything that might have been written by or about the staff that worked at Ellis Island during the first half of the 20th century. It's admittedly a niche interest, so I wasn't surprised not to find something, but they did have an impressive selection of presidential biographies and several shelf feet of books on each of the major wars. The range was notable, too, ranging from relatively recently published to over 100 years old.

New Jersey subject matter was easy to find, sitting in a couple of bookcases near the store's front counter. Besides a general state section, books were divided by county, so you could find, for example, the self-published, hardbound history of a particular church in Salem County. That stuff was a little esoteric for my tastes, but I could see where it would be a boon to folks doing very specific research. A typewritten transcript of the diary of Presbyterian missionary John Brainerd might have been helpful when I was researching the story of Indian Mills last December.

Tempted though I was, I showed some degree of restraint and walked out with just four books: a two-volume encomium of Thomas Edison by one of his muckers, Francis Jehl; and two of the classic New Jersey folklore books written by Henry Charlton Beck in the 1930s. Ivan had about the same luck, with books by noted birders Pete Dunne and Sandy Komito. I've gone back since and picked up a second copy of The WPA Guide to 1930s New Jersey to keep in the car.

The Old Book Shop also carries vintage pamphlets, maps, postcards, magazines and advertising posters, as well as legitimately antique leather-bound books. Even if you're not in the market, they're really interesting to check out.

Most remarkable of all, though, are the owners, Chris Wolf and Virginia Faulkner (and you have to love a bookstore owned by someone named Faulkner!). When I returned to check the New Jersey shelves again, we got into a conversation about the WPA Guide which evolved to a discussion of other potential references on the state. It quickly became clear that I could walk in, ask for, say, literature on Andress Floyd and the Self Master Colony, and they would not only know what I was talking about, but could tell me when they'd seen something last. And there's also a good chance this pair would trounce Ivan and me in a game of New Jersey Trivial Pursuit.

As I left, they reminded me that they get new books in every day, so a return trip was in order. That was much was clear, but I'll need to remember my self control, or I'll walk out with half their inventory and a depleted bank account.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Cat Swamp and silk: big crime in Byram reveals a mystery

If I were to teach kids anything about history, it's that we should never make assumptions. Take historic markers, for example. Admittedly, they're often pretty dry, and usually they're really predictable. But then there are those like the Hunterdon County sign for the birthplace of Liver Eating Johnson, which are the catnip that keep you checking in the hopes of finding something unexpected.

Case in point: the marker for the Cat Swamp Hijacking and Murder. Blink and you'll miss the sign as you travel south on Route 206 in Byram. It's on the shoulder of the highway, next to a narrow road that leads into the woods. Ivan and I had driven past it a bunch of times without stopping, but this time, I kept an eye out for it when I was traveling north, just so I could slow down and pull over to read it on my return trip. I'm glad I did, too, because it raised a new question that has nothing to do with the crime itself.

Before I get ahead of myself, here's the sign:

A couple of things here: first off, the name Cat Swamp is pretty atmospheric and cool, especially when you consider how hydrophobic cats usually are. Second, it's not often you see a sign announcing a crime. I'd say that given the remoteness of the area and the size of the take, this was probably huge news in Sussex County in 1921.

The sign itself is pretty self-explanatory, but a little extra digging revealed that six masked hijackers came upon the silk truck so quickly that the drivers didn't have a chance to pull out the guns they carried. Apparently silk transport was a dangerous business. While the drivers were merely marched into the woods, tied up, robbed of their money and the truck, unfortunate motorcyclist Albert Koster was killed for simply riding by the scene. He might have been mistaken for a police officer since it seems that at the time, the majority of people who rode motorcycles were law enforcement. However, the state police hadn't yet been organized or trained at the time of the incident. Either way, the hijackers took Koster as a threat. After shooting him, the criminals threw him into the swamp face down, to ensure he would die before being found.

The sign also somewhat minimizes the police work done to bring the killer hijackers to justice. Not only were they captured, but Franklin Police Chief Herbert Irons engaged in a dramatic gunfight with one of them before the criminal's capture. And besides the two who were executed for murder, the four other hijackers were sentenced to life imprisonment, later commuted to twenty to thirty years of hard labor.

All in all, the story would make a good movie plot, but I was left wondering about the origin of the hijacked vehicle and its owner, Sussex Print Silk. Why was it so far from Paterson, the much better known Silk City?

It seems that Sussex Print Silk had its roots in Paterson, having been started by English immigrant Thomas Bentley. He and his parents settled in the city on their arrival to the United States, and by the time young Bentley was 25, he'd gotten sufficient training to go into business for himself. His eponymously named company grew over the years and changed names as he took on different partners.

