Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Belleville's Bones

Few towns are as fortunate as we for our wealth of tales to be told about headless nightriders, witches, ghosts, screaming spirits and pirates. With Halloween close at hand, it seems just the right time to carefully, reverently open up the dusty, old tome of Second River's ancient legends and re-tell one of it's best stories.

This one dates back to Revolutionary War days and relates to us the fate of a local resident who was accused, either justly or unjustly, of being a spy for the British forces and how, in his own unique way, he is still among us.

Andrew was known to be a good farmer in our fair village back in the days of George Washington's War. He was also known to be a remarkably good listener, listening with focused attention whenever others spoke. A good listener is always welcomed among people who loved to talk and who love to be heard. Because of this trait, Andrew was gladly admitted to many circles. He was an attentive listener whenever a group gathered to discuss the matters of the day, always nodding, smiling agreeably, saying nothing.

Now, it was well known that there were both patriots and loyalists among the villagers, sometimes even families were divided on the issues of war. Sometimes Andrew would hear a thing or two that was not meant for one group or the other to know about. Sometimes it was thought that he listened even when he had not been invited to join a conversation.

The war was a day-to-day affair in the Village of Second River. While great battles may have been fought elsewhere, the war in Second River was a matter of dodging flying lead balls as one went about ones daily chores. Fetching a pail of water at the well was a risky bit of business. A contingent of British troops were arrayed across the Passaic to restrict access to the Schuyler copper mine and to keep an eye on the village since it was such a hot-bed of patriot activity. With these adversaries so close to each other, neither side could resist the opportunity to send a musket ball whizzing across the river when a head would appear.

Though watchmen were posted in the old Dutch Church steeple and sentries guarded the river front, all those folks who were within musket-shot range near the river lived a nervous existence. It was decided that a raid across the river to push back the snipers to a respectful distance was in the best interests of the villagers. The raid was planned in absolute secrecy. It would be a total surprise. In the quiet hours of a moonless night, local members of the Second Essex Regiment slid across the Passaic to root out the hornets nest. Ambush ! The British were waiting. It took the very best military skills of the patriots to scramble back across the river.

"This is an outrage", shouted the local General. "How did they know ?" Someone was needed to blame for this ! Surely it must be someone's fault that this perfect plan didn't work. A soldier, intent upon calming the General's rage suggested that maybe old Andrew, who heard so many things, was to blame. It seemed like a good idea to quickly find a culprit to sooth the General's anger and embarrassment. Another soldier volunteered that Andrew was sometimes thought to be seen listening at window sills to hear what might be going on inside a house. It must be him ! Indeed !

The raiding party rushed to Andrew's farm. They stormed his house. They roused him out of bed. "It wasn't me", protested Andrew after hearing the accusations. "It wasn't me", he said as they dragged him out to the lane. "It wasn't me", he insisted as they conducted a proper military trial right there in the lane before his farmhouse. They took old Andrew to the banks of the Second River by his home and they hanged him right there from a crooked limbed tree. It is said that the last thing old Andrew gurgled while suspended from the hangman's noose was, "It . . . wasn't . . . me !"

They left old Andrew there 'til his bones glistened white as a warning to others who might be tempted to hear too much. But old Andrew had long gone to the otherworld where the Brethren there were quite surprised to see him since he had not been summoned. When pressed for an explanation for his presence, all he could utter in response was, "It wasn't me"!

Now, the Brethren of the otherworld have ways and means generally beyond our ken. They agreed amongst themselves that Andrew's spirit should be returned to Second River to prove his innocence, if he could. Thus it was that on many a night afterwards, frightened villagers reported seeing old Andrew's bones there, letting himself down from the tree and walking about the village, listening wherever he could, intent upon learning who really did spoil the raid on that quiet moonless night.

Now, it's not that the villagers were a superstitious lot but after a number of sightings, they thought it the Christian thing to do to have the bravest among them take down those bones and bury them. And when the sightings continued, they chopped down the tree as well. But still his bones were seen skulking about the village, listening to every conversation.

It is said that Andrew is still here in town, listening as you speak. He may lurk beneath your own window sill, listening to everything you say. Maybe you are a relative of the one who told and spoiled that raid during George Washington's War. You can tell when he is near. His rattling bones sound like hollow wood wind-chimes as he moves and, given his advanced age, he tends to creak a bit. Or, you may see just a glint of light as the moon shines on his polished white bones. And for goodness sake, be careful what you say. You should, at least, be very careful if you go out on Halloween. Old Andrew is not the only ghost from Belleville's past that still lingers in our village.

Visit our website. There are now Post Cards from Belleville available for you.



