Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Par three, swampy Revolution and the Underground Railroad, all in Clark

Somehow, maybe even by mistake, a historic battle site in Union County has been masquerading first as a golf course, and now as a passive recreation area. And as it turns out, it might also have played a role in the freedom of scores of enslaved people before the Emancipation Proclamation.

These days, Oak Ridge Park, on the border separating Clark and Edison, looks a fair deal like the county golf course it once was. With just moderate inclines scattered from place to place, it was probably a fairly easy challenge for new golfers and a reliable walk in the park for the senior duffers. Sand traps and tee boxes have been removed, but much of the macadam pathway is still available for strollers or cyclists who want to get some exercise without battling traffic.

An older home stands near the parking lot, looking a lot like a Colonial-style clubhouse. Or a Colonial era home, which is how it started its life. Before we get to the house, though, we'll tackle the battle.

Not many people know about the Battle of the Short Hills, and I'll wager that if you asked anyone where it took place, they'd tell you it was somewhere in Millburn. It's an understandable assumption, but incorrect. Depending on which historian you consult, you might hear the location referred to as Flat Hills, or Metuchen Meeting House, or even Westfield.

What's known for sure is that a conflict took place on June 26, 1777 in present-day Scotch Plains and Edison, on land known as the Ash Swamp. The British, led by Lieutenant General William Howe, had left Staten Island for points near New Brunswick earlier in the month, attempting to draw Washington and his troops from their perch in the Watchungs at Middlebrook. Having failed to engage the Americans, Howe began to lead his men back toward Perth Amboy.

Washington, however, ordered his troops to follow the British, sending General William Alexander (Lord Stirling) and the 2500 men under his command to harass the Redcoats. While Stirling's outnumbered troops may be said to have lost the skirmish, the battle is considered to have been a strategic win for the Americans. The British horses became mired in the thick swamp, allowing Washington the opportunity to move to more secure ground. (Longtime readers might also recall that the aftermath spawned the local legend about Aunt Betty Frazee, who bravely challenged Cornwallis' request for her freshly-baked bread.)

It's not clear if the house at Oak Ridge played a role in the battle, or if it sustained any damage, but it clearly witnessed the conflict. Known as Homestead Farm or Homestead Plantation, it was built sometime around 1730 by Shubal and William Smith. In the custom of the times for many large farms, the Smiths were slaveholders, and records show that both slave quarters and a cemetery were located on a portion of the property that's now on the other side of present day Oak Ridge Road. Slavery was legal in New Jersey until 1804, when gradual emancipation was instituted.

Interestingly, in the years after the Smiths owned the plantation, the property may have evolved from a workplace for slaves to a temporary haven for those escaping bondage. The home was eventually purchased by Quaker abolitionist and jurist Hugh Hartshorne Bowne, who is known to have been active in the Underground Railroad. While there were no prominent URR routes through Union County, it is known that conductors often stopped at nearby Rahway for fresh horses before continuing the journey to Jersey City. Bowne's cousin George Hartshorne was also known to have harbored escaped slaves in his Clark home, raising the possibility that the house at Oak Ridge might have taken in the occasional informal guest as well.

Whether this story will ever be told on the property is anyone's guess. Since the county closed the golf course in 2009, there have been infrequent talk about the future of the site; most recently plans were floated to build an ice rink. The house seems to be safe, or at least not scheduled for destruction or radical renovation.

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