For reasons that aren't clear, Bentley moved the company to the newly built Sterling Silk Mill in Newton in 1895. His manufacturing had previously been housed in a Paterson mill destroyed by fire in 1891, but the loss still doesn't explain why he'd rebuild a sizable distance away from a large city and skilled workforce. The Sussex County seat was already home to manufacturers of shoes, forks and boxes, but unlike Paterson, there was no reliable source of hydropower for cheap energy. Instead, coal was brought in by railroad to power steam engines.

Perhaps Bentley moved his operations to avoid the perpetual labor unrest in Paterson, but he brought several of his skilled employees up to Newton to train workers at the newly built mill. And as it turned out, the 45 miles between Paterson and Newton weren't enough to render Bentley immune from labor action: weavers at the Sterling Mill went on strike for close to a month in early 1900.

Bentley himself moved to a newly-built mansion at 93 Main Street in Newton in 1899 and was actively involved in the community. By 1923, however, he was living in New York to be closer to business interests, and at retirement he moved back to Paterson, living there until his death in 1932.

As for the silk mill, it continued under various owners until about 1950, with periodic work stoppages caused by labor unrest. The building itself was demolished in 1993. The only overt sign of Bentley still in Newton appears to be his mansion, which has been converted to offices after having served as an Elks Lodge.

So... we're left with yet another mystery: what made Newton so attractive to Bentley that he moved his silk business there? Or perhaps the question is what made Paterson so unattractive to him? The answer could be somewhere in another Hidden New Jersey adventure... or perhaps you might know?

Friday, February 22, 2013

Elizabeth White: berry good for the Pinelands

Blueberries and cranberries may be the perfect foods for New Jersey explorers. Known for their deep colors and vibrant flavors, both berries are lauded as containing several chemical compounds that have been credited with blocking cancer and extending life. Factor in that they taste great and are among the state's largest cash crops, and, well, you'd be crazy not to like them.

You might recall we visited the historic Whitesbog Village cranberry farm a few weeks ago in the futile search for tundra swans. That we were going to end up in the cranberry bogs was a foregone conclusion. What we didn't realize was that we were going to the birthplace of the cultivated blueberry, developed by Elizabeth White.

When Elizabeth was born in 1871, the White family was already prominent in Pinelands farming. Her grandfather, Barclay White, had been the first in New Jersey to plant cranberry bushes for commercial harvest, where others had been harvesting from wild plants. Young Elizabeth often accompanied her father on his trips to the family farm, starting a lifelong devotion to agriculture. It's supposed that blueberries were her favorites and that she often searched out wild bushes of them at the edges of the cranberry bogs.

Though she studied at Drexel University during the winters, she spent the harvests on the farm, supervising the cranberry pickers who came to know her as "Miss Lizzie." She inherited the 3000 acre plantation when her father died, and her self-propelled education in horticulture drove her to keep abreast of developments in various crops. When she read that U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist Frederick Coville was researching blueberry cultivation, she invited him to come to Whitesbog to further his work. She and her father had often discussed the commercial possibilities of blueberries, but they knew that to find a market, they'd have to find a way to grow berries that were uniform in all qualities.

Elizabeth White's instructions
to blueberry plant finders.
Drawing on the relationships she'd built with her neighbors over the years, Elizabeth asked Pinelands residents where she could find the best wild blueberries -- or huckleberries -- in the region. Specifically, she asked about flavor, texture, size, resistance to disease and cold, and how quickly each variety ripened, providing very specific instructions for harvesting plant specimens. She and Coville then propagated and cross fertilized the various specimens to develop the optimal highbush blueberry, releasing their first harvest to market in 1916.

By 1986, New Jersey ranked second in the country for annual blueberry production, but even more importantly, many of the berries grown throughout the U.S. and Canada are products of plants whose roots, so to speak, began in Whitesbog. Elizabeth was honored by the New Jersey Department of Agriculture for her achievement, becoming the first woman to be presented a citation by the department.

Elizabeth's horticultural and agricultural achievements are widely known in the industry, but she's not as well recognized for her advocacy of migrant workers and her Pinelands neighbors. When the National Child Labor Committee published a highly critical pamphlet in 1916 about the working conditions in on cranberry farms, she swung into action to refute the organization's claims. Her close relationships with many of the families who worked at Whitesbog gave her a compelling point of view, which she communicated widely at speaking engagements and through letters to newspapers across the country. After a four year campaign, the NCLC retracted its claims and acknowledged Elizabeth's role in setting the record straight.

