The town my familyare now living in is named for a bridge that cannot be seen. Despite its considerable height (34m) and length (400m), the iron trestle bridge is invisible to the eye.
It was built across the South Branch of the Raritan River by the Central Railway Company of New Jersey in the 1850s but saw almost no use in its originally intended form.
The official reason given for this was that the bridge was too ‘costly to maintain’ but the truth was that the bridge swayed whenever a train crossed and people were simply reluctant to use it.
This was a scandalous state of affairs but the solution chosen had a touch of genius about it. The railway simply buried the bridge supports under rail-truck loads of earth (and indeed even the rail-trucks themselves were dumped over the side to add anchorage to the mound).
It took five years to complete the job but by 1864 the bridge had been replaced by a massive embankment. The only visible structure that now remains is a double tunnel through which a road and the river pass beneath the embankment. However, the bridge in some form still exists at the core of the mound.
High Bridge was originally incorporated as a township by an act of the New Jersey Legislature on March 29, 1871, ironically, named for a bridge which technically no longer existed as such.
Every small town, no matter how prim and proper has a darkness coiled within. It is expressed in actions taken behind closed doors and in the discarded detritus that gathers on the fringes.
Abandonment and decay. Secret violence and buried frustrations. The colour leaches out like toxic waste into a once pristine stream. It crawls slowly along disused rails til there is nothing but sun-bleached bone and rust to speak its name in gravely whispers.
Let your boots crunch loudly on the stones. And do not look into the shadows beneath the trees.
In my last post, I mentioned that I had written previously about Napoleon’s niece visiting New Jersey. This turned out to be incorrect. I had researched it (based on a story I’d been told about her making a sketch of Lebanon, NJ) but never actually got around to writing a post. Situation rectified.
Charlotte Bonaparte (known to her family as Lolotte) was the daughter of Napoleon’s brother, Joseph. After the Emperor’s fall from grace, Joseph, who at the height of his brother’s power had been crowned King of Naples and Spain, fled to America and settled for a time in, of all places, Bordentown, New Jersey.
After a while, his young daughter joined him there. Below, is an eyewitness account of the Princess’ arrival in Philadelphia.
The path to the carriage that awaited the princess was covered with a carpet. The dock was full of people anxious to see a princess in the flesh. She was very young, vivacious and, I believe, feeling free from the strict surveillance of her governess and of her devoted physician, Dr. Stokoe, exalted at the sight of the crowd. She took off the fur hat that she had worn during the crossing, to respond to the many greetings, and it fell out of her hands into the Delaware. She immediately took the captain’s from the bulwark and waved it. Then she put it on her head, where she kept it until arriving at the hotel.
The next day she returned to the ship…with a new hat for the captain, which she attempted herself to place on his head, telling him she would keep his as a souvenir of the cordial reception that the inhabitants of Philadelphia had given her, and of the incident that had deprived her of her own.
Life on her father’s New Jersey estate must have seemed a little dull to a girl who had visited some of Europe’s grandest cities but Charlotte was a gifted artist who travelled about the state with her easel, painting and drawing whatever caught her eye.
And one of the subjects that did catch the Princesses eye was the tiny village of Lebanon in Hunterdon County (which is where our family were living until our recent move to High Bridge).
Charlotte’s idle in the green pastures of New Jersey would be short-lived, however. After three years she returned to Brussels to be married.
Perversely, the instructions in Napoleon’s will stated his nieces and nephews should marry amongst themselves to “conserve the Bonaparte wealth”. Therefore, Charlotte’s sister Zénaïde married her cousin Charles and on July 24, 1826, Charlotte married their cousin Napoleon-Louis.
This marriage too was to be a short-lived affair. On the 17th March 1831, after just five years together, Napoleon-Louis died while fighting with the insurgents who were trying to drive the Austrians out of Italy.
Later Charlotte would fall pregnant to a married Polish Count, with whom she was having an affair. In February 1839 Charlotte set out by ship from Rome for Genoa with her physician, intending to have the baby away from the shameful scrutiny of her own society (her chief concern seems to have been keeping the pregnancy a secret from her mother).
However, a storm at sea forced them to travel overland and the rough roads caused Charlotte to begin to haemorrhage. She gave birth to her child in Sarzana via caesarean section but the baby did not survive. On March 2, 1839, Charlotte herself died from loss of blood; just 36 years old.
And so that is the story (somewhat truncated) of how members of what was once the most powerful family in Europe came to bide a while in Jersey.
8 factoids about New Jersey of which you may not be aware
Factoid 1. The first near-complete dinosaur skeleton to be discovered and mounted for display anywhere in the world was found in New Jersey. It was uncovered in a field outside the Town of Haddonfield and was named the Hadrosaurus foulkii in that town’s honour.
Factoid 2. The oldest bridge in the US is located in New Jersey. The Kingston Bridge, in Somerset County, dates back to the Revolution when it was built to replace an older bridge that had stood at the same spot and which had been destroyed during the hostilities.
The stone arch bridge is no longer in use but has been preserved for its historical significance.
Interestingly, both Haddonfield and Kingston are situated along the stretch of road known as the King’s Highway Historic District. This forms part of the oldest road in the US which was built between 1650 and 1735 by order of Charles II and stretches from Charleston, South Carolina, to Boston, Massachusetts.
