This was the first permanent English settlement in New Jersey and Governor Sir Philip Carteret made it the first capital of the colony for a brief time. Carteret named his capital in honor of the wife of his cousin, Sir George Carteret. The Proprietors of East Jersey transferred the capital to Perth Amboy in 1686, thinking that village was destined for greater things than Elizabethtown.
The town scarcely had time to notice the slight. With frontage on Newark Bay and State Island Sound, Elizabethtown early on tied its fortunes to the transportation industry. Ships of 30 and 40 tons were sailing up the Elizabeth River as far as Broad Street and soon home-built ships were pursuing whales migrating off the Jersey coast.
The American Revolution affected Elizabeth more than most New Jersey towns. The British on nearby Staten Island made repeated incursions against area farms and the village itself. But it would be that close proximity to New York City that provided the impetus for Elizabeth’s transformation into an important industrial city. A group of New Yorkers invested in the Elizabeth waterfront in the 1830s and influenced the creation of the Elizabeth and Somerville Railroad that brought the wealth of the state’s interior to its docks.
Manufacturers began to set up shop in Elizabeth, none more important than the I.M. Singer Company. At its busiest, some 10,000 people were employed making sewing machines, a concern that anchored the business community until 1982. New Jersey’s first automobile assembly line would be in Elizabeth. The first submarine was constructed here. And, for that matter, so was the first ice cream soda.
Our exploration of New Jersey’s longest English history will concentrate in the Midtown Historic District and we will start at the town’s most important crossroads...
Elizabeth Public Library
11 South Broad Street
Books were being lent around Elizabeth as early as 1755 and in 1857 the Elizabeth Library Hall Association was officially incorporated. The collection moved around town several times before landing in this historic location. From Colonial days a string of prominent public houses stood at this important crossroads: Nag’s Head Tavern, The Marquis of Granby, Red Lion and the Indian Queen. Using a gift from steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, who funded 2,509 libraries around the world, Elizabeth was able to retain the services of architect Edward Lippincott Tilton, regarded as one of the foremost library architects in the country. Tilton delivered a formidable Italian Renaissance building that is being spruced up in time for its 100th birthday in 2012.
WITH YOUR BACK TO THE LIBRARY, TURN LEFT AND START WALKING NORTH UP BROAD STREET.
Union County Courthouse
2 Broad Street
Union County rules have been dictated from this site for well over 300 years. The first English-speaking Colonial Assembly in New Jersey met in a building here on May 26, 1668. That rough frame structure served as church, courthouse and meeting place and was enlarged several times before a Tory raiding party from Staten Island destroyed the building on January 28, 1870. After the War for Independence it was rebuilt but burned again in 1808. The courthouse that replaced it in 1810 was considered one of the finest in new Jersey. When Union County became the state’s last, breaking away from Essex County in 1857, an addition was constructed. The new county was a success from the start and growth by the end of the century dictated a wholly new building which was provided in the Classical Revival style by New York architects W.S. Ackerman and Albert Randolph Ross in 1905. The new courthouse was dominated by a quartet of massive Corinthian columns on the outside and an impressive rotunda within. But even this grand new building could not keep up with Union County. By 1925 a seven-floor annex was added and in 1931 a 17-floor tower was tacked on at the cost of $1.2 million. Decorating the grounds are a memorial to city firefighters and a cannon, cast in Strasburg in 1758, that was presented by General George Washington to troops from Elizabethtown for their service in their capture of the British position at Stony Point on the Hudson River in 1779.
First Presbyterian Church
42 Broad Street
Several pastors of note took their place in the pulpit of First Presbyterian Church in its early years. Reverend Jonathan Dickinson, considered one of the two theologians who most influenced the course of Protestantism in the 18th century, was pastor from 1709 to 1747. The other was Jonathan Edwards, who often preached sermons in First Presbyterian. Dickinson was a busy author and teacher as well and in 1746 he received a royal charter and established the College of New Jersey that would shortly move and become Princeton University. During the Revolution the Presbyterian minister was James Caldwell, known as the “Fighting Parson” to his admirers and the “high priest of the Revolution” to Tory detractors. On June 7, 1780, as the British invaded northern New Jersey from State Island, Hannah Caldwell and her children took refuge in the parsonage at Connecticut Farms (now Union). She was later found dead - killed, says the inscription on her monument, “by a shot from a British soldier, June 25th (incorrect date), 1780, cruelly sacrificed by the enemies of her husband and of her country.” There is no evidence that the fiery rhetoric of patriots eager to martyr Mrs. Caldwell is correct and, in fact, there is a suspicion that her death came at the hands of a former servant seeking revenge. Whatever the case, the death of Hannah Caldwell is depicted on the official Union County seal. Some 17 months later the Reverend Caldwell was also slain under suspicious circumstances after an argument with a sentinel in Elizabethtown. The soldier was hanged for murder and later evidence revealed he may have been bribed to kill Caldwell at his first opportunity. The British burned the Caldwell home on this site. The Caldwells, and other New Jersey patriots, are interred in the church graveyard. The Georgian Colonial church was dedicated in 1786. After a severe fire, the church was restored in the 1970s to its 18th century appearance but it was not until 2008 that its 220-foot spire with town clock that long dominated the Elizabethtown skyline could be reconstructed.