Interestingly, Miss Lizzie is also linked with another, more controversial Elizabeth: researcher Elizabeth Kite of the Vineland Training School. You might be familiar with Kite's work on behalf of Dr. Henry Goddard, whose studies of families in the Pinelands erroneously attributed intelligence to heredity. (While Goddard later refuted his own work, it was appropriated by proponents of eugenics to rationalize their own dangerous beliefs.) Kite's own study was perceived to infer that the residents of the Pinelands were inbred and thus unintelligent, lending to the then-commonly held belief about this little-understood region of the state. Miss Lizzie again used her prodigious communications skills to defend Kite's work and advocate for the creation of a training school for the region's people. “I am a ‘piney’ myself," she said. "That I am not generally so classed is simply because of the degree of success my forebears have achieved in their struggle for existence in the New Jersey pines.”

Miss Lizzie died in 1954, having extended her work to the propagation of holly and other Pinelands plants as the founder of Holly Haven, Inc. Whitesbog, as we mentioned after our visit, is now being preserved and interpreted by the Whitesbog Preservation Trust, and Suningive, her home, is occasionally open for tours. Given her love of the Pinelands and her family farm, I wouldn't be surprised if her spirit dwells there still.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The surprise on the hill: Mt. Tabor's Camp Meeting past

Road tripping can take various forms, depending on what you want to find and what kind of hassles you hope to avoid. On a recent trip, we decided to avoid major highways as much as possible, preferring to take our chances on the one- and two-lane roads in Morris County. We figured that what we'd lose in speed, we'd gain in sightings.

The temperature, however, wasn't helping. A several days-long cold snap had frozen most of the lakes and waterways we passed, leaving them bereft of ducks. This obviously wasn't going to be a big birding day.

After a bit, we found ourselves on State Route 53, driving alongside a big hill in Parsippany. We were about to pass without stopping, until Ivan noticed a red county historical marker and an archway that spelled out "Mount Tabor" over an entrance road. Okay, this needs to be checked out. We found the first available road up the hill, passing a Methodist church and a host of tiny brightly-colored Victorian-style cottages. While the streets were too narrow to accommodate parking, we found a more open, town square-type area where there was space next to what appeared to be a public structure, also impeccably painted.

How did I not know about this place, which was clearly a well-tended blast from the past?

The street names gave me a clue of what we'd stumbled upon: Asbury, Pitman, Wesley. Just when I thought I had a decent handle on the Methodist Camp Meeting communities around the state, here's another one. The best known, of course, is Ocean Grove, but we'd already found evidence of gatherings at National Park and Pitman Grove on previous jaunts. Starting in the 1860s, these camps were established in then-idyllic areas to provide worshippers with a peaceful, pleasant setting in which to get closer to their maker during a week or two each summer.

Mount Tabor was founded in 1869, about the same time as Ocean Grove, and three octagonal buildings were erected as worship space around the centrally-located Trinity Park. Nearby Tabor Lake and wooded glens offered places to stroll and enjoy nature with friends and family, far from the cities where most of the attendees lived.

As Ocean Grove summer residents still do, Mount Tabor attendees originally erected tents on small lots rented from the local Camp Meeting Association. Over time, though, the more moneyed members of the summer community started building cottages on the 16 by 32 foot lots, ensuring that their time in the countryside was as comfortable as possible. One of the CMA trustees later built a hotel to accommodate those who lacked cottages but still didn't want to live in tents. Eventually, over 200 structures were built for summer residents.

Like other camp meetings over the years, Mount Tabor's grew dramatically and eventually diminished to a smaller community of permanent residents. Cottage owners entered into 99-year and then perpetual leases for the land beneath their homes, with the current rent ranging from two to four dollars a year depending on the size of the lot. During the Great Depression, more people began to winterize their houses for year-round use, as many chose to leave their year-round dwellings for their smaller, more economical Tabor cottages. Streets were paved in the 1940s, and a new Methodist church was built with the help of members and non-members alike. Notably, the congregants decided to place their new house of worship away from the center of the community as a gesture to welcome worshippers from outside Tabor.

Today, that church is the only official representation of Methodism on Mount Tabor, as the community is largely secular and now part of surrounding Parsippany-Troy Hills. The Camp Meeting Association still exists as a homeowners association, with offices in the building that also houses the fire department and post office. That said, residents are as close-knit as ever, celebrating their heritage with the traditional Children's Day and annual house tours in addition to other activities. The local historical society is working to have Mount Tabor listed on the National and State Registers of Historic Places, further raising its stature among those districts worthy of note and preservation.

