Sunday, April 28, 2013

Hidden names bridging the Turnpike

I expected that a quick stop at the Turnpike's Alexander Hamilton Service Area might elicit a brief lesson on our first Secretary of the Treasury, but I found something I didn't anticipate. Walking to the building from my parked car, I saw not one, but five large plaques arranged in a semicircle, ringing an accompanying brass map. They're dedicated to a valorous group of New Jerseyans: six war heroes plus two individuals who distinguished themselves in service to the Turnpike.

A little research revealed that most if not all of the plaques were once affixed to Turnpike bridges that were named for each of the honorees, as noted on the brass map. Each bridge is nearest the pike gets to the honoree's hometown, more or less.

Given the history of the Turnpike, it's entirely fitting that several bridges are named for those who died during wartime. The highway was constructed not long after the conclusion of World War II, and several of its executives and employees were veterans.

  • The Wallberg-Lovely Bridge crossing the Rahway River above Exit 12 is dedicated to the first two New Jerseyans to die in World War I. Martin Wallberg of Westfield was a Private with the Canadian Expeditionary Forces when he died on November 10, 1917, while Private Luke Lovely of South Amboy died 20 days later, while serving with the American forces.
  • The Lewandowski Bridge is named for three brothers from Lyndhurst - Army Private Alexander, Marine Sergeant Walter and Air Force Lieutenant William - who perished within 18 months of each other during World War II. Their bridge is better known as the Eastern Spur, which soars over the Meadowlands, hugging Laurel Hill.
  • The Chaplain Washington Bridge honors Rev. John Washington of Newark, one of four heroic chaplains who gave their own life jackets to sailors during the sinking of the Troopship Dorchester during World War II. His bridge spans the Passaic River north of Exit 14.
  • An additional bridge honors Marine Sergeant and Medal of Honor winner John Basilone of Raritan, yet it's not represented at the Hamilton Service Area. Basilone's bridge spans the Raritan River north of New Brunswick.*  

Two more bridges honor civilians:

  • The Laderman Bridge crosses the Hackensack and honors toll collector Harry Laderman of Fair Lawn. The first Turnpike employee to die on the job, Laderman was killed when a truck rammed his booth. His death also spurred the Turnpike Authority to protect the booths with cement blocks to prevent additional accidents. 
  • The Vincent Casciano Bridge recognizes the State Assemblyman from Bayonne who advocated the construction of the Newark Bay Extension. Linking the Turnpike to the Holland Tunnel, the Extension was designed to ease congestion on the Pulaski Skyway. Appropriately, his bridge is the cantilever structure on the Extension over Newark Bay.

There are a few ironies attached to these plaques and their original placement. For safety reasons, the Turnpike was designed to create as few distractions to the motorist as possible. It's utilitarian, curves are virtually non-existent on the main road, and elevations are generally gradual to reduce the need for acceleration. Bridges were expressly designed to be virtually undetectable to the motorist - consider that a good percentage of the Eastern Spur is elevated, but just about nobody would equate it to the nearby Pulaski Skyway. If you define a bridge by the metalwork or wire rope seen on the George Washington or Goethals, you could say the Turnpike has precious few bridges. And if people did consider the bridges at all, they wouldn't have time to read a commemorative plaque at highway speed.

So, perhaps it's a good thing those plaques are posted at Alexander Hamilton, where motorists can pause for a few moments to appreciate the honorees. Now if the Turnpike would just put more effort into sprucing up the markers that memorialize the folks the service areas are named for...

* I later discovered a similar plaque for the Basilone bridge at the nearby Joyce Kilmer Service Area.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

An ounce of Preventorium and some yellow journalism in Howell

We've run into a few state-run medical institutions in our travels. The older places tend to reveal themselves with telling street names like Hospital Road or Sanitarium Road. Take the bait and drive on the thoroughfares, and you might be rewarded with a still-operating facility like the Hagedorn Psych Hospital in Glen Gardner. Or, you might find that an old hospital complex has been transformed to open space like Hilltop Reservation in North Caldwell, site of the former Essex County Hospital.

