Elizabeth Through The Ages

Elizabeth, NJ – A Concise Historical Overview

[The following articles are products of original research by the Historical Society; Elizabeth NJ Inc. for the city’s 350TH Anniversary celebration. Its officers, Paul H Mattingly and Ken Ward, originally wrote the first essay and worked with former Newark Star-Ledger columnist Bob Braun, adapting the Historical Society’s FORUM 2014 – BROAD STREET COMMERCE AND CULTURE – to construct the second essay. Both appeared in slightly different formats in the Newark Star Ledger Special 350th Anniversary edition (Sept 28, 2014)]

In 1664 a band of English immigrants established the city of Elizabethtown , the oldest English establishment in this colony. The group formalized themselves with the name Elizabethtown Associates and purchased land from the Lenni Lenape Indians. They proceeded to allocate governmental responsibilities among themselves. Virtually all of them were English Protestants or Huguenots, who had explored settlement possibilities earlier in the colony of Connecticut and on Long Island. The site of Elizabeth on the Arthur Kill, within easy water commute to Manhattan but distant from it, set in motion many themes of transportation and commerce that would affect the city’s history for the next 350 years.

Elizabethport became a settlement dependent on the adjacent waterway. Its fertile soil produced vegetables for residents and travelers. Its ferry service to New York made its inns and later hotels attractive for all colonials south of the colony of New Jersey who had business with New York, both its international and its alongshore trade. Staten Island offered a buffer and protection against storms and for a time aided the vigorous smuggling trade that drove a substantial portion of the 18th century economy of the state and city.

During the American Revolution Elizabeth’s strategic position made it both a British and Tory target as well as a base camp for George Washington and the patriot leadership. From Elizabeth the patriot militias could use the hilly country to the west as a hideaway and winter quarters; they could also use the city’s centrality for recruitment and its waterway access for provisioning the army and monitoring of the British fleet. It was not an accident that the city experienced many skirmishes and sent participants to the straguerrillategic engagements of Trenton and Monmouth. George Washington, ever on the move as befit a guerrilla commander, used Elizabeth often to keep track of British movements up and down the strategic artery of the Hudson River. His limited resources argued against major frontal engagements and urged caution to his officers about keeping outside the range of British cannons. His use of Elizabeth bought him the crucial value of time in his revolutionary struggles and extracted much expense from the British, who were ultimately worn down and outmaneuvered by Washington’s strategies. Elizabeth’s role as a strategic switch point was central not only to the Revolution but to the rest of its history.

In the first half of the 19th century the city became a locus of many imported craftsmen, making clocks, furniture, boats among many other artifacts. Its markets made possible the creation of a getaway resort for New Yorkers, bent on the diversion of fresh food, fish, and articles of trade. The construction of both a major hotel and the arrival of the railroad in the 1830s only reinforced the city’s natural advantages.

Since 1739 when NJ governor Lewis Morris appointed Joseph Bonnell mayor of Elizabeth, all mayors served at the pleasure of the governor. In 1855 Governor Rodman Price assented to a referendum breaking Union County away from Essex County and permitted Elizabeth to elect its own mayor, an unpaid and part-time post. The first such mayor – Elias Darby – had served as appointed mayor since 1853 but after the act of incorporation of the city (March 13, 1857), he was the first elected mayor and served until 1860. Importantly he was born 1798, a representative of the post-Revolutionary dynamic of the city and of the town’s commercial craftsmen, a silversmith by trade.

The city’s industry took a substantive turn in 1872 with the coming of the Singer Sewing Machine Works, which shortly would become the primary employer of Elizabeth, and a tremendous resource to the city’s economy. It would remain so for a century, until its closing in 1982. In that time the city’s industrial complex exploded, largely because of its proximity to the Arthur Kill, New York Harbor and the international commerce these waterways implied. Other industries and indeed many other immigrant groups after the turn of 20th century would provide resources and energies that transformed and modernized Elizabeth. The 20th century expansion of the Port Authority of Newark/ NY made the region a vital national airport, adding to the water and rail transportation facilities that the city always enjoyed.