As you walk around Mount Tabor, you can't help but think that this is the kind of community that developers strive for and fail to create when they build developments on old farmland or clear-cut woods. There's a sense of closeness and belonging that has to be nurtured over time, based on a mutual desire for something good. You can't just manufacture that from whole cloth.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Entrepreneurial pluck: Dr. Rose Faughnan and Passaic Private Hospital

Long-time readers might remember our article on Dr. Rose Faughnan, the Ellis Island physician who was, herself, a classic example of the American immigrant success story. The daughter of Irish immigrants who came to the United States during the Potato Famine, she wasn't the only child in her family to achieve professional success. Among her siblings were a doctor, a lawyer and a teacher, demonstrating how quickly a family could rise to high achievement here.

A few weeks after we published the story, a Faughnan family member contacted me to share additional information on her remarkable aunt, whom the family calls Dr. Rose. It turns out that after leaving Ellis Island, she took a somewhat entrepreneurial approach to practicing medicine.

Courtesy Rose F. Stuart
It wasn't easy for women doctors to find jobs in the early 20th century, and many found civil service work in institutions like the Public Health Service or city or state governments. Even there they might find bias against them, both institutional and from colleagues. At the time, women were not eligible to take the exam to earn a commission from the PHS, so they were effectively restricted from hospital duty. Instead, they would be relegated to doing the initial exams on immigrants, determining which ones needed further examination before being allowed to enter the country. These ‘six second exams’ were necessary and important but less desirable as a work assignment, given the rigor of seeing as many as a few thousand people a day for a cursory look.

As I found from later research, Dr. Rose had been deemed "feministic" by one of her Ellis Island supervisors, likely because she wanted more challenging work. She resigned from the PHS in 1922 and continued her studies at the New York Lying-In Hospital, now the obstetrics and gynecology department of Weill Cornell Medical Center.

Like many strong-minded people before and since, Dr. Rose apparently decided to create her own career path, rather than relying on another employer. After leaving the Lying-In, she started a private hospital in Harrison but was soon persuaded by several patients to move her practice to Passaic. The community’s needs were acute: while the population was growing, only two general hospitals were available to serve residents there.

Dr. Rose bought a large house on High Street in Passaic and renovated it for use as a 12-bed hospital. Originally taking the overflow from Passaic General and St. Mary’s Hospitals, the facility was open to all physicians, with nurses on duty 24 hours a day. Eventually, as Passaic Beth Israel opened and the other hospitals expanded, Passaic Private focused more on maternity and chronic cases. A 1940 advertisement in the Passaic Medical Society Journal described the facility as “Ideal facilities for the care of invalids, chronic and convalescent cases, medical or surgical. Home cooking. Private, semi-private and ward cases. No contagious or tubercular cases accepted. Under State License.”

I haven’t been able to trace the fate of Passaic Private past that 1940 advertisement, though the Passaic city historian confirmed that the building itself was still there as recently as ten years ago. Dr. Rose died in 1947, with no mention of the hospital in her obituary in the Journal of the American Medical Association. I went to check out the property and found an empty, grassy lot. The only evidence of the building’s past existence is a stub of walkway that might have led to the front door.

It seems that the legacy of Dr. Rose’s work in Passaic is invisible to those who don’t know her story, but it’s no doubt evident in the lives she improved through her care, and the descendants of those she treated.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Quoth the Raven: Secaucus' Laurel Hill?

If you want to find a raven in Northern New Jersey, Laurel Hill is the place to go. I wasn't aware of this until Ivan suggested we head over to try our luck after our successful white pelican venture a few weeks ago. We hadn't yet seen one of these large corvids this year, and while they're not as rare here as they once were, it's not as if they're hanging out with the sparrows in your average city park.

You might know Laurel Hill by another name: Snake Hill. It's that big craggy rock that juts out of the Meadowlands adjacent to the western spur of the New Jersey Turnpike, and it looks imposing enough to be home to the somewhat sinister-looking raven. Formed from a volcanic eruption hundreds of thousands of years ago, it now bears the scars of human habitation and abuse. From 1855 until 1962, it was the site of Hudson County's jail, almshouse and institutions for the physically and mentally ill, evidenced now only by a crumbling brick smokestack. Quarrying also took place at the site, from the late 1800s until the mid-20th century, with an asphalt factory operating there for about 20 years. Interestingly, the county had reportedly contracted with a company to level the hill altogether, erasing one of the region's most intriguing landmarks. As it is, it's estimated that the hill we know today is only about 20 percent of the size it was before human disturbance.

Turnpike travelers will also recognize Laurel Hill as Fraternity Rock, for the decades-long tradition of pledges spray-painting their Greek organization's letters on the sheer stone walls. I always wondered how the guys got up there to make their marks. No way could they have pulled their cars over on the shoulder of the Turnpike and climbed over the side barrier; the chances of getting nailed by State Troopers are just too good.

