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.

1 comment:

  1. I saw this today, parking to see what the plaque was about. Cool!


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