Still, though, I was a little surprised to find a Preventorium Road in Howell. That was a new one on me. Obviously someone was looking to prevent something, but what? All I found was the Howell Township Municipal Complex, with town hall appearing to be the oldest of several buildings there.

The Howell Township Municipal Building.
Was it the main building of the Preventorium?
Depending on which source you consult, a preventorium could have a few different purposes. Either it's a place to send people who have symptoms but not a full-blown case of a disease are sent for treatment, or it's for people who may have been exposed to a disease but have no symptoms. According to the Howell Township website, the preventorium there was constructed by journalist Arthur Brisbane in 1907 to quarantine for children who had had contact with tuberculosis patients. Operating between 1912 and the early 1960s, the Preventorium held up to 230 children.

That's about all I've found about the hospital, but it got me curious about Brisbane. If you're familiar with the history of journalism, you might recognize the name: he worked for two of the the giants of 19th century newspaper publishing, Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. He became one of the best known editors of the early 20th century and among the foremost practitioners of yellow journalism. Especially adept at publishing scandalous stories to boost circulation, he purchased and revived many failing newspapers, ultimately selling them to Hearst. He also offered media counsel to several of the business luminaries of his time, including Thomas Edison and John D. Rockefeller.

Besides his newspaper prowess, Brisbane became an accomplished real estate speculator, but his interest in New Jersey property may have had more to do with family history than land values. His father Albert was a utopian socialist involved in the Fourier movement of the mid 1800s, which was behind the creation of a phalanx community in nearby Colts Neck. About 60 years later, the younger Brisbane bought a large expanse of land in Monmouth County, including the old Howell Ironworks property, which had ceased operation in 1848. Building a luxurious house for his family, Brisbane also erected stables, an inn and a Boy Scout camp. He also provided land to the Federal government for use in New Deal programs during the Great Depression.

Toward the end of his life, Brisbane became interested in the history of the ironworks and started restoring it with an eye toward donating the property to the State of New Jersey. Today's Allaire Village represents the fruits of his efforts, offering a look into the operation of the state's iron mining industry and the lives of the people who worked within it. Brisbane's will also stipulated that the land be used only for historic and forest preservation purposes, making it a convenient destination for camping, hiking and wildlife observation. The family mansion was also deeded to the state and until recently was the Arthur Brisbane Child Treatment Center.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Want fries with that treaty? World War I ends in Somerville.

The Somerville Circle has long been known for historically challenging traffic, where wars have nearly broken out over proper rights of way and who should yield to whom. Even since it was improved with a flyover bridge for Route 202, I'm sure it's been the site of more than one fender-bending conflict that's had to be resolved with police intervention.

Not far away, the actual World War I ended for the United States.

In 1921. Yup. Fighting ended and the armistice was signed in 1918, but the U.S. didn't formally end hostilities with Germany and Austria-Hungary for almost another three years. And it happened in Raritan, not far from where you can now pick up some tasty onion rings and a 60 inch plasma TV.

Politics played a huge role in the delay, and for the sake of simplicity, I'm only hitting the points relevant to our story. Despite President Woodrow Wilson's active support, the U.S. Senate twice refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles which had effectively ended the war in Europe. At stake was the nation's participation in the League of Nations, which, as you might remember, was Wilson's baby and the proposed international body that would prevent future wars. The League concept was unpopular with voters, yet the establishment of peace was tied up in Wilson's dream that the US would take a key role in the organization.

Wilson completed his second term in early 1921, succeeded by Warren G. Harding, former Senator from Ohio who had opposed the treaty and the League. With the unresolved business of Germany and Austria-Hungary on the table, the new president implored Congress to deliver a resolution for peace that would not commit the U.S. to membership in the League. Long story short, Senator Philander Knox and Representative Stephen Porter introduced resolutions in their respective houses of Congress, both passed and were reconciled, and the document was ready for Harding's signature on July 2.