That brings up the logical question about the ravens: how could we get a good view without pulling over on the western spur? Fortunately we've got an advantage that decades of frat boys didn't: Laurel Hill Park. While quarrying regrettably obliterated a significant amount of the hill over the years, it left behind a level area along the Hackensack River, perfect for a playground in the Meadowlands. Ball fields and a well-equipped playground have been laid out in the shadow of the rock, and there's also a dock and canoe livery for the Hackensack Riverkeeper Paddling Center. Protective fences circle much of the hill itself, given the somewhat unstable nature of the remaining rock, but the shrubs and small trees growing on it are still well visible from a safe distance.

The Laurel Hill ravens -- nest at left, bird at right. (Thanks
to Lisa Ann Malandrino for the photo!) 
Ravens like to nest in the cavities of craggy cliffs, and it seems that they've gotten so accustomed to Laurel Hill that some have made it their year-round home. You can imagine that even when the rock was bustling with the activity of the county institutions, these somewhat spooky corvids would prefer living there.

We visited on a distinctly sunny, non-spooky day, but there's always something about looking at that rock that brings a little chill to my spine. I always seem to show up when no-one else is there, and even with Ivan along, the place felt oddly isolated, even though we could hear the rush of Turnpike traffic in the near distance, just on the other side of the hill. The mood was perfect for finding the bird that Poe used to such mysterious effect.

At first, it appeared that we were going to strike out, as the only life on the rock seemed to be a small mixed flock of sparrows and juncos picking through some sparse grass. Then I looked a little farther up, to the branches of a bare, spindly tree. Sitting on one of the branches were two large, dark birds that were unmistakably corvids. The question was whether they were both ravens, or a raven and a crow. Ravens are larger, with shaggier neck feathers and more substantial beaks than crows, so the question was whether the smaller of our pair was perhaps a juvenile.

Fortunately, they both generously accommodated us with brief flights to display their unmistakable fan-shaped tails, and we were confident that we'd found two ravens. Given that it was the day before the Super Bowl, I figured it was a good omen for Rutgers alum and Baltimore running back Ray Rice.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Edison and the electric railroad

Today marks the 166th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Edison, the Wizard of Menlo Park and the most interesting of Jersey guys. Bring a kid to the Thomas Edison State Park off Route 27 and ask him or her to name a few inventions developed on the site, and I'll bet you that "light bulb" will be the first answer. Ask the kid about the trains, and I'll bet that all you'll get is a quizzical stare.

Most people don't realize this, but Edison was one of many innovators whose work and patents influenced the electric railways we know today. In fact, he built Menlo Park's first electric train system back in 1880, long before the Pennsylvania Railroad erected the catenary wires that power the trains that now stop at the nearby Metropark Station.

Edison's connection with railroads stretches back to his childhood, when he sold sundries on the Grand Trunk lines in his native Michigan. His interest in using electricity as a power source for trains, however, seems to have come more from his desire to make electric distribution economical. With the perfection of the light bulb came the need for electricity to power it, and by extension, a distribution system to bring electricity from a central generator to the customer. Lighting would be used mostly at night, meaning that generation and distribution equipment would go mostly unused during the day.

Edison Menlo Park electric railroad
The route of Edison's Menlo Park railroad
As a canny businessman, Edison realized he needed to explore ways to balance the demand, or load, on the electrical system. Years earlier, he'd theorized that electric trains could serve well in bringing grain to market, and in fact, other innovators had already shown that battery- and dynamo-powered railroads could work at short distances. Surely he could create a more efficient system. Edison had one of his Menlo Park muckers oversee the construction of a half-mile long U-shaped track across Christie Street from the lab, capitalizing on the topography to test the locomotive's uphill pulling strength. The rails were electrified by direct current, one positive and one negatively charged.

The maiden run of the Edison railroad took place on May 13, 1880, when the Old Man himself took control of the locomotive. As Francis Jehl, one of Edison's assistants, later recalled in Menlo Park Reminiscences, many of the muckers gathered onto the bench-laden open-air passenger car to be part of the history-making trip.
"... [A]s many of the 'boys' as could find foothold crowded on -- about twenty in all... The current was switched on, and amid cheers, hurrahs and the waving of hats and handkerchiefs, the little train started up.... The locomotive picked up speed and we all glided along to the end of the line with excitement and buoyant hopes." 
The locomotive ran well in drive but the return trip faced some glitches. "When the order 'all aboard' was given for the return trip," Jehl recounted, "Batchelor applied the lever so violently that one of the friction wheels burst and disabled the locomotive." Edison ordered design adjustments to the transmission and the team began work anew. By the time the second run took place, the train included two additional cars to carry freight and a newly-patented braking system. The train's generator was the first of its kind to work at 90 percent efficiency.