Before and during the Revolutionary War, Elizabeth Avenue—then Water Street—was Elizabeth’s main thoroughfare. It is where the earliest buildings were constructed, the road traveled by farmers bringing produce to market, and the path of travelers leaving town for the rest of New Jersey and other colonies. What would become Broad Street left only a trace back then—notably two taverns, the Sign of the Unicorn and The Red Lion Inn, located at the site of the Elizabeth Public Library.
The war itself pushed residents farther from the water because of Tory and British raiding parties attacking from Staten Island. Then some 50 years later, came the railroads and they brought travelers and others seeking manufactured goods. Elizabeth Avenue supported heavy industry; Broad Street, commerce and the professions.

Like book-ends, two churches—First Presbyterian and St. John’s Episcopal enclosed a growing class of merchants and entrepreneurs, dominated by a small number of families, including the Keans who, while they were masters of Liberty Hall, a few miles away, they owned all or part of utilities, banks and even railroads. It was an era when the residents of Elizabeth owned the community’s businesses and wealth, a circumstance that would change in the future.

With a population surge provoked by the Civil War, the building faces of Broad Street and its environs began to change. With the increased use of steel and iron in construction, residences became shops, with glass exposure at street level and storage areas above. Families owned tailor shops, restaurants, and grocery stores. Later, Broad Street became the home of National State Bank, the Elizabethtown Gas Company, and the Elizabethtown Water Company. The city’s uptown became a powerful commercial center.
Like all urban centers, Elizabeth became the home of many immigrants, many of them skilled laborers coming to the city’s factories, especially the Singer Sewing Machine Company, opened in 1872, that would become a dominant employer for nearly a century. From 1870 to 1900, Elizabeth’s population more than quadrupled, from less than 11,000 to more than 52,000. Many Eastern European immigrants converged on Elizabeth Avenue, near the water. The area around Broad Street, however, attracted fewer immigrants and many of those were from Scandinavia. From a quarter to a third of the residents of the uptown area were drawn from the professional and managerial classes.

Many African-American families lived and worked on what was called Washington Street—now Dickinson Street. Many took in southern-born young women who worked as seamstresses and laundresses for wealthier, white clients. Widows of all races—many whose husbands were killed in increasing industrial accidents– took in boarders to supplement their income.

At the turn of the century, some of Broad Street’s shops expanded and the era of department stores came to Elizabeth. The stores bought in large lots and could keep prices low. They organized their goods by type on different floors—clothing, household items, furniture. The most famous of these was R .J. Goerke’s 6-story department store on Broad and West Jersey that opened shortly before World War 1. Through a variety of corporate changes, it would become Steinbach’s. It was joined by the Levy Brothers’ store. At the height of its commercial dominance—not just of Elizabeth but of the region—Broad Street also was the site of three chain department stores—W.T. Grant, F.W. Woolworth, and H.L. Green’s. Many upscale shops, including Claire Angrist’s fashion design house, Natelson’s, Poppy’s, Carlin’s, Carlsten’s, Rogers Clothes, Florsheim’s Shoes, Vogel’s music store, drew customers from the farther reaches of Union County and beyond. Other gems included the four movie theaters within walking distance of each other—the Regent, the Ritz, the Liberty, and the New—and each of them only feet away from “sweet shops” where movie-goers could stop for dessert.

By mid-century, the commercial dominance of Broad Street was most obvious on Thursday night—the city’s late shopping night—and Saturday afternoons when the sidewalks were jammed with shoppers. Thursday nights also became the night for cruising by the city’s teenagers who would drive their cars, many of them customized hot rods, in a loop from the arch to the triangle created by South Broad and Pearl.

Broad Street produced only one building that could make even a modest claim on skyscraper status—the 14-story Hersh Tower, built in 1931 at $1,750,000, an upscale, art-deco office building that boasted dramatic aluminum decorative touches and, for decades, was the business address in the city. The Hersh family maintained ownership until the 1970s. Its last Elizabeth owner, lawyer Frank Beninato, died in 2005. It is now owned by a Brooklyn real estate company.

Elizabeth was a center of civic and political spectacle as well, with Broad Street the venue of parades marking Memorial Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Columbus Day, and other holidays. The campaigning President Harry S. Truman came to Elizabeth in 1948—and, four years later, so did Dwight Eisenhower, running for his first term.