Thing was, Harding wasn't in Washington. He was in Raritan, playing golf with Senator John Frelinghuysen at the country club near the Senator's estate. According to tradition, when the papers arrived from the Capitol, Harding left the course just long enough to sign the resolution, a brief interruption to his game. The Frelinghuysen family later commemorated the event with an oil painting of the scene, plus a plaque to mark the site within the house.

Unfortunately the house is no longer there, a victim to what's loosely termed as progress. The Frelinghuysens left their estate in 1927, realizing that the traffic on Route 28 and 202 would only increase over time. It was a good move: not long after they left, the state built the Somerville Circle practically in their old front yard. The house sat vacant for nearly 20 years before being sold, and it burned to the ground sometime in the 1950s.

The only remnants of the Frelinghuysens' time on the Easton Turnpike (Route 28) are two stone columns flanking a commemorative plaque. Nicely landscaped, they're a bit of an anomaly compared to the broad expanse of parking lot and the P.C. Richards and Burger King that now occupy the property. Haggle all you want with the salesguy at the appliance store; it'll still be easier than ending the War to End All Wars.

Friday, April 19, 2013

A real hot potato: the Morristown community fireplace

Sometimes stuff looks a lot older than it really is. In some cases, it's because it's weathered and ramshackle. Other times, it is old, but not quite as old as the structures in the immediate vicinity. A road-tripper can be enticed to check out a curious ruin, only to find out that it's not a ruin, after all.

That's what happened to me recently, as I was travelling down 202 in Morristown. I was about to pass Historic Speedwell when I noticed some stone ruins in a park near the waterway across the road from the museums.

One bit was, indeed historic: the crumbling walls of the Speedwell Iron Works that once operated there. A quick look in the WPA guide revealed that in 1819, the Iron Works produced the drive shaft for the first ship to make a transatlantic crossing using steam power as a backup to sails. Across the street, of course, Alfred Vail and Samuel Morse developed the magnetic telegraph, but that's a story for another day.

My question was about the large hearth and chimney that dominated what looked like a stone house in ruins nearby. It could have been the remains of an early settler's sturdy cabin, or perhaps the home of the iron works' superintendent. A plaque on the front of the fireplace looked as if it might offer some clues. Could this be a remnant of the earliest settlement of Morristown, here on a pastoral pond?

Well, no. Here's what I found:

Not nearly as interesting as I'd have liked, but it's still nice. Turns out that in the late nineteen-teens, the leader of the local Camp Fire Girls approached Morristown officials with the idea of creating a central place where her troop and others could have their baked potato and toasted bacon parties. Contemporary newspaper accounts observed that the fireplace would be constructed in a 'new' park, and the Boy Scouts and other local residents could use it as long as they made reservations for it.

The WPA later improved the adjacent pond with picturesque spillways and brickwork, presumably making it a lovely place to enjoy a cool evening, or maybe even some ice skating if the pond was frozen solid. A roaring fire, some marshmallows (and potatoes) would be a nice respite from the chill.

From the looks of it (and the orange temporary fencing nearby) the fireplace hasn't been used for quite some time. There's nothing on the Morristown website specifically outlining the rules for building a fire there, nor is there anything posted prominently on site, but I'd venture a guess they'd be a bit wary of someone just stopping by to use it without prior notice.

Still, though: those Camp Fire Girl baked potatoes sound pretty good. Any chance we could get some cheese to go with the bacon?

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Defying gravity and convention: aviator Marjorie Gray

The 1997 Douglass College Alumnae Directory lists Marjorie Gray, class of 1933, as a retired technical editor for Grumman Aerospace Corporation. Nothing in the listing refers to her pioneering achievements as one of America's vanguard of women pilots, except for the designation "LTC." Those three letters stand for "lieutenant colonel," Gray's rank when she retired from the Air Force Reserve in 1972.