The railroad 'right of way' in 2013,
now the site of homes, lawns
and woods.
Once the system was shown to work reliably, Edison put his legendary promotional skills to work to attract attention from the press. Reporters, investors and executives flocked to Menlo Park to see his latest invention, some even riding the rails themselves and getting a bit more then they bargained for. The narrow-gauged U-shaped track had been designed on an incline with sharp curves, a dangerous combination once the locomotive gained its top speed of 40 miles an hour. Add to that the natural curiosity and mischievousness of Edison and many of his muckers, and you can imagine how many accidents the little train suffered. While no one was seriously injured, Edison's personal secretary Samuel Insull later recalled that his first trip "about scared the life out of me."

Brilliant though Edison was, his railroad was yet another example of where he neglected to explore other possible applications of his ideas. He was so focused on his original concept -- moving freight -- that it took a long time before he saw the benefits of applying electric power to passenger transportation like streetcars. While we can't look on Edison as the father of the electric railway, his improvements led to several patents and innovations like an electrified third rail to power underground systems.

The tracks of Edison's Menlo Park railway are long gone, but an informative wayside display across from the Christie Street museum and memorial tower offers perspective on the events that took place there. The trucks (or wheels) of the second electric locomotive are on view on the Main Street side of the Thomas Edison National Historical Park in West Orange.

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Pulaski Skyway - now cursed, once celebrated

Drivers in North Jersey have a love-hate relationship with the Pulaski Skyway. It's a toll-free alternative to the Turnpike's Newark Bay Extension if you want to get to the Holland Tunnel, but it's also a narrow, claustrophobic and often clogged artery that lacks anyplace for a disabled vehicle to pull over. Anybody who uses the Pulaski on a regular basis will tell you that the road is incredibly outdated, dangerous, way too small for the volume of traffic that uses it, you name it. And there are people who say its black-painted cantilevered bridges add to the ugliness of one of the most industrialized parts of the state.

Say what you want about it, but when it opened in 1932 as the Route 1 extension, it was lauded as the Most Beautiful Steel Structure by the American Institute of Steel Construction. The WPA Guide to New Jersey deemed it "outstanding among state highways" and a "pioneer achievement in ... handling through traffic in one of the most congested areas of the world," especially given the challenges of road building in the marshy terrain. Its cantilevered bridges cross both the Passaic and Hackensack Rivers at a clearance of 135 feet to accommodate War Department requirements; presumably for the safe passage of naval vessels. I can't imagine a warship traversing that far up either river today, but I guess they weren't leaving anything to chance.

The highway was a huge timesaver for motorists attempting to travel between Newark and New York, who had previously been forced to traverse the marshlands in a two-and-a-half hour odyssey of local roads and drawbridges. The opening of the Skyway reduced that trip to an estimated 15 minutes. Engineers promoted its virtues in terms of vehicle miles saved, estimating that the availability of the 3.5 mile long elevated road would save car drivers over 57 million miles of driving per year.

With all of those advantages, why has the Pulaski become such a target of fear and avoidance? According to the State Department of Transportation, its design represents "one of the first attempts to create a coherent elevated highway network," but it seems the attempt wasn't all that successful. Believe it or not, the Skyway was designed by railroad engineers who knew a lot about building train viaducts but not much about roads, and it shows. The lanes are a slim 11 feet across, and where there's now a center divider was originally a breakdown lane that both directions of traffic used as a de-facto passing lane, resulting in many accidents.

And while the Pulaski was envisioned as an expressway between its two terminal cities, powerful Jersey City Mayor Frank Hague insisted that entrance lanes be added midway, in a part of the city he felt was ripe for development. He may have been correct, but in the meantime, he demanded the creation of some pretty scary, steep ramps leading directly into heavy traffic. (Hague was also locked in a bitter battle with union leadership that resulted in a virtual labor war and the death of one worker, but that's a story for another time.)

First called the Diagonal Highway, the causeway was named for Casimir Pulaski shortly after its dedication. A Polish nobleman who fought in the American Revolution, he's considered by some to be the father of the U.S. cavalry. It's said that he was a dashing figure, both brave and aggressive in battle, traits that would serve a Skyway traveler well. If you're feeling particularly brave or foolhardy, the Pulaski also offers slim pedestrian walkways on its outer edges, where shoulders might have been a wiser addition. (Anybody up for a nice Sunday stroll over the meadows?)