Broad Street has changed—just as the people of the city have changed and just as shopping habits have changed. Although the upscale department stores and shops survived the first onslaught of competition from malls, the city’s more expensive stores closed, giving way to bargain shops. Parking has been a problem as was the loss of local ownership. But few, if any, Broad Street venues are shuttered. Citizens are understandably concerned about how to sustain and upgrade Broad Street commerce. People now fix their eyes on the empty spaces between Broad Street and the Elizabeth River, not to mention the 40 acres recently razed, where the Burry Biscuit once stood near the North Elizabeth train station. How this land is developed, especially as it is geared to middle class commuters using the two train stations, will determine the fate of not only Broad Street commerce but the city of Elizabeth itself. Our political representatives must work with Elizabeth citizens, not just lawyers, architects and developers, to shape these properties for the lasting good of all Elizabethans, to add an upscale chapter to the history of a vital city.



Elizabethtown becomes a formal settlement, the first permanent English community in New Jersey. They had benefited from the transfer of power from Dutch to English with the British capture of New Amsterdam.

    On October 28, a group of Englishmen—the Elizabethtown Associates—from eastern Long Island bought land from the Lenape sachem, Mattano.


    Elizabethans, John Ogden, father (1609-1682) and son (1638-1702), constructed the oldest portion of their home about 1680. Both had been born in Bradley Plain, Hampshire England, came to the colonies about 1641, first to Connecticut, then to Long Island, before becoming founding settlers of Elizabeth in 1664. Their house would be developed by several subsequent owners and eventually be known as the Belcher-Ogden mansion, a beautifully proportioned example of Georgian architecture and the brick style known as Flemish bond.

      One subsequent resident was Jonathan Belcher ( born January 8, 1682- Cambridge Mass.). Belcher graduated Harvard in 1728 and also received additional education in London. He was Governor of Mass. and New Hampshire (fired because he was very unpopular). He was appointed by King George II (whom he had met while in Europe) to be Governor of New Jersey from 1747 to his death in 1757. Belcher was very popular and respected in New Jersey. While Royal Governor he resided in the mansion and became a benefactor of the college which would become Princeton University. Belcher granted the school a charter in 1748 while it operated in Elizabeth and donated 474 books, the beginning of its library.


        The Bonnell House, 1045 East Jersey Avenue, is the oldest house in Elizabeth NJ and one of the oldest domiciles in the state. It represents the 17th century carpentry skills of its owner/builder, Nathaniel Bonnell, originally a native of New Haven, Connecticut, came to Elizabeth about the time of its founding (1664) and served as a member of the incorporating organization, the Elizabeth Associates.

          On January 3, 1665 Bonnell married Susanna Whitehead, the daughter of British-born Rev. Isaac Whitehead, who was a founder both of New Haven (where his daughter Susanna was born) and Elizabeth NJ. He too arrived about 1664 and served as an Elizabeth Associate.

          Bonnell and his wife had seven children between 1670 and 1685, presumably some of them raised in the existing farmhouse. The house, built sometime before 1682 (some think as earlier as 1670 with the birth of his first child) sat on the owner’s six-acre plot and he farmed an additional 16 acres west of Elizabeth. Bonnell served as a member of the General Assembly on New Jersey in 1692 and the last official reference to him is as a signer of the 1696 petition for relief against the oppression of the Lords Proprietor. Not long after Susanna moved to Springfield, presumably after the death of her husband. She died in 1733 and was buried at Connecticut Farms (now Union, NJ), the site of a later Revolutionary skirmish between the British and American patriots. Bonnell left his western farmland to his son and namesake, Nathaniel (b. 1670)

          “On September 12, 2003 the Historical Society; Elizabeth NJ Inc. took possession of the Bonnell House.”



            Episcopalians formed St. John’s church on land owned by Elizabeth, the wife of the NJ proprietor, Sir George Carteret, who agreed to have the city named after his wife. Her third husband, Richard Townley, donated the land for the church. The church was rebuilt in 1860 in its distinctive Gothic style.


            Rev. Jonathan Dickinson, a graduate of Yale College (1706), becomes pastor of old Congregational Church, which he persuaded to join the Philadelphia Presbyterian synod in
            1717. Henceforth his church would be known as First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethtown.

            He distinguished himself as author and preachers against Deism and Episcopalianism and in 1739 hosted the famous evangelist George Whitfield in his city.



            At Dickinson’s request, the Governor of NJ granted Elizabeth NJ a charter for a classical school which would eventually become Princeton University, which Dickinson served briefly as first president. His successor at the school was his friend and frequent house guest, Rev. Jonathan Edwards of Massachusetts.