Born in New York in 1912, Gray was raised in Cliffside Park. A few years after graduating from the New Jersey College for Women (now Douglass College of Rutgers University), she flew her first solo flight at Nelson Airport in Franklin Lakes. It was a start of a lifelong love of aviation that saw her gain a commercial license and fly 19 types of military aircraft.

Gray was a social worker and air traffic control trainee when famed aviator Jackie Cochran invited her to join the first class of Womens Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). Started in 1942 to relieve the shortage of eligible male pilots not already serving in the military, the WASPs were civilian pilots recruited to transport military aircraft to their points of embarkation during World War II. Participants had to be between the ages of 21 and 35, hold a commercial license and 200-horsepower engine rating, a minimum 500 hours flying time, and cross-country flying experience. Many WASPs had more experience and were more skilled pilots than many of their male counterparts in the Army Air Corps.

Stationed at Newcastle Air Force Base in Delaware, Gray logged over 750 hours flying B-24s, B-25s, B-26s, DC-3s and other aircraft. Though I haven't been able to track down any additional information on her service, it's possible that she served as a flight instructor for the Air Corps, as many of her colleagues were.

Her wartime service alone would be enough to make Gray a notable name in aviation history, but after the WASPs were disbanded in 1944, she continued making aviation history. She returned to New Jersey and became one of the first women in the country to operate a fixed-base operation, or airport services business. Based at Teterboro Airport from 1946 to 1950, Marjorie M. Gray Aero Service offered flying lessons, piloted charter flights and assessed new aviators for licensure as a pilot examiner. No doubt, her customers could rely on her versatility: besides her commercial license, she had earned ratings for seaplane, multiengine and instrument flying.

Gray later joined the Air Force Reserve and worked as a writer and editor for Grumman, Curtis Aviation and Flying Magazine. She was active in the aviation community through leadership positions in the Ninety-Nines, the organization founded by 99 licensed women pilots in 1929 for the mutual support and advancement of aviation. The Womens' International Association of Aeronautics awarded her the Lady Drummond-Hay trophy in 1956 for her many achievements and contributions to the field.

Describing her years in aviation as "the best time in my life," Gray accumulated more than 3000 hours in the skies. She died in 2008, at the age of 95.

I discovered Gray's story at Teterboro's Aviation Hall of Fame of New Jersey, into which she was inducted in 1992. Hers is one of many fascinating stories of people with a Garden State connection who've made air and space history locally and worldwide. We'll be returning to some more of those people -- and the Hall of Fame's museum exhibits -- in future Hidden New Jersey stories.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Digging up mystery on Province Line Road

My downtown New Egypt exploring done, I had a lead to track down. A few weeks ago, reader Rick Donnelly contacted me about another Province Line Road, this one separating Mercer and Burlington counties from Monmouth a few miles out of Plumsted Township. Not only was it a seeming continuation from the Mercer County Province Line Road outside of Hopewell that I'd written about last year, it runs through the state's most prolific archaeological site, along Crosswicks Creek in Ellisdale.

Crosswicks Creek, near Ellisdale.
Where dinosaurs roamed.
Ivan's the paleontology guy of this partnership, so I didn't plan to go too far into the site without him along. I don't know enough to differentiate a fossil from a weird rock, but it still would be fun to notice something unusual. I did enough research before I left Hidden New Jersey HQ to learn that the Ellisdale site is managed by the New Jersey State Museum, and collecting specimens is prohibited. No way would I pick something up to take away to show Ivan later.

Aside from the fossils, that area of New Jersey is interesting from a county border perspective. Depending on which road you take, you could be in Mercer, Burlington, Monmouth or Ocean County. Or, if you're on Province Line, you're straddling two of 'em. As I tooled around, the pentagonal blue county road markers were switching counties with alarming frequency.

Rick had written that the fossil site is near the one-lane truss bridge where Province Line passes over Crosswicks Creek. Typical for a county road, there was no shoulder to park on, but I was fortunate to find enough of a clearing among the trees and brush to pull my car off the road near the bridge. Monmouth County Parks rules were posted on a nearby sign.

