Friday, May 27, 2005

Remembering the Victory Ship Walter Kidde

Memorial Day 2005 has come now upon us. Customarily, we pause in our merry-making just long enough to remember, in a passing thought, heroes past and present. It is a good exercise; that is, remembering heroes. We owe our life-style to them. Ordinary folks they were who found themselves in extraordinary circumstances and, when called upon, did extraordinary things.

We owe much to many. Sometimes however, to make it more real, I like to narrow my focus. In this year’s remembering I would like to raise my glass in tribute to the crew of an old WWII Victory Class ship, named after one of Belleville’s great captains of industry, the S.S. Walter Kidde. She is a part of our town’s history by virtue of her name. Walter Kidde put as much energy and creative genius into the battle of the home front as any General did in those other battles. Kidde’s army was all those folks who toiled in the plant on Main Street adding to Belleville’s prodigious output of war materials. The government, in naming this particular Victory Ship, acknowledged his contribution as well as the contribution of the tireless work force of our town.

The Victory Ship Walter Kidde, 455 feet long and 62 feet wide, sleek and fast, capable of 17 knots when at maximum power, could outrun a U-Boat. In your mind’s eye, place yourself on her deck for a moment in those dark waters of war. She was armed with a 5-inch gun aft for use against submarines, a bow-mounted 3-inch anti-aircraft gun and eight 20 mm cannon. With this minimum of firepower, her crew was expected to defend the 10,850 tons of tanks, jeeps or aircraft that she could carry. In wartime she was manned by a crew of 62 merchant sailors and 28 U. S. Navy Armed-Guard personnel who operated the guns and communications equipment.

There were 534 Victory class ships built for the war effort making it difficult to learn the history of just one of them but we do get two “snap-shots in time” of the Walter Kidde. We know she was built in Baltimore, launched in 1944, and was at war during the last two years of WWII. We also know she survived the war to become a peace-time merchant ship, re-named the Yorkman, with the Calmar Line.

So, this Memorial Day I shall raise a glass of good scotch to the gallant crew of the Victory Ship Walter Kidde and reflect upon their bravery. I would like to think that her crew knew they were on a good ship named after an industrial leader in a town of dedicated people.

Here you can see a photo of the Walter Kidde in civilian garb courtesy of


Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Open Space

What I remember most about early childhood, in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, in Belleville
is open space. There were endless places to run, to play, to feel the freedom of open space. Back yards were un-fenced, and as long as you didn’t trample the neighbors petunias, you were free to run about. Back yards, back then, were filled with fruits and flowers. I remember a plentiful supply of raspberries, strawberries, mulberries, grapes, apples, pears and more. Wow, talk about fast food ! How about just reaching out and finding food right in the middle of what ever game occupied us at the moment.

Back yards were not the only open space. I lived in the shadow of Soho hospital, right across the street from the “hospital grounds” with it’s acres and acres of green, open space. It was un-fenced in those early days, and easy to go to. There were fields for games and slopes for sleigh riding. You could actually see long distances.

There were an assortment of wooded properties scattered about the neighborhood. Opportunities for more freedom, they were. Of course you were not supposed to play on these private properties, but when you knew there were Indians hiding behind the trees, you just had to go in there with your cap-gun and chase them out.

Perhaps best of all were the safaris we would take into the “swamp”. Today it is called the Rutan Estates but then it was many acres of marshy land by the third river where we went hunting with our hand-made sling-shots. Many a wild critter lived in great peril while we stalked them in those woods.

Yes, open space, but so little of it is left today. So much of it has given way to “progress” as the developers mistakenly call it. Younger people today often ask us older folks what was so terrific about the “good old days”, anyway. It’s a difficult question to answer, because there is almost nothing to compare it to in today’s world so that they might understand. I grew up on sun-soaked grassy fields and they have grown up on concrete and small, confining back yards. What can I say, I grew up before progress happened. Really, open space is better.


Sunday, May 08, 2005

A Grand Old Name

The place-name given by folks to their hometown reveals much about the character of the land they have chosen to settle. While one might wonder about such places as Flushing, NY or Ashland, PA, there is nothing to puzzle over when folks call their home “Beautiful Village” …. Belleville. It may seem strange for a moment that these Dutch settlers gave a French name to their home in English speaking America. Yet, it speaks of their expectations, tells us that they believed they would become world renowned and so chose a name in the then international language, French. It is an old name by American standards, but not the oldest name given to this place.

