Monday, October 10, 2011

South Orange Borders II

 

Last time we looked at the South Orange borders since the village separated in 1904. Now let's go back about forty years to the beginning of South Orange Township.

The Map



Boundary Changes

Here the Village of South Orange is bounded by dashed lines, to indicate that it was within the township. There were only two boundary events for the village: the formation of the village in 1869 and the addition of an area to the east in 1891, which we mentioned last time.

The Township of South Orange (later Maplewood) was formed in 1861 from parts of three older towns. It brought together under one jurisdiction an area that logically belonged together, namely most of the South Orange Avenue corridor, the South Orange settlement that would become the village, and the country area to the south with mills, farms, and country estates that did business with the South Orange settlement.

This area had been split awkwardly since 1834 by an east-west border almost through the middle of the South Orange settlement, with the old Township of Orange to the north and the newly formed Township of Clinton on the south, which had been part of Orange. (We'll take a look at that border next time.) The new Township of South Orange took enough from Orange to keep the settlement together, and about half of Clinton, down to the Union County line.

To this was added two years later a chunk from the Township of Millburn. The old border, shown on the map, went up the East Branch of the Rahway River as far as Pierson's mill pond (Parker Avenue today), and then went northwest in a straight line. In doing so it crosses Ridgewood Road at the Crooked Brook, noted as "the brook that divided Orange from Springfield" in an early description of the Timothy Ball House (which I wrote about here.)

Orange unfortunately retained a tongue of land that can be seen in the upper right, extending down to South Orange Avenue, because it contained the Orange poor farm, a type of welfare based on the virtues of doing honest labor and breathing fresh air. Because of this, the South Orange Avenue corridor is needlessly split between two municipalities. There is little visible difference today between the Newark and East Orange blocks besides the street signs.

In the far northwest corner of the township, the boundary is shown on some maps as the West Branch of the Rahway River, and on other maps as a straight line, which is what I show. I don't know for certain which is correct, but it is a straight line now, and Snyder does not list any boundary correction there.

Vailsburg

There was another perhaps unexpected portion of the Township of South Orange, the area known as Vailsburg, now part of Newark. Vailsburg was considered part of The Oranges in the nineteenth century.

Here's a modified map from 1889 to give you the geographical picture. My blue lines don't totally correspond to the base map, but they're a little more accurate, based on other sources. I like this map because it shows the full extent of the township as it was from 1863 to 1894, in shades of pink.


Vailsburg separated from the township in 1894 by becoming a borough. The reason was almost certainly the passage that year of a state law requiring all the schools within a township to be in a single school district. That act had the unintended consequence of breaking up townships. Until 1897, all people in an area had to do to establish a borough was pass a local referendum. The leader of the initiative in Vailsburg was Dr Merit H Cash Vail, who owned "a considerable portion" of Vailsburg. He was a Civil War veteran, physician, orator, strawberry farmer, and the first mayor of the borough.

During its brief existence Vailsburg was famous in the sports world for bicycle races. The Vailsburg Velodrome was a one-quarter mile oval with a pine board surface, with a grandstand for 2,000 spectators and open stands for about 6,000 more, and electric lights for night events. It was located on South Orange Avenue at Munn Avenue, in the western half of present-day Vailsburg Park, the rest of which was taken up by Electric Park, an amusement ground. The Vailsburg track was part of a national circuit toured by both amateur and professional cyclists. Notable wheelmen included Frank Kramer "the East Orange Flyer" and a popular African American, Marshall "Major" Taylor.

Racing on Sunday— the only day off most working people had— was started in 1901 in defiance of "blue law" traditions. The borough passed an ordinance specifically against Sunday bicycle racing in 1903, and an arson fire destroyed much of the track in January 1904. But the velodrome was rebuilt in time for the 1904 season, and the owners even announced the resumption of Sunday racing despite the law. The next year, after Newark had annexed Vailsburg, the police came one Sunday and arrested track officials. But the judge hearing the case ruled that racing was "clean outdoor amusement" and asked the chief of police why they never arrested people at the Sunday baseball games.

The track's last season was 1910, but only because the lease on the property expired. The promoters acquired property across the street, where there is now a school parking lot, and opened there the Newark Velodrome in time for the 1911 season. Some modern accounts confuse the two tracks. There was also briefly a Newark Motordrome for motorcycle races in 1912, on approximately the site of the old Vailsburg Velodrome, but soon after it opened, when a horrible crash killed two riders and six spectators, Newark banned motorcycle races.


Above, the Vailsburg Velodrome about 1905, looking north, showing the now unfamiliar sight of a wooden track and large crowds attending a bicycle race. Munn Avenue out of sight to the left, behind the grandstand ; South Orange Avenue in the distance with (I think) the new Engine 21 fire station ; Electric Park out of sight to the right.

But what happened to Vailsburg?

Newark was a prosperous city by 1900, and some civic leaders wanted to expand it into its suburbs, just as New York had done in 1898. They wanted to annex nearly half of Essex County and part of Hudson. Four annexation bills got through the state legislature, subject to local referendum : in 1902 the city annexed what was left of Clinton township ; in 1903 it tried to annex Irvington but failed the local referendum ; in 1905 it annexed the Borough of Vailsburg ; in 1908 it tried again to annex Irvington and failed again.

The end of Vailsburg therefore was part of an expansion campaign by Newark. But the voters of Vailsburg had to approve, which the voters of Irvington refused to do, twice. Some Irvington residents told reporters they felt Irvington would lose its identity as just a small part of a large city. Why the residents of Vailsburg felt differently, I do not know.

Because Irvington was never annexed, Vailsburg became a leftover narrow arm of Newark extending much farther west than any other part of the city. The City Plan Commission wrote in 1912 in City Planning for Newark:
The Vailsburg Section had a very haphazard growth before it was annexed to Newark. As a consequence, its street system cannot be made efficient without much expense. Apparently each property holder divided his plot regardless of his neighbors, with the result that there are no good crosstown [north-south] thoroughfares...
But this merely describes the usual suburban pattern of development, as viewed by planners used to the strict grid of Newark. Vailsburg at this date still consisted of scattered wood frame houses, with much open land. The commercial buildings that line South Orange Avenue did not yet exist, and most lots along the avenue were still vacant. The Commission proposed street openings and widenings that could have been done relatively cheaply at the time, but they did not call for a widening of South Orange Avenue itself or realignment of the intersections for continuous north-south travel.

The Commission's Comprehensive Plan of Newark of 1915 mentioned the key problem:
A poor street plan is largely responsible for lack of growth here and also for [lack of] that prime essential to proper development, transportation.
Nothing was done. The only main street in Vailsburg, South Orange Avenue, is congested with traffic, slowing both automobile and bus transportation, and no off-street rail transport was ever built. The Garden State Parkway provides a way out for automobiles, but its bridge over South Orange Avenue creates a visual gateway separating Vailsburg from the rest of Newark.



Next time, the earliest boundaries at South Orange.


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