The odd thing was, after I crossed the road, I saw the Monmouth signs on that side, too. Wouldn't it be Mercer -- or Burlington -- there? Maybe my map was a little off? From the road I'd noticed a tall yellow stake in the ground, several yards into the woods. It wasn't until I got closer that I noticed the aggregate concrete block next to it. Looking down, I saw an oxidized metal nub on the top, reminiscent of the tops of the meridian markers we'd first found in Flemington last year. Must be a surveyor's marker, right? I was even more certain when I noticed an M on one side and a B on the other.

Today's Hidden New Jersey story
is brought to you by the letter M.
For Monmouth, or maybe Mercer.
One had to be Burlington, that was easy enough. But does the M stand for Mercer, or Monmouth?

Times like this remind me I need to improve my exploring kit. It would have been really helpful to have a compass with me. Monmouth is northeast of Burlington; Mercer is directly north. My gut says the M is for Mercer, but I think there's a good argument for Monmouth, given the county park signs.

This raises an interesting point about county history. When the United States gained independence, New Jersey had only 13 counties. Over time, the additional eight were carved from the existing ones, until 1855, when the last one, Union, was created from the southern end of Essex. Monmouth was one of the original four counties created in 1683, while Mercer was crafted from portions of Hunterdon and Burlington in 1838. Thus, to be denoting Monmouth for sure, the marker would have to have been planted before 1838. My gut, once again, tells me it's newer than that, but I've been known to be wrong before.

I'd say this mystery was solved pretty quickly, but we still have the matter of the fossils to contend with. We'll definitely be returning with a compass and GPS. And maybe we'll even find out if there's another county marker in the area. That might be a hard one to locate though: a few yards further, the trail is interrupted by a deep wash with no bridge.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Walk like a New Egyptian

Put enough mileage on your car, and you're likely to find some unexpected animals in New Jersey farm fields. I've learned to go with it: if northern lapwings have found their way from Europe all the way to Central Jersey, and they happen to be hanging out with a couple of sandhill cranes, who am I to say they shouldn't settle down among a pasture of grazing longhorn cattle in New Egypt?

Longhorn cattle? Here? If you adhere to the truism that everyone has a relative in Jersey, why should they be any different? For whatever reason, a farmer on Brynmore Road decided to bring a little bit of Texas back East, and there we go.

Ivan and I first found them in January, when the lapwings were first reported. True to the accounts on the American Bird Association bulletin board, the avian visitors were lingering on the ground looking like plovers with crests, navigating through the firm mud churned by the longhorns. The cranes, a bit easier to spot from a distance, were farther backfield, not getting as much attention from the scrum of birders congregated at the edge of the narrow two-lane road. The cattle themselves looked a bit wary; we gave them wide berth, even with a wire fence separating us. I couldn't help but think that a rare discourteous birder could find himself on the business end of those horns pretty quickly if he were foolish enough to hop the fence for a closer look at the rare visitors to New Jersey.

In any case, Ivan and I got our life lapwings, plus a curious new place to check out. We'd passed through what looked like downtown New Egypt on our way in and made a mental note to return when we had more time to explore. An impressive-looking former bank building labeled "Welcome Center" in big letters is a focal point in the small business area, so I figured some of the locals would be ready and waiting for us when we got back.

New Egypt - or Plumsted Township - has the distinction of being in the geographic center of New Jersey, but if you're trying to find it, it feels a little more like the middle of nowhere. County roads bring you there from the Parkway or 195, and if you're not sure how long it should take, well, it feels like a long drive. You're rewarded with rather pleasant scenery - farm fields and some woods along the way, punctuated by housing developments here and there.

Longhorn salad bar, from the safety of the car.
Before I checked out downtown, though, there was the matter of the longhorns. I returned to find them at the salad bar. Who knew bovines were into mixed greens? One was even bellying up to the bar, resting his front legs upon the flatbed holding the food, looking much like a tired laborer hunched over his beer at the corner tavern after a long shift.