If the old mastodon hunters, who ambled along what we now dare to call Main Street, ever had a name for this place, we shall never know it; although it may well have been a combination of a raised eyebrow coupled with an agreeable grunt that meant “nice place, huh?”

The Lenape, who lived here longer than any race of man, gave to the larger general area the name “Pahsayek” (Passaic) which meant “The Valley”, a name which survives as that of our bordering river as well as a town and county north of here. The eastern section of town is still known as “The Valley”. Most, but not all, Lenape names for near-by places have been erased from the map and from our collective memory. The Third River is still called the Yantacaw on some maps. Yantacaw is a Lenape word meaning “Dancing Place”. It is no mystery why that name was given. From the place where the Yantacaw flows into the Passaic and on south to Center Street was sacred Lenape land where the annual Thanksgiving rites were held since time immemorial. It was not just the locals, but all Lenape would make the yearly pilgrimage to this sacred power place. The north end of it was, of course, the dancing place. This may seem to be a bit of Nutley’s history and perhaps it is, but one must consider that Nutley was once Nut Lea, was once Franklin, was once the north end of Belleville (until 1874) which was once Second River. So, in the end it is also a part of Second River’s history.

The name Second River is, at it’s roots, a simple and descriptive cartographer’s term applied by Henry Hudson’s survey crew as they explored the Passaic River basin in 1609. The first white man to set eyes upon the site of what would be our town was either Henry Hudson himself or Robert Juet, his first officer. Juet kept a meticulous journal of the voyage, however, he neglected to mention which of them was supervising the surveying party that day. So, we must make do with wondering which of them “discovered” our town site. They jotted names down on their map as they slowly worked their way up the Passaic in a long boat, sounding the bottom as they went, First River, Second River, Third River.

As a side bar, yes, there is a First River. It flows ignobly through the storm sewers of Newark. You can still see it sometimes gushing, sometimes trickling out of an old pipe into the lower Passaic. It’s a pitiful sight.

The name Second River stuck to this area from the time of Hudson’s third voyage in 1609, through the settlement period of the late 1600’s, through both the Dutch and English colonial periods and on through the Revolutionary War. The name “Village of Second River” is seen on George Washington’s military campaign maps.

Place-names are not forever. It confuses history and confounds historians but, people change place-names. True, it tends to cast the shadow of obscurity over a long tradition of events and the accomplishments of a people but it happens with some frequency. And so it was that the good folks of the Village of Second River, discontent that their town was named after the local stream, wanting a more noble sounding name, decided to change the name of their village. On the 24th day of June in 1797, Second River became the Village of Washington.

It is unlikely that anything of historical importance ever happened in the Village of Washington because, two days later, the good folks of Washington, discontent with the name of their town, changed it. On the 26th day of June in 1797 the Town became known as Belleville.

Today, 208 years later, the name still stands. I guess the good folks of Belleville are content living in their Beautiful Village.


Sunday, May 01, 2005


I live on ancient land. Yes, I know, dirt is old and all land is ancient. Still, this land is ancient in a special sense. Mastodon hunters once dwelt here. Lenapes, called the ‘grandfather people’ by their peers, made a home for uncounted generations on this land where I cut my grass. A Revolutionary War skirmish, the Battle of Second River, was fought a short walk from here where I sit writing. Birthplace of the American industrial revolution, this town’s factories poured copious quantities of war materials as well as fighting men into the victorious battles for freedom during World War II. Today, this town sits in the dawn light of the twenty-first century, worn, hard-used, waiting for it’s people to cause it to blossom again. I believe it will, it is good land.

I feel an attachment to this place. I have been here a long time. I was brought here as an infant in the late ‘40s by my parents who lived their entire adult lives here. I have always lived here, went to school here, raised a family here and sent my children to school here. At an early age, while still in school, I became fascinated with the history of this village which, by American standards, is very old. For the decades since, I have soaked-up the history, legends and wonders of this place once known as the Village of Second River, now known as Belleville. It is a thing worth sharing.

This is but a tiny corner of cyber-space, but I should like to put it to some good use by sharing with those who may stumble into it what I have discovered about this ancient land along with what I have experienced while growing-up here. Perhaps you will find it interesting.

To be continued ….