Thursday, October 11, 2007

Morris Canal

If we reach back, let's say about 177 years, we will find something very exciting happening here in Belleville. It is 1830 and the Morris canal is coming. And, it was going to be routed through Belleville. Folks were beginning to think prosperous thoughts. Five years earlier, the Erie Canal had been completed in New York. It was a commercial success so, naturally, it seemed reasonable to build a canal across New Jersey. The Morris Canal would connect the Delaware and Passaic rivers opening up easy trade routes for enterprising business men who could now ship goods to Philadelphia, Newark, New York or even to the Great Lakes region via the Hudson River and Erie Canal. The canal formed part of a network that would connect Philadelphia to Chicago by a convenient inland waterway and Belleville was on the route.

During an early design stage, it was intended that the canal would end in Belleville. One design had the canal flow into Second River from Bloomfield and then terminate where Second River flows into the Passaic. Belleville would have exploded with commerce ! However, lobbyists from Newark argued that, even though it would make the canal longer and more expensive, their city was the logical terminus. Of course, we know who won the argument. Perhaps it was best, we would have become a major port city if the canal had ended here.

It would be the Soho and Silver Lake sections of town which would benefit most. During construction, labor would be needed to help build it and when complete, labor would be needed to maintain it, handle the mules that pulled the canal barges and to load the barges carrying local goods to market. The canal would enter Belleville from Bloomfield. It would flow alongside the Second River where Montgomery Street in Bloomfield is today, intersect Harrison Street in Belleville, briefly flow alongside Mill Street, then head south toward Silver Lake. The closest point to the lake was where Franklin Avenue intersects Franklin Street. Then it would make its way to Branch Brook Park and through Newark to its final destination, the Passaic River near Newark Bay. Aqueducts would be needed to carry the canal over top of both the Second River and the river flowing from Silver Lake to Second River, both of which were intersected by the route of the canal.

The canal was completed in 1830 and was fully open to traffic by 1832. For the next 60 years, the canal was a great economic lift for the town. Coal came in from the mines in Pennsylvania to power factories that, for the first time, did not have to be located directly on Second River for power. Outgoing were the products of the factories, mills and farms. Ice was harvested from Silver Lake and shipped to Newark and New York. By the 1870's almost every city residence had an "ice box" for food storage. The market was lucrative. Belleville, already economically successful, was now growing even faster.

The canal served other than commercial purposes. What a grand place for ice skating in winter when the waterway was frozen. Summer would find youngsters rafting along the canal or adults rowing canoes on Sundays when there was no barge traffic. The mule paths made great bridal paths for horseback riding or trails for bicycling. A short walk to Berkley Avenue in Bloomfield would reward the hiker with an opportunity to watch the workings of Lock 15E, located there, where the barges were raised or lowered.

Nothing lasts forever. By the 1890's, railroads were replacing the canal for shipping. It took five days to travel from Phillipsburg on the Delaware to Newark via the canal. A steam locomotive could do it in eight hours. It no longer made economic sense to use the canal. By the beginning of the twentieth century the canal had been abandoned by commerce. In 1924 the canal was "officially" abandoned by the State and could be filled-in as local communities might require. It's a pity that the State lacked the foresight to continue to maintain the canal as a recreational facility. If they had, we would still be enjoying it today.

There has never been a shortage of heroes in Belleville when the need arises, even on the spur of the moment. On a delightful first day of Summer in 1907, two young ladies, Josephine Schneider and Lillian Hock, both 15 years old, were passing a leisurely afternoon by sailing toy boats on the canal. Dare-devils that they were, they urged each other to wade across the canal. Step-by-step, down the gradual slope they ventured. Well, we've all heard about sliding down a slippery slope. Before they knew it, the girls were in over their heads, flailing about and screaming for help. A Soho resident, William Hearne, who had been walking along the canal, heard their cries, quickly dove into the canal and rescued Josephine. At the same time, Edward Sibley, himself a young lad of just 13, who had been swimming in the canal nearby, rushed to the scene. The Sibley lad was attempting to rescue Lillian, but the terrified lass sank them both to the bottom with her struggles. She had an iron grip around his neck making his efforts doubly difficult. With perseverance, the lad managed to drag her to shore; a job well done. The two very wet and trembling girls were able to go home. We never learn, though, if the girls ever went playing by the canal again.

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It's time for Christmas shopping! Don't forget to buy a copy of "A Dutch Christmas in Old Second River 1697" at our bookstore. It makes a really nice gift.

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Can't get enough of Belleville's long and colorful history? Visit Mr. Anthony Buccino's site "Old Belleville".