Factoid 3. Dr. Humphry Osmond (who coined the word “psychedelic” and guided Aldous Huxley on the mescaline trip featured in “The Doors of Perception,”) also inspired a group of CIA doctors working through Princeton University and the New Jersey Neuro-Psychiatric Institute’s Bureau of Research to carry out MKUltra style mind control experiments on unsuspecting subjects in the late 60’s.
In subject, Paul Jeffrey Davids’, own words; “We knew we had volunteered for hypnosis and LSD research but the fact that it was being funded by the CIA and that the doctors we trusted … were working for the CIA — we didn’t know about [until] 10 years later, when MKUltra was exposed.”
Weirdly enough, Princeton is also situated on the King’s Highway.
Factoid 4. For fans of the original 1968 classic Planet of the Apes, you may be interested to learn that the city of the Apes known rather creatively as Ape City will be situated somewhere in New Jersey come the year 3955 AD. That’s right, Dr Zira’s a Jersey girl.
How could I possibly know this? Simple deduction really. When Charlton Heston’s character, Astronaut George Taylor (presumably named for the Civil War General* who was also from Jersey) leaves the Apes and strikes out on his own, he follows the shore (that’s the Jersey shore) north and discovers the Statue of Liberty. It logically follows, therefore, that he’s spent the entire movie in post-apocalyptic Jersey.
Factoid 6. Speaking of movie classics, the first-ever drive-in was opened in 1933 in Camden New Jersey (which is also my nomination for the possible future location of Ape City).
Factoid 7. As I’ve already mentioned in a past post, Napoleon’s niece once visited New Jersey but she wasn’t the only ‘member’ of the Bonaparte clan to do so, his penis also came to visit and liked it so much it’s still here (if we’re being pedantic, Napoleon’s brother also lived for a time in Jersey).
After being “accidentally” separated from the ex Emperor’s body during his autopsy, it eventually ended up in the possession of a lady from New Jersey who kept it in a suitcase under her bed for 30 years. She still has it and has reputedly turned down an offer of over a hundred thousand dollars for it.
Factoid 8. And finally, for those who enjoy a good board game (or just torturing friends and family members) The original 1929 version of Monopoly was based upon Atlantic City, New Jersey.
That’s all I have for now but my research continues.
I mentioned in part one of this series that High Bridge and, specifically, Taylor Iron and Steel had produced a Brigadier General for the Federalist Army during the Great War Between the States.
General Taylor was to die from wounds received at the Battle of Manassas Station and be buried in nearby Clinton, NJ (one town over from High Bridge). At the time of writing that piece, I had not yet had the opportunity to visit Taylor’s tomb but I have since done so and I thought I’d share some images for those who might be interested.
Taylor’s nephew (who was killed in action a year after his illustrious uncle) is buried alongside the General.
I wasn’t expecting to be in Clinton on this particular day and so didn’t have my camera with me. These shots are off my phone and so a little basic.
In the fourth and final instalment, I’ll be exploring how the modern town of High Bridge got its name.
They say you end up marrying your mother. I don’t think that’s strictly true but I did end up marrying a mother. Jersey girl and I celebrated our one year wedding anniversary on Friday and today it’s Mother’s Day here in America.
When I made my commitment to Jersey, I also knew I was committing to her three kids (all girls) and I knew she was a mother first and everything else second. I completely understood that, as it had always been my approach to parenting too.
I also knew that all of this could fall over – and I would be done – if, when I met her kids, they didn’t accept me. I guess I’m living a charmed life because they took to me far better than I ever had a right to expect.
And so, in the end, I didn’t just find a wife, I found a family waiting for me on the other side of the world. A family that admitted, not only me but my own son right along with me.
My boy has visited us three times since I arrived here permanently and has been welcomed with open arms not only by Jersey and the girls but the extended family as well. My wife has embraced her new adult son as if he were her own. This has been a tremendous boon to me as he lost his real mother a little over five years ago.
So, on this rainy Mothers Day in NJ, I just wanted to take a few moments to celebrate a really wonderful mom.
Happy Mother’s Day my love.
And while I’m at it, Happy Mother’s Day to you too, mum. You are so missed. Wish I could just say hi.
New Jersey has a problematic relationship with her past. Most of the historically significant sites I write about on this blog are in a very poor state of repair and in danger of disappearing altogether. Some, such as the American Hotel, are already gone: lost forever.
Money and corruption seem to be the culprits here. History just doesn’t even seem to come a close third to development and profits.
Here in High Bridge, stands an extremely significant building that is very much in need of some kind of intervention. It can be found on the grounds of the old Taylor Iron and Steel Company. This was the first purpose-built office building in New Jersey and was the administrative centre for the 13th oldest continuously operating business (of any kind) in history.
According to the website of the nearby Annandale Historical Society, “The TISCO Office building dates to around 1725, and pre-dates the incorporation of the Union Iron Works. The structure had always housed the general office of the steel companies and contained the offices of the presidents William and Allen in 1742 through George R. Hanks in 1972.”
As you can see from my pictures, the building is in a shameful state and, if left so for much longer, will probably need to be demolished.
I’m told by local historians that this is a common situation in New Jersey which is madness as this state (one of the original colonies) played an enormously important part in the history of the Nation.
The American Industrial Revolution was born in New Jersey and Taylor Steel played a very large role in that industrialization. It is to be hoped that, at some point, town and city officials will begin to take seriously the legacy left by their forebears and begin to make moves towards preserving what is left of the country’s rich past.
Words and images (except where otherwise stated) are my own.