The State Department of Transportation recently announced an eight-year, $1 billion project to rehabilitate the Skyway, with some of the work already underway. The biggest hassle will be the deck replacement that will require the closing of Jersey City-bound lanes next year. Ramps will also be updated, seismic structural repairs done, and the whole shebang will get a coat of paint at the end. The DOT estimates that the fixes will add another 75 years to the life of the road.

Some might wonder why they don't just take the whole thing down and build a new highway, but between demolition and construction, the cost would far exceed the rehab budget. As it is, engineers and construction crews will need to honor the original design intent, as the Pulaski is listed on both the State and National Historic Registers. And given the amount of development that's grown around it in the past 80 years, any major structural changes would disrupt a lot more than local traffic. Love it or hate it, the Pulaski Skyway is with us to stay.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

A white pelican in the Meadowlands? You bet!

You might recall that a few weeks ago, we were a bit surprised to see a brown pelican flying past us at Barnegat Light. They're not an extraordinarily rare sight in New Jersey, but they're not common, either, especially in January.

I thought that was pretty cool, until I heard there was a white pelican sighted in the marshes of Kearny. I'd been fortunate to see one in the Everglades last spring, and while they're occasional visitors to New Jersey, I'd missed the ones reported at Brig in the past. If there was a chance to see one, in January, no less, I was going to give it a shot.

Regular readers know that Ivan has introduced me to several interesting spots and showed me a new side of other places I thought I already knew well. That said, contributors to the online birding bulletin boards sometimes give cryptic descriptions for where they've seen interesting birds. If I'm seeking them with Ivan, no problem. If I decide to explore on my own, well, it can be an adventure.

The Kearny pelican situation was one of those times. I had the day off, Ivan didn't, so I decided to check it out on my own. The bulletin board post said the bird was observable from the abandoned railroad tracks at the edge of the marsh. Great. What tracks, and where on the tracks? Another post said the bird was seen flying over Gunnar Oval, off Schuyler Avenue. Okay, that I can work with. I headed over to check it out.

When I got to the Oval, I saw something I can only describe as a cross between Field of Dreams and The Sopranos. The parking area was fronted by a wall of phragmites marsh grass, with a barely-discernible path into the mass of tall, light tan growth. It looked as if one of two things could happen any moment: Ray Liotta could come walking out wearing a vintage White Sox uniform, or Michael Imperioli would stomp out as Christopher Moltisanti, complaining he lost a Gucci loafer in the muck.

Seriously, though: what could happen? I peered into the reeds and found nothing but more reeds, and a small inlet off to the distance. Walking in, I felt the way the birds must feel when they nestle themselves away from humans. Some trash was mixed among the muck, but mostly the path was either mud or fallen phrags. An abandoned railroad track offered up a mostly unimpeded path, but I had to stop and turn back when the ties were overcome with swamp water. Any alternate route there might have been was blocked by fallen trees. Sadly, the rest of the marsh was obscured by walls of phragmites. Obviously I was in the wrong place.

I drove up and down Belleville Turnpike to see if there was an alternative, but while you can see the marsh really clearly, the bird was nowhere to be seen. Taking the Turnpike back home, I drove above another set of tracks that just might have been the right ones, if they were at all accessible. There had to be a secret that experienced birders know that I don't.

Turned out I was really close. Another set of tracks, this one elevated and perpendicular to my set, was just a hundred or so feet away from where I'd started out, at the end of the next street. Ivan and I drove over and instantly knew we were in the right place: two cars with personalized Conserve Wildlife plates were parked in the cul-de-sac. Oh, and there was a very steep dirt trail up to an elevated railroad track.

Track across the Kearny Marsh.
I'm not a big fan of climbing dirt trails, and this one was especially challenging, with very few embedded rocks or tree roots to provide a foothold. As I scrambled up, I considered all the times we'd chased a notable bird, only to find nothing when we got to its reported spot. The pelican, at least, was large enough to see even if it was a distance away. Still, it had better be there, I thought to myself.

Once we were topside, we saw other birders gathered several hundred feet down the tracks, one looking through a spotting scope. This could be a good sign. Walking down the train ties, another movie came to mind: Stand By Me. It took all I had not to start singing "Lollipop, lollipop mmm lolli-lollipop..." The tracks were a straight shot across the marsh, and definitely a good place to check for aquatic birds.

And... our climb paid off. My big fear was that the pelican would be obscured by phragmites or so distant that it would look like a big white blob at the far edge of the marsh, but it couldn't have been more cooperative. Perched on a small clump of something in the water, it was easily seen through a pair of binoculars, though a spotting scope gave a nice detailed look. It shifted around a bit to give us a good view and then rose up to fly above its surroundings, giving us a nice look at the black patches on the trailing edges of its wings. As large as they are, pelicans are very graceful flyers, soaring almost effortlessly, and I kept my bins trained on our bird to marvel at its glide through the cold air. What an amazing sight, with the skyscrapers of Newark on the distant horizon behind it.