            Litchfield Law School building


            Tapping Reeve, a 1763 graduate of the College of New Jersey (later (Princeton) conducted an academy in Elizabeth. At the same time he tutored the children of Rev. Aaron Burr, who had served as acting president of the college (1747-48). In 1771 Reeve married his student, sixteen-year old Sarah Burr, and moved his own law practice to Litchfield Ct. There he began to tutor aspirant lawyers, with his former Elizabeth NJ student and brother-in-law, Aaron Burr (later Vice-President under Thomas Jefferson) as his first law student. His tutorials expanded exponentially, creating the first law school in the United States and training over 1100 individuals, including John C Calhoun and Horace Mann. Before the school closed in 1833 its graduates included two vice-presidents, 101 US congressmen, 28 US senators, three justices of the US Supreme court and fourteen state governors. Reeve left his Elizabeth academy in 1767 and in 1771 its principal was also a Princeton graduate, Francis Barber, who owned the present day Bonnell House, where the HSE has its offices. The British burned the Elizabeth Academy in 1779. The Law School building Reeve erected next to his Connecticut home probably resembled the Elizabeth NJ Academy that had launched his teaching career.


            Francis Barber (1750-1783), a 1767 graduate of Princeton, became schoolmaster of Elizabeth Academy, a Latin grammar school adjacent to the First Presbyterian church on Broad Avenue. On January 26, 1773 Barber married Mary Ogden, sister of prominent Elizabeth residents, Robert and Aaron Ogden, later a Governor of New Jersey.

            Barber and his student, Alexander Hamilton, joined the New Jersey militia in January 1776. During the Revolutionary War the former schoolmaster rose to the rank of colonel and fought in many engagements, including Germantown and Brandywine in Pennsylvania, Monmouth and Connecticut Farms in New Jersey. He fought under General Anthony Wayne at Green Springs (Va) and with Lafayette at Yorktown. In January 1783 he died from a falling tree, presumably an accident.

            In Elizabeth Barber resided in the Bonnell House, where in the 1925 City Directory there resided Susan C Barber, widow of William P Barber, Francis’s descendant. [See 1682 in this Timeline]”

            Litchfield Law School building


            The Belcher Teaspoon 

            The expansion of the Royal Governor’s residence for NJ Governor Jonathan Belcher (1682-1757) created a superlative example of Georgian architecture in Elizabethtown. Governor Belcher settled in his new home and expedited New Jersey affairs there until his death. He was known for his colonial sympathies and for his congeniality. Part of his reputation rested on his hospitality, his store of Madeira wine and his welcoming punchbowl. His widely admired silverware also testified to his taste and his social standing.

            Sometime after his residence in this elegant Georgian home, an extraordinarily beautiful silver teaspoon appeared, bearing the markings of Samuel Casey (c1723-c1780). Through the 1750s and 1760s Casey had developed a coveted reputation for silversmithing in Newport and Kingston, Rhode Island amongst very wealthy merchants and plantation owners. The Belcher teaspoon, perfectly gadrooned, represents the finest craftsmanship of this eighteenth century form and one of the finest examples of Casey’s art.

            Casey himself overreached his reputation in 1770, was arrested for counterfeiting and sentenced to hang. His fellow citizens freed him the night before his execution and he reportedly traveled south, completely masking his later career. The specimen teaspoon was very likely a part of Jonathan Belcher’s reputed silver service.

            Litchfield Law School building



            Three Elizabethmen—Stephen Crane (1709-1780), William Livingston (1723-1790) (later first Governor of NJ), and Jonathan Dayton (1760-1824) (with Livingston a signer of the Constitution and later speaker of the US House of Representatives and US Senator from NJ)—constitute the majority of New Jersey’s five delegates to the First Continental Congress.


             George Washington marches his army of 3500, recently driven from Fort Lee, NJ, through Elizabeth NJ pursued quickly by British General Lord, William Howe, with 6000 British and Hessian troops, who occupied the town in December.