Back in town, I was disappointed to find that the Welcome Center was closed, with no hours posted for when it would be staffed. The town was not giving up its secrets so quickly, so I had to do a bit of research after returning to Hidden New Jersey headquarters.

First, there's the matter of the town's rather curious name. I saw no deserts or pyramids on my visit, so why Egypt? Legend has it that the community was once called Timmons (or Kimmons) Mills, until General George Washington made a fateful quip. He'd sent soldiers to search for supplies for his hungry army, and one returned with food, Washington quipped, "Here is Joseph, returned from Egypt with wheat." When the revered father of our country affixes a label to your town, it tends to stick.

Another story has a similar theme, with different details. A man named Kimmons would store corn during high-yield harvests, and when lean years came, people would go to his farm to buy grain and corn. Referring to the Bible as Washington was said to have, people would say they were going to Egypt when they went to Kimmons' mill for grain. The "New" was added, as the 1930s WPA Guide to New Jersey stated, "to differentiate it from other Egypts." Other Egypts? In New Jersey?

The name was changed to Oakford in 1869 at the behest of a real estate developer who said he'd pave the roads with brick if the town agreed to make the change. Apparently the locals had a change of heart when the railroad refused to change the name on its timetables: they reverted back to New Egypt a few weeks later.

Besides the uniqueness of its name, New Egypt established its place in history for agriculture. It's said that the town was where the berries for the world's first cranberry sauce were grown, though I didn't see any bogs when I was there. The community was also once host to the world's largest egg hatchery.

Outside of farming, New Egypt was a resort area for a time in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, made more accessible by the arrival of railroad service. More than two dozen inns and boardinghouses sprung up to accommodate those who came to enjoy the countryside, including the Duchess of Windsor. Visitors could swim or boat on Oakford Lake, hike in the nearby woods, or take in a leisurely picnic, just to name a few of the activities available to them. Predictably, many businesses also took root downtown, meeting just about any need a visitor might have.

These days, things seem a lot quieter. There's no longer a train bringing visitors -- that ended with the advent of the automobile, shore attractions and other distractions. If anyone's visiting New Egypt, it's either for the flea market or the speedway, or perhaps to pick their own vegetables at one of the local farms. Maybe it's better that way: the community retains a rural, small town feel that's a true respite from the overcrowding that's endemic to more highly-developed parts of the state.

It's nice to know that at its heart, New Jersey can still maintain a quiet, peaceful core.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Parvin State Park: more diversity in rural New Jersey

One of the big "gets" in New Jersey birding circles lately is the tufted duck, a medium-sized diver native to Europe and Asia. This fella has been hanging out on Thundergust Lake in Parvin State Park, so I stopped by  for a look after my visit to the Seabrook Educational and Cultural Center. It was a beautiful day, and I was able to spot the visitor from among a group of ring-necked ducks, who look very similar but for the head shape and the eponymous tuft.

It was my first visit to Parvin, and I was absolutely charmed when I arrived. Granted, it's the off season, but its placid environment was relaxing and refreshing, making it feel like the perfect place to cool off from the summer sun or go fishing during other parts of the year. Plus, its well-groomed parking area and entry gate feel like something out of the 1930s, for good reason, as I'd later discover.

As it turned out, the visit was a good complement to the Seabrook visit. Much like the vegetable processing town, this tranquil spot just inside the Pinelands was once a surprising hive of activity.

Parvin became a state park after land acquisitions started by New Jersey government in 1930, but it was without amenities until Civilian Conservation Corps workers arrived, sometime between 1933 and 1935. Over several years, teams of young men blazed trails, built log cabins with boat landings, and erected the picturesque entry pavilion and offices that welcome visitors to the beach. No Iron Mike stands on site to commemorate their work; the stability of their handiwork is monument in itself.