42 Broad Street
The brick Colonial Revival Parish House was constructed in 1916 on the site of the Old Academy, operated by the church. Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr were both students here, long before they engaged in America’s most famous duel at Weehawken. Hamilton and his teacher left the school to fight in the Revolution. It would not be here when they returned - converted into a storehouse, it was burned by the British in 1780.
39-49 Broad Street
In its heyday the Regent could seat over 2,000 movie lovers. The building has lost its marquee and much of its art deco detailing has been compromised in its conversion to retail space but you can still look up and see gargoyles glaring down from the rooftop. This was the site of Shepard Kollock’s printing office in the 1700s when he was churning out one of the state’s first newspapers, the New Jersey Journal. Kollock was born in Delaware in 1751 and learned the printing business in the office of his uncle, William Goddard, editor of the Pennsylvania Chronicle. He resigned from the Continental Army for the more vital task of combating the Tory press of New York City. Kollock printed his first issues in 1779 in Chatham, and moved to Elizabethtown in 1785 where he built a combined home, printing office, and bookstore. When he died in 1839 he was buried across the street in the First Presbyterian cemetery. The paper he started would enjoy a continuous run of 212 years.
St. John’s Episcopal Church
61 Broad Street
Founded by missionaries of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, London, England, in 1706, the church received a Royal Charter from King George III in 1762. The parents of the first American Roman Catholic saint, Elizabeth Ann Seton, were married here in 1769. The current Gothic church, dominated by a brooding 126-foot tower, was consecrated in 1860. Underneath the church, in an unmarked burial site of the youngest of the 29 signers of the U.S. Constitution, Jonathan Dayton. The church, boasting five of the largest Tiffany stained glass windows in existence, seats 700 worshipers and is the largest Episcopal facility in New Jersey.
National State Bank
68 Broad Street
The National State Bank can trace its beginnings to 1812; this Neoclassical vault dates to 1919 from plans drawn by the New York architectural firm of Dennison & Hirons. The building was executed in Napoleon gray marble quarried in Missouri. Although the main entrance has been compromised the exquisite marble carvings can still be seen.
125 Broad Street
The Hersh family moved to Elizabeth after the Civil War and started a paper bag business on First Street. They later peddled groceries and other supplies. By 1931 they were able to construct the 14-story Hersh Tower as the tallest building in Union County. The building was restored in the 1990s to once again highlight the resplendent art deco facade of brick, marble and nickel.
Union County Trust
142 Broad Street
Union County Trust organized in 1901 and moved into this majestic Neoclassical vault in 1909. The limestone building, fronted by a quartet of fluted Ionic columns, operated as a bank into the 1990s. After lying vacant for several years a painstaking, a million-dollar renovation has preserved its original details for office space. The project required two years; restoring the columns and gold leafing required eight months alone.
RETRACE YOUR STEPS TO JERSEY STREET AND TURN LEFT.
Altenburg Piano House
1150 East Jersey Street
Now in its sixth generation, the Altenburg Piano House is America’s oldest family-owned and operated piano retailer. Frederick Altenburg built his first piano by hand in a small factory in the province of Saxony, Germany in 1847. In the early days, the company made only two pianos a year. The Altenburg family settled in New York City when they first came to America. They opened a piano factory in 1855 in the Bowery, then the business moved to Elizabeth later on. Of some 200 European piano makers who came to America more than 100 years ago, the firm is the only one that has remained family owned and operated. The current art deco showroom opened in 1929.
The Ritz Theatre
1148 East Jersey Street
Originally built in 1865 as the Drake Opera House the site was transformed into a vaudeville showcase in 1925 by theater impresario Jacob Fabian. It was a movie palace and then a Spanish Pentecostal church after downtown movie-goers fled to suburban multi-plexes. It re-emerged in the 1970s as a more conventional performing arts venue where Tom Jones, Styx and Frank Sinatra played. The latest re-birth for the 2,700-seat venue came with a multi-million dollar restoration as performing arts center.
1129-1131 East Jersey Street
Emily Hiller and Elsa Wallack began efforts to create a YWCA in Elizabeth with a supper conference at First Presbyterian Church on November 13, 1919 for 250 attendees. The YWCA formally organized in 1920 and this brick-faced, mansard-roofed building was purchased. It opened to 1801 charter members on January 25, 1921.