            In this year Alexander Hamilton played Master of Ceremonies to a wedding party at the Belcher Ogden Mansion. The bridge was “Caty” Smith, daughter of then owner, William Peartree Smith, a Revolutionary patriot. The groom was Elisha Boudinot, brother of Elias Boudinot, President of the Continental Congress and Smith neighbor at nearby Boxwood Hall. George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette were guests. The British received sketchy information about the affair but arrived several days after it was over, failing to capture the Revolutionary leaders. They took out their disappointment on the house and sacked the Belcher-Ogden Mansion of many of it goods and furnishings – seen here in an artist’s rendering: “The Sacking of the Belcher-Ogden Mansion” by Davis Gray of the College Watercolor Group, Skillman, New Jersey.

            Litchfield Law School building


            AARON LANE, noted Elizabeth silversmith and clockmaker, flourished in the city in the years 1780-1793. He worked with his brother-in-law, cabinetmaker Ichabod Williams, who furnished the cases. Lane often painted his name across the top of his painted clock faces and “Elizabethtown” across the bottom. His clocks in Liberty Hall, the Livingston/Kean estate, reflect these features. He seems to be no relation to Elizabeth clockmaker, Mark Lane, who thrived in the city during the 1830s. Together however the two Lanes bracket an energetic craftsman culture of the late 18th and early 19th century.


            Elias Boudinot (1740-1821), resident of an Elizabeth (East Jersey St.) farmstead, known as Boxwood Hall, and during the Revolutionary War commissioner general of prisoners, becomes President of the Continental Congress. Later he directed the US Mint and was first president of the American Bible Society. In 1943 his home became a property of the state, the only state-owned and operated historic site in Union County.

            Litchfield Law School building


            First regular stagecoach line established between Elizabeth and Princeton; later in 1787 regular stagecoach lines between Elizabethtown Port and Morristown.


            Martha Washington stays at Gov. Wm Livingston’s Liberty Hall on Morris Avenue, en route to the New York City inauguration of her husband as first president. George Washington had traveled through Elizabeth on his inauguration route, stopping at Elias Boudinot’s home for lunch. Guests that day included John Jay, his father-in-law William Livingston, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia and Charles Carroll of Maryland.


            Jonathan Dayton (1760-1824) becomes a signer of the US constitution. He was born in Elizabeth, attended the town academy under headmaster Tapping Reeve with fellow students, A Hamilton and Francis Barber, and in 1776 joined the 3d New Jersey Regiment. He had studied in the college at Princeton and took his degree in 1776. He patrolled the Ohio frontier, checking the initiatives of Loyalists and Indians, and familiarized himself with the area. Later he served with George Washington at the battles of Brandywine and Germantown. In 1781 he served with his old schoolmates, Hamilton and Barber in the Battle of Yorktown. He was one of the youngest members of the Constitutional Convention and associated himself with Hamilton’s financial policies. Afterward he served four terms in the US House of Representative, the final four years (1795-1800) as Speaker of the House. He then served a term as US Senator from NJ. His western speculations involved him in the Aaron Burr scandals from which he was exonerated. Out of his land speculations came a town named for him in Ohio: Dayton. He died in 1824 and is buried in the St. John’s Episcopal Church graveyard, Elizabeth NJ.


            The EHS has acquired newspaper clippings from the Litchfield (Ct) Historical Society that appear to be from an early 18th century newspaper, the Christian Scholar and Farmer’s magazine (f. 1789). The clippings seem to have belonged to the Rev. Jeremiah Chapman (1741-1813) who had supported Shepherd Kollock, the newspaper’s first editor and the first editor of the New Jersey Journal. The Chapmans descended from an immigrant family from Hull, England who came to Boston in the early 17th century and settled in Saybrook, Ct. Jedidiah was born in East Haddam, September 24,1741 and died in Geneva, New York. In the 1770s Jedidiah served as minister and missionary in the “Newark Mountains” and was a member of the Presbytery that monitored the Elizabeth area. It was likely that he acquired the newspaper in these years and used clippings for his own edification and probably also as grist for his sermons. Many thanks to Linda Hocking, curator at the Litchfield Historical Society.


            Aaron Ogden, a descendant of one of the city’s founders, Jonathan Ogden, buys the Jonathan Belcher mansion, which housed the Tory governor of the colony before the Revolution. Ogden (1756-1839) had ably served in the military during the revolution, was a prominent Federalist politician and would serve the state as governor during the War of 1812. While living in Elizabeth, he promoted the development of the steamboat business and was a principal in shaping federal policy on interstate commerce in the landmark Supreme court case, Gibbons vs Ogden, which specified that the federal rather than the state government would control interstate commerce.