Not long after the CCC finished its work, Parvin entered what might be called its multinational phase. Though the dates and uses vary depending on which source you consult, the common link is that the park served as a temporary home for people whose lives were affected by World War II.

First, the Federal government capitalized on the park's remote setting to hold German prisoners of war sometime around 1942 or 1943. Some were transported to Seabrook to work, somewhat alleviating the wartime labor shortage.

The Japanese and Japanese-American history of the park is a bit less clear, but not surprising, given its general proximity to the large Issei/Nisei population of Seabrook. Some sources say Parvin hosted a summer camp for young Japanese American internees, while others contend that the property was used for temporary housing for those who'd left the internment camps after the war's end.

Finally, a contingent of Kalmyks stayed briefly at Parvin after their escape to the United States in 1952. The history of Kalmykia is long and complex, but these Buddhist Europeans had suffered the wrath of Stalin after they had rebelled against the Soviet Communist government. Many ultimately settled in the metropolitan Philadelphia region and the Monmouth County town of Howell.

None of this -- except the CCC work -- was even slightly evident when I visited. I wonder, though, how each of the groups reacted to living out among the pines. Did the Kalmyks yearn for the broad expanses of their homeland's steppes? Did the West Coast-based Japanese-Americans find the scrub pines to be adequate substitutes for massive redwoods? And did the Germans despair for the Black Forest?

One can only hope that none of them was visited by the Jersey Devil.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Saving Rambo's: a last vestige of Fort Lee's movie-making history

In our last post, we talked about Fort Lee's history as the world's first moviemaking capital, and the near absence of any visible relics of that past. A series of devastating fires reduced many of the studio facilities to ashes and rubble following the production companies' moves to California. Other historic buildings were repurposed and eventually torn down. And, of course, time and the inevitable development after the construction of the George Washington Bridge obliterated the rustic scenery that had made the town such a great substitute for any number of remote movie settings.

Fort Lee's Rambo's, as seen in one of the many silent movies
filmed outside its doors.
There is one structure left to represent both the business of moviemaking and the versatile Fort Lee scenery: Rambo's on First Street in the Coytesville section of town.

An unassuming old two-story building with a porch, Rambo's stood on a dusty road and could easily fit into just about any story a producer could conjure. Need a Western saloon or a stagecoach stop? How about a New England tavern? Rambo's was it. With no utility lines to mar the scene, viewers could be easily convinced that they were transported to 1867, the year Rambo's was built.

Scores of films were shot outside and around Rambo's, including Mack Sennett's A Grocery Clerk's Romance, and Friends, starring Mary Pickford and Lionel Barrymore. Many more silent movies shot there have been lost over time, through fires or deterioration.

Rambo's today: an uncertain future.
Perhaps even more important to cinema history, Rambo's was an industry gathering place where crews and actors could exchange ideas and expertise. Sitting at long tables in the grove outside of the saloon, they'd lunch on the daily ham-and-eggs meal (it was always ham and eggs) and work through innovative filming techniques. Every day offered the opportunity for new breakthroughs in moviemaking, and Rambo's was the incubator. You might say that it was to film what the garage was to Silicon Valley pioneers Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard.

What's more, the property had sufficient room to accommodate many of the off-screen necessities of moviemaking. Production companies capitalized on the second floor for dressing rooms, and auditions were regularly held there. One can only conjecture how many careers were launched there, whether they be as short as one film or decades-long success in entertainment. In fact, a child actor named Milton Berle got his first movie role after being chosen during a cattle call at Rambo's. The movie? The 1914 classic The Perils of Pauline.

New Jersey's filmmaking history is popularly known to have been launched in Edison's labs, but the Black Maria studio on his West Orange property is but a re-creation, built in 1954. That would make Rambo's even more notable to the history of film here and globally.
Unfortunately, Rambo's faces an uncertain future. Last serving as multi-unit housing, it's now in danger of being torn down and replaced by a new two-family home. The Fort Lee Film Commission and Historical Society would like to see it preserved, purchased by the local government and used as office space for the Commission and an educational resource to teach residents about local film history. The previous owner left the building in excellent condition, eliminating the need and expense of making it habitable.

