Montclair 150: A town on the move, since 1868
By MIKE FARRELLY
For Montclair Local
There were naysayers when my wife and I decided to stay in Montclair in the 1970s. We met at Montclair State in 1968. There had been race riots in Newark. Racial issues in Montclair were unsettled, especially in the schools, which were struggling to overcome years of segregation. Downtown businesses were suffering from competition with the malls, just as most downtowns were. There were restaurants that people loved: the Wedgewood Cafeteria, Gabe’s Galley, the Georgian Inn, and the Marlboro Inn, but Montclair was hardly the food mecca that it has become. Storefronts were filled with antique dealers. Some people said that too many antique stores was a sign that there would never be any improvement. People questioned our decision to live here.
Montclair did not stagnate. School segregation was ended with the advent of the magnet school system in 1977. Sears, Hahnes, and many other stores never came back. They were replaced by high-end specialty stores and restaurants. Montclair has become a destination spot. That is the point! Montclair has problems just like any other American city, but the people here overcome their differences and get things done. The people of Montclair will never let this town become a relic. They will never let it become ghost town. They have always kept it moving forward.
IT BEGINS WITH TRAINS
One hundred and fifty years ago the people of West Bloomfield (a political sub-division of Bloomfield) wanted a second railroad to open up the north end of town. The citizens of Bloomfield were happy with the railroad they already had and wanted no part of a new line. The people of West Bloomfield appealed to the state legislature. On April 15, 1868, an act creating a new town was passed. West Bloomfield was separated from Bloomfield and became Montclair. Bonds were issued immediately and the second railroad came into being. It started operation in 1871. The second railroad was a financial disaster, but it brought more and more people into the area. Montclair slowly went from being a sleepy agricultural backwater, to being a dynamic suburb.
There was not much in the way of infrastructure when these “newcomers,” as they were called, arrived. There were only a handful of roads, no hospitals and just a few schools. Every family had its own well. There was no public water supply, no sewer system and no fire department. There were a few elected constables, but no police department. Legal matters were handled by a few regularly elected justices of the peace.
The “old timers” were content to live their lives in much the same way their parents and grandparents had always lived. They were mostly self-sufficient farmers. Many of the newcomers came from Newark and New York. They didn’t like the old dirt roads and slow pace of life. They wanted to improve the town, to make it more like the life that they knew in the cities.
With the exception of Bloomfield Avenue, which was owned by the Essex County (Israel Crane had owned it before his family turned it over to the county after his death in 1858), the few roads that existed were simply dirt and mud. Bloomfield Avenue had been surfaced with stone. If potholes developed in the dirt thoroughfares, they were filled in with more dirt from the side of the road. It often washed out. The newcomers, many of whom still worked in the cities, rode their carriages to the train station and commuted to work. They needed better roads to ensure that they made it to the train on time. By popular vote, it was decided to cover the old roads with gravel. Just as today, there were disagreements. Some people thought Little Falls gravel was the best. Others thought that Caldwell gravel was superior. There wasn’t enough money to cover all the streets at once. There were arguments about which roads should be done first. Montclair citizens have never walked in lockstep, but we respect each other as we work out our differences and move ahead.
One of the first things the newcomers insisted on, even before fire and police protection, was sidewalks. Many of them walked to work, or to the train station. They objected to trudging through the mud and dust. The state legislature passed a special act in 1869 which divided Montclair into four sidewalk districts. Each district was pretty much a law unto itself. Homeowners in each district petitioned to have sidewalks built in front of their property. The folks that signed the petition provided the bulk of the money to build the walks. But properties that abutted that land and property across the street were also assessed. That was the problem. In the 1870s, there were often large gaps between houses. The owners of the vacant properties, and the owners who didn’t have sidewalks directly in front of their houses, objected to paying for them. To save money, sidewalks were made of wooden planks and there were huge gaps. Of course, the wood began to decay. It became dangerous to traverse these crumbling boardwalks, especially at night, because there were no street lights. In 1882, the state legislature transferred the responsibility for sidewalks from private citizens to the town. Gradually, the town put in flagstone sidewalks.