Central Baptist Church
1125 East Jersey Street
The Baptist cause was slow to take root in Elizabeth, a town dominated by Presbyterians and Episcopalians. A few members led by Elkanah Drake began meeting in 1842 that led to the first church. The group that resulted in this congregation began assembling here in 1877.
TURN RIGHT INTO WINFIELD SCOTT PLAZA.
Elizabeth City Hall
50 Winfield Scott Plaza
Today’s City Hall stands on the ground where the town’s first schoolhouse once stood and then the former Adelphian Academy. The government moved here in 1865 with an expansive building that provided room for a public market on the ground floor and a drill room for the militia. The current block-wide Colonial Revival brick building was designed by the firm of Eggers & Higgins in the 1930s.
Scott Plaza between Jersey Avenue and Elizabeth Avenue
Winfield Scott was involved in the War of 1812, the Seminole Wars and the Civil War, gaining his greatest fame as the most famous American general of the Mexican War. Virginia-born, he became acquainted with Elizabeth when he summered here and in 1848 he moved into his father-in-law’s house at 1105 East Jersey Street. Scott ran unsuccessfully for President as the candidate for the Whig Party in 1852. The house was razed in 1928 but this park remains to honor his legacy. In addition to a remembrance of Winfield Scott the park contains monuments to the crew of the space shuttle Challenger, Martin Luther King, Jr., and a formidable Veterans’ monuments.
WALK OVER TO THE EAST SIDE OF SCOTT PARK.
Thomas Jefferson High School
east side of Scott Park
First built in 1928 as an all-boys high school and, Jefferson is now the oldest house of Elizabeth High School and the center for the district’s performing arts program.
FACING THE HIGH SCHOOL, TURN LEFT AND WALK BACK TO JERSEY STREET. CROSS OVER TO THE NORTH SIDE OF THE STREET AND TURN RIGHT.
1073 East Jersey Street
Elizabethtown, as it was known during the Revolution, was the site of many attacks and skirmishes in the war years, but many pre-Revolutionary buildings remain. Boxwood Hall, built by mayor Samuel Woodruff in 1750, is one of the finest. Its most prominent resident was Elias Boudinot, a president of the Continental Congress and later, as acting secretary of foreign affairs, a signer of the Paris Peace Treaty with Great Britain. The body of martyred James Caldwell was displayed in front of Boxwood Hall in 1782 and Elias Boudinot spoke in tribute. Boudinot later sold the red clapboard building to Jonathan Dayton, youngest signer of the Constitution. Subsequent owners drastically altered the appearance of the house but it has been scaled back to its 18th century look and is now maintained and designated as a national landmark.
1045 East Jersey Street
Nathaniel Bonnell was a native of New Haven who married Susanna Whitehead, daughter of the founder of that town, on January 3, 1665. The family subsequently came to Elizabethtown about the time of its founding and had seven children between 1670 and 1685. Bonnell, a member of the General Assembly, owned six acres of land on this spot and built this house sometime before 1682 and maybe as early as 1670. Whichever is the correct date, the Bonnell House stands as the oldest in Elizabeth.
CROSS THE STREET TO THE OPPOSITE CORNER.
1046 East Jersey Street
The “Belcher” in question was Jonathan Belcher, a royal governor first of Massachusetts and New Hampshire and then New Jersey from 1747 until his death in 1757. Belcher brought the royal colony’s government to this brick house and also sponsored the College of New Jersey which became Princeton University and donated his library of over 400 books to help get the institution rolling. During the War of Independence the politics inside the house shifted when William Peartree Smith, a Revolutionary patriot, was the owner. When his daughter Caty married Elisha Boudinot, brother of Elias Boudinot, President of the Continental Congress in this house in 1778 Alexander Hamilton served as Master of Ceremonies to the wedding party. George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette were guests. The British sought to raid the star-studded soiree but arrived several days late and sacked the mansion of its furnishings in frustration. The “Ogden” was Aaron Ogden, a descendant of one of the town founders, who purchased the mansion in 1797. Ogden was a veteran of the Revolution and was elected governor of New Jersey in 1812. A recent restoration has brought the last remaining original royal governor’s mansion to prominence as one of the finest 18th century Georgian mansions in the state.
WALK PAST THE BELCHER-OGDEN MANSION DOWN CATHERINE STREET. TURN RIGHT AT ELIZABETH AVENUE. THIS SHOPPING AREA HAS TRADITIONALLY BEEN KNOWN AS “THE MARKET.” CONTINUE DOWN ELIZABETH AVENUE TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT AT BROAD STREET.