Saturday, July 5, 2014

Riding the New Jersey Turnpike(s) - 19th Century Style

After passing a patriotic fourth of July with their families, the Flemington Neshanock visited historic New Bridge Landing in River Edge, New Jersey on Saturday for an event sponsored by the Bergen County Historical Society.  This was the second time the BCHS hosted vintage base ball and, as was the inaugural event last year, the match was well attended by an interested and enthusiastic crowd.  Today's opponents were the Eckford Club of Brooklyn, another relatively new vintage club led by Eric "Express" Miklich, one of the pioneers of vintage base ball.  Eric's presence by itself is worth the price of admission and today was no exception.  Both matches were played by 1864 rules and after some early back and forth in both games, the Eckford took charge and won comfortably by scores of 17-8 and 21-11.  Once again the Neshanock got strong offensive performances out of two muffins, Glen "Cat" Modica and Rene "Mango" Marrero.  "Mango" had three hits in the first match and would have earned a clear score except for being put out on a force play while "Cat' got three hits in the second contest.  The Neshanock's father and son act of "Jersey" Jim Nunn and Chris "Sideshow" Nunn also did well in the second match, each collecting three hits.  Next Saturday, Flemington visit Rahway River Park to take on their inter-state rivals, the Elizabeth Resolutes.  

While today's matches were well attended, there was, of course, no comparison to the thousands who attended the 1865 Atlantics-Mutuals match that was the subject of last week's post.  As I went through the newspaper accounts of the huge crowd at that match, it was no surprise to read descriptions of ferry boats so packed with people that some passengers worried the boat might sink.  What was, however, surprising was learning of large crowds coming in horse drawn vehicles by way of something called the "north road."  The surprise wasn't so much that New Jerseyans were interested in a "championship match," but rather that there was a New Jersey road well known enough to be called the "north road" in a New York sporting newspaper.  A road that might have been an important thoroughfare of the period which could offer clues as to how early New Jersey's base ball players got their first exposure to the New York game.  It's an important question in understanding how base ball expanded into New Jersey because the opportunities for such exposure in the antebellum world were limited.  Presumably the only ways young men from Newark and Jersey City experienced the early New York game were by watching it, listening to someone talk about it or reading about it.  The likelihood of a young man from New Jersey actually seeing base ball in person was highly dependent on the quality of local transportation networks.

Bergen County Journal

Research thus far has already identified the importance of a relatively sophisticated railroad network in the spread of base ball throughout the northern part of New Jersey in the late 1850's.  This does not explain, however, how prospective members of the first Newark and Jersey City clubs were exposed to base ball at Elysian Fields since at the time there was no railroad connection between the three municipalities.  There was, of course, considerable other interaction between the two New Jersey communities and New York City, creating opportunities for New Jerseyans to hear about the "new" game, perhaps leading to an invitation to watch or even participate.  However, that wouldn't create as much exposure as regular road traffic passing close to where the New York clubs played and practiced on a regular basis.  Research into road systems in antebellum New Jersey was obviously the next order of business and best source found so far is From Indian Trail to Iron Horse by Wheaton J. Lane even though it was published in 1939.

 Bergen County Journal - September 4, 1858

Although it's not a big surprise what seems clear from Lane's book is the development of road networks in north Jersey was driven by New York City's position as a major commercial center, seeking trade with the local communities of the more sparsely populated Garden State.  Buying and selling with New Jersey customers was so important to New York City's merchants that they traveled to Newark to do business with local farmers which is apparently how Market Street got its name.  This changed around 1812 when the introduction of the steam ferry boat shifted the market place for New York - New Jersey trade to the ferry depots in Jersey City and Hoboken accelerating the development of access roads to those points.  By co-incidence or not, this happened during "the turnpike era in America" which Lanes says covers the first third of the 19th century.  Turnpikes were (and are) simply roads where tolls were charged for usage, the name comes from a "pike" or bar placed across the road where tolls were collected.  Toll payments financed the cost of surfacing roads with crushed stone which allowed horse drawn vehicles to travel at higher speeds than the 4 miles per hour on the primitive roads of the Colonial period.

Reading about the early turnpikes is fascinating because some of the names continue in use to this day.  Examples include the Newark Pompton Turnpike, Hamburg Turnpike (originally the Paterson Hamburg Turnpike)  and Franklin Turnpike in Bergen County.  Some like the Newark Pompton Turnpike covered relatively long distances, but shorter routes were also developed, the first of which was the Bergen Turnpike, opened in 1802, to connect Hackensack with, of all places, the Hoboken ferry.  While the exact locations aren't clear, the turnpike either followed the same route or connected with a road that existed since 1768 when a stage coach line was established between Hackensack and the ferry at Powles or Paulis Hook, now part of Jersey City.  The real question, of course, is how close these roads came to the base ball incubator at Elysian Fields.  In a grace filled moment, evidence arrived in the form of a lithograph of an annotated 1906 map of Hoboken available from the Hoboken Historical Museum at  The annotations overlay historic sites, including the base ball grounds at Elysian Fields, on to the 1906 street grid which is  not terribly different from today.

Working with the information from the annotated map, the areas in red on either side of Hudson Street represent the location of the two base ball grounds at Elysian Fields.  According to the annotations, the area on the left was the Knickerbocker grounds and the one on the right is simply labeled base ball ground, presumably the north ground occupied by the Mutuals in 1865.  The black horizontal line on Washington Street represents the "north road" of the 1865 Clipper article which intersects with the turnpike, the blue line at about 8th Street.  If I'm interpreting this correctly, a major north-south road ran literally right next to one of the base ball fields and well within visual range of the other, exposing passersby to the New York clubs playing and practicing at Elysian Fields six days a week.  Prior to pursuing this I visualized Elysian Fields as cut off and isolated from the rest of New Jersey, existing primarily, if not exclusively, as green space for New York City.  Lane's book plus the map help develop a different picture of a site passed daily by a not insignificant amount of traffic.  Although this doesn't prove Newark and Jersey City's pioneering base ball players first experienced the game while bouncing along in an uncomfortable horse car, it's another strand in the web of interactions with base ball at Elysian Fields that got New Jersey's first base ball clubs on the field in 1855. 

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