Streetlights were the next issue. Montclair citizens did not wait for the town to put lamps in. In 1871, they went to the state legislature and asked for permission to incorporate a gas company. The Montclair Gas and Water Company came into existence. They issued stock in the amount of $25,000 and started making gas (from coal) and laying down gas mains. In 1876, the company asked the township committee for permission to assess homeowners in the vicinity of the gas mains. Once again, disagreements and objections were raised. The gas was turned off for the next five years. In 1881, the township committee proposed a study to determine whether it was “legal” to continue putting street lighting in. In March of that year, $1,000 was appropriated to light Bloomfield Avenue, the first of many appropriations.
THE FIRE BRIGADE
In January 1878, a small fire started in the basement of the “Jacobus Building” at Church Street and South Fullerton Avenue. A bucket brigade was formed, but there weren’t enough people to get water from the stream 300 feet away in time to save the building. The township offices, Edward Madison’s original bookstore and the relatively new offices of the Montclair Times were destroyed. Damages were estimated to be $50,000. People began to talk about starting a fire department. Nothing much came of these discussions until 1882 when Thorndyke Saunders’ house on South Mountain burned to the ground. His neighbor, James Ogilvie, and a banker named Charles Schott had had enough. Charles was the type of person who was quick to act on the things he felt were right. They called for a meeting. Mr. Schott did not ask for a vote. He simply informed the people in attendance that they were the nucleus of a new fire department. Hook and Ladder Company #1 was formed a week later. Mr. Schott was the first chief. Subscriptions were sold. The company bought a (human powered) fire engine. It carried ladders, axes, fire extinguishers and buckets (pumpers weren’t used until the water company started installing fire hydrants in 1887). It came with an extra pole, so horses could be used to pull it, if the crew wanted to use them. The town did not become involved until 1884. Chief Schott offered the services of the company to the township committee. They adapted it as the cornerstone of their new Fire Department in 1885. It remained largely a volunteer fire department until the 1890s. Drivers were paid because of the skill they needed to handle the horses. The first full-time, paid firemen were hired in 1902.
A FEW BIG DEALS
There is no way to talk about all the things Montclairites have been able to accomplish, so here are a few:
Montclair had a few physicians, but no hospital, until Margaret Jane Powers and a small group of local women organized Mountainside Hospital in 1890. Margaret had watched a child fall from an upper story window on Bloomfield Avenue. She was distraught that the child had to be put on a wagon and taken to the nearest hospital, miles away in Orange. They rented a small house on Bay Street and convinced Dr. John J. H. Love to become the first chief of staff in 1891.
Montclair resident William Evans, merchant and noted art collector, promised to donate 24 works of art to the town. He eventually increased the offer to 54 paintings and two sculptures. However, there was a stipulation that the pieces were to be housed in a fireproof building. The Municipal Art Commission was formed to accept the art, but the townspeople voted down the proposition to build the building. Another local resident, Florence Rand Lang, donated $50,000 and spearheaded a prominent group of patrons who founded the Montclair Art Museum in 1914. These are the kind of people who have made Montclair what it is today.
William Dickson was a steel magnate who had a huge house on Llewellyn Avenue. He was a founder of the Llewellyn Chamber Ensemble. They practiced and performed in the “ballroom” wing of his house. The Ensemble evolved into the Montclair Orchestra; then in 1922, into the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. In 2016 a group of Montclairites re-established the Montclair Orchestra. David Chan, violinist and concertmaster of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, has been chosen as its first musical director. Montclair remains a vibrant hub and one of the cultural centers of New Jersey.
Mike Farrelly is Montclair’s township historian.
Goodell, Edwin B., Montclair, “The Evolution of a Suburban Town,” The Edward Madison Company, Montclair, 1934
Whittimore, Henry, “History of Montclair Township, State of New Jersey; Including the History of the Families who have been Identified with its Growth and Prosperity, The Suburban Publishing Company, N.Y.,” 1894
Carlisle, Robert D. B., “A Jewel in the Suburbs; The History of the Montclair Art Museum,” Published by the MAM, 1982
And too many other sources to list here.