Once we got back to Hidden New Jersey base, I did some quick research to determine just how rare it is to see a white pelican in these parts in the early months of the year. New Jersey Audubon's sightings archive shows very few in the northern part of the state, and those were seen in spring and summer months. It could be that the pelicans have been regular visitors to Kearny and haven't been spotted, or this individual is an explorer checking out new territory. In any case, he's been hanging around for several days, which says a lot about the overall health of the marsh. White pelicans eat about four pounds of freshwater fish a day, and this guy appeared pretty well fed.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Meet Basking Ridge's patriot nobleman: Lord Stirling, William Alexander

Driving around parts of Somerset County, you'd be excused for thinking that everything's named "Lord Stirling," because you see it all over the place. There's a park, an apartment complex, stables, a school and even a town with the name. It long led me to wonder "Why in heck did a guy with a British title get so many things named after him?" It all sounded way too much like the product of some English loyalist who ruled a country dominion.

William Alexander, Lord Stirling
by Bass Otis
Nothing could be farther from the truth. Lord Stirling was New York-born William Alexander. He claimed title in the Peerage of Scotland as a descendant of the grandfather of the first Earl of Stirling, perhaps attempting to gain control of the vast land grant that would have come with it. While his claim wasn't validated by the British House of Lords, Alexander continued to use the title, making for what must have eventually been an interesting public relations dilemma for King George.

The land would have been a nice bonus, but Alexander had little to worry about when it came to supporting himself. His mother was a successful merchant, and when he saw the opportunity, he expanded the business to supply the British military during the French and Indian War. Well known in society, he married Sarah Livingston, whose brother William later became the first state governor of New Jersey. (You'll recall the long reach of the Livingston family from our visit to Liberty Hall in Elizabethtown.) The couple had a house in Manhattan, which they sold after building a large estate on 1000 acres in what became Basking Ridge.

Alexander made the most of his New Jersey property, cultivating over 2000 grape vines to support the growth of the winemaking industry in the New World. He also once owned the land that's now known as Sterling Hill in Ogdensburg, but his attempts at iron mining ended up pretty much as Edison's did more than 100 years later, expensive but largely fruitless. He also played his lordship to the hilt, reportedly amassing a huge wardrobe and riding around town in an ornate coach emblazoned with the family crest.

What did any of this have to do with a PR problem for King George? As colonists grew more and more frustrated with British rule, Alexander stood firmly with the patriots. Already a colonel in the New Jersey militia, he'd drawn from his considerable wealth to outfit those who volunteered to serve under him. Considering that and the fact that George Washington was a close family friend, it's not surprising that Alexander agreed to join the Continental Army, becoming the only American brigadier general to claim a title.

Alexander led troops in several pivotal battles in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania between 1776 and 1778, but his defining moment took place during the Battle of Long Island. Outnumbered 25 to one, the troops under his command held the British long enough for the other Continentals to escape to safety. Alexander himself was captured and later freed as part of a prisoner exchange, his valor and audacity recognized by military on both sides. He was elevated to major general, with future president James Monroe serving as his aide-de-camp.

Amid the huzzahs, however, were brickbats from our old reliable, Aaron Burr. It's commonly known that Lord Stirling enjoyed a good glass of wine (or several), but according to Ron Chernow's biography of Alexander Hamilton, Burr outright stated that "Monroe's whole duty was to fill his lordship's tankard and hear, with indications of admiration, his lordship's long stories about himself."

Whether Burr's assessment was accurate or not, it's clear that Alexander held the trust of Washington and the admiration of his troops. He might have been full of himself -- who knows? -- but the new country got more from his service than he profited from his position. After being named commanding officer of the northern troops in 1781, Alexander died of gout, his fortune gone and his feats of bravery apparently forgotten not long after.

Except in Basking Ridge, it seems. His estate was sold to pay his debts, and the house was eventually torn down, but much of his property is now a Somerset County park named in his honor. Adjacent to the larger Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, it offers an environmental education center and an extensive trail system, as well as a horse stable. One of our readers also pointed out that the County holds a Lord Stirling 1770s festival each fall, featuring tours, period-appropriate demonstrations and specimens from an archaeological dig of the property.

One more note on Alexander: given his military feats and those of his descendants, one might consider him the original in a line of "Jersey sons of a gun." Several male descendants of his daughter also distinguished themselves in military service, most notably Hidden New Jersey favorite, Civil War General Philip Kearny. The longer I study prominent New Jerseyans, the more fascinating the connections get.