Before the current owner/developer can move forward with demolition and construction, the Fort Lee Zoning Board must issue variances to allow the planned structure to be built. The issue will be discussed at a meeting on April 4 (the publication date of this article), and the Historical Society will be representing public opinion through their online petition. You have the opportunity to influence their decision, whether you live in Fort Lee or not.

Rambo's is a truly Hidden New Jersey gem, and we can't afford to have it fade from view, its site hosting only a commemorative sign. Drop by the petition at to support the effort. 

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Lights, camera.... Fort Lee!

Keep your eyes open when you drive around Fort Lee, and you'll see something curious. Instead of the usual nondescript signs, some street corners boast black and white markers bordered with sprocket holes. They're emblazoned with names like Theda Bara, Carl Laemmele and Universal Studios, and a closer look reveals the logo of the Fort Lee Film Commission.

Indeed, the town was Hollywood before Hollywood was Hollywood. Though it's fairly common knowledge that scores of TV shows and contemporary movies have been shot in New Jersey, few realize that a century ago, Fort Lee was the movie capital of the world. I got an eye-opening education in film history during a recent visit to the Fort Lee Museum, courtesy of Film Commission Executive Director Tom Meyers and Commission member Donna Brennan.

Before there were coming attractions, lantern
cards like these advertised upcoming movies.  
The roots of the film industry run deep through New Jersey, starting with Newark resident Hannibal Goodwin's patent of nitrocellulose film in 1887. Thomas Edison's West Orange team developed the kinetoscope between 1889 and 1892, building the Black Maria as the first true film studio. Once the American public got a look at moving pictures, it didn't take long before they clamored for productions that left fake studio backgrounds for more realistic open-air settings.

Considering how built-up Fort Lee is today, it's hard to believe that filmmakers once saw it as the perfect setting for Wild West movies. In the early 1900s, the town's dirt roads and rustic buildings were apt substitutes for the great frontier, just a subway and ferry ride away from downtown Manhattan. Plus, the nearby Palisades offered irresistable opportunities for suspenseful plot twists (cliffhanger, anyone?). Before long, emerging film moguls like Carl Laemmle (IMP and its successor Universal Studios), William Fox (Fox Entertainment) and Samuel Goldwyn (formerly Goldfish, in a predecessor to today's MGM) were building studios along the Hudson River.

Along with them, naturally, came actors, some of whom bought or built houses in the nearby Coytesville settlement. Most notably, Maurice Barrymore settled his family in town; his son John made his acting debut in a benefit for the local fire department. Silent screen legends like Fatty Arbuckle, Mary Pickford and Mabel Normand were regular sights in and around Fort Lee.

Filmmaking got so big that virtually everyone in Fort Lee worked for one of the production companies, one way or another. The studios didn't just shoot scenes in town, they essentially built factories where movies were duplicated and stored, and promotional materials were created and printed. Carpenters built sets that transformed empty lots into medieval cities. Actors and crew had to be fed, creating jobs for cooks and service staff. Even the kids got involved: schools were sometimes closed to allow students to serve as extras in crowd scenes.

If things were working so well in Fort Lee, then why did the business move to California? Weather is often cited as a reason, but as with most situations, there were several contributing factors. Residents were increasingly frustrated by the noise and inconvenience caused by large-scale outdoor shoots, leading local officials to wonder whether the entire town might be blown up during a battle scene. After fires decimated their Fort Lee facilities, some film companies chose to relocate in warmer climes, encouraged by a very welcoming Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. Fort Lee, on the other hand, did nothing to encourage rebuilding. One by one, the studios left for Hollywood, leaving only their film vaults behind.

Of the many buildings that supported Fort Lee's film industry, only two still stand. We'll be visiting one of them in the next installment of Hidden New Jersey.