The following is a brief history of our town, which has the official name of “The
Borough of Roselle”. We were incorporated on December 20, 1894 as such and we celebrated
our one hundredth anniversary through the entire year of 1994. However, our history
goes back much further than those dates.
As New Jersey borders on the Atlantic Ocean we were visited by some of the earliest
European explorers and settlers of Dutch, Swedish and English origins. In 1664 a
group of Englishmen from Long Island, looking for better land for farming and living,
purchased from the local Indians an area which became known as the Elizabethtown Tract,
which today is roughly that of Union County. In the Union County Courthouse
in Elizabeth there is a copy of the original indenture signed by both the Indians
and the first English settlers who purchased land from the Indians, which included
It was also necessary to make a similar deal with the English governor for the rights
to the land, for the land known as “New Jersey”, or sometimes “Nova Caesarea”, had
been granted by King Charles II to his brother, the Duke of York, who in turn, granted
it to Lord Berkeley and Sir George Carteret as payment for his debts to them.
The new owners from Long Island laid out a town by the river which flowed through the
area, and the settlement was named “Elizabethtown”, in honor of Elizabeth, the wife
of Sir George. This became the first English town in New Jersey.
From this early beginning of Elizabeth in 1664, the settlers proceeded to create
farms and homes and a few roads. Records of some of these homes and roads can be
found on maps drawn by Robert Erskine, George Washington’s, cartographer. Shown
among these highly accurate maps are the road to Wheatsheaf, and the Wheatsheaf
Tavern on the King’s Highway.
As the years went by, the colony prospered, and the residents spread into the outer
areas of the tract, and new names for local areas appeared, frequently from families
or physical properties of the land, such as Williams’ Farms, or Crane’s Ford, or
Connecticut Farms. Other names were Mulford and Wheatsheaf, names for the tavern
built in 1745 on the old Dutch road. One resident of the Wheatsheaf area was Abraham
Clark, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
Born February 15, 1726, Abraham Clark was the great-grandson of Richard Clark, who
came here from Long Island in 1678, and the family later acquired farmland in the
present Roselle area. Not considered strong enough for farm labor, Abraham took
up the study of law, and became the High Sheriff of Essex County, as his father
had been earlier. Although never formally educated as a lawyer, he was called upon
to settle many disputes, and became known as “the poor man’s counselor”.
Well respected by his neighbors, he was sent by them to the First and then the Second
Continental Congress, where he voted for and signed the Declaration of Independence.
Later he was a member of the Annapolis Convention, which established the need for
the 1787 Constitutional Convention. He and other heroes of the Revolutionary War
are buried in some of the oldest cemeteries in Union County.
In Colonial days the authority to establish towns rested with the king, by way of
his Royal Governor of the colony, but after the Revolution that authority passed
to the state governments and governors. In New Jersey the increasing population
in different areas caused the creation of many townships to provide municipal services
for those areas, and on March 4, 1861, an act of the State Legislature of New Jersey
created the Township of Linden. In this act is a complete description of the land
which was taken from the City of Elizabeth, and the townships of Rahway and Union,
and was to be called and known as the Township of Linden. This description includes
the present area of Roselle.
It was also enacted “that the inhabitants of the township of Linden shall hold their
first annual town meeting at the inn now kept by John B. Day at Wheatsheaf, in said
township, on the day appointed by law for holding the annual town meetings in other
townships in the County of Union”. In this election, which had to be by ballot,
Gilbert Rindell was to be the judge of election and John W. Mulford and William
Ross were to be inspectors, and Elias W. Vreeland was to be the clerk.
So it was that this area, which was known as Mulford Station on the Central Railroad,
and as Wheatsheaf near the tavern, came under the control of the Linden township
government. This was apparently satisfactory for a few years, as there were few
residents in this part of the township.
By 1866, a Mr. John Conklin Rose took advantage of his connections with the railroad,
(which was by then known as the Central Railroad of New Jersey) and with the cooperation
of several landowners in this area established the Roselle Land Improvement Company.
They laid out “The Village of Roselle” on an area that the railroad had called Mulford
Station, a stop on the road named for the many Mulford families who lived here.
While there is as yet no positive proof that the village was named for Mr. Rose,
local tradition says that it is so, and in the files of the Roselle Historical Society
is a letter from his son which also makes that claim.
By 1868, the Roselle Land Improvement Company was selling building lots in the northern
area of the township where it was developing the Village of Roselle. This village
included the land between Pine and Spruce Streets, and from the railroad to Ninth
Avenue. The first sale was to Mr. Adrian W. Smith for a building lot on the west
side of Chestnut Street between Fourth and Fifth Avenues. The First Presbyterian
Church of Roselle was not far behind in erecting a church on West Fifth Avenue,
and in 1869, the company authorized the building of the Mansion House, a large Mansard-roofed
hotel on the south-east corner of First and Chestnut. The real estate development
was a remarkably successful venture, for in less than its twenty-year allotted time
the company had disposed of all its property and went out of business.
Roselle was the first village in the world to be lighted by Thomas Edison’s incandescent
light bulb. Set up as an experiment to prove that a town could be lighted by electricity
from a single generating station, the generator was started on January 19, 1883.
From its location on the north-east corner of Locust Street and West First Avenue
it sent power through overhead wires to a store, railroad station, about forty houses,
and one-hundred-fifty street lights. In April of that year the First Presbyterian
Church of Roselle became the first church in the world to be so lighted when the
thirty-bulb “electrolier” was installed within it. Although damaged by fire in 1949,
the electrolier was salvaged, restored and re-hung in the church where it can be
seen today. The steam-driven generator which stood on the corner of Locust and West
First Avenue no longer exists, but the people of the town operated it for nearly
ten years after Edison went on to other things, and bigger generating stations took
over the task of lighting much larger areas. However, in 1983, a time capsule and
bronze-and-granite marker were placed at that corner to properly designate that
spot and event.
Linden Township, from its creation in 1861, included the area which became Roselle,
thus the local governing bodies were Union County, and Linden Township. Disagreement
between the township and the residents of the Roselle area concerning their request
for a needed sewage system came to a head, and on November 26, 1894, using an enabling
act of the New Jersey State Legislature, a petition signed by property owners of
more than ten percent of the assessed value of taxable real estate within the proposed
Borough was presented to Union County Judge T. F. McCormick. This was a request
that an election be held, by and for the voters of that area, to decide if the Borough
of Roselle should be created as an incorporated political entity. The petition contained
the signatures of most of the prominent residents of the village, and their genuineness
was sworn to by Horace S. Bachman.
The election was ordered to be held, after proper notification to the voters, on
the 18th day of December 1894, in the Tiernan Building, which stood on the south-west
corner of First and Chestnut. The vote of 149 to 121 in favor of incorporation was
then reported to the County Clerk on the 19th and certified on December 20, 1894,
which is the official date of incorporation of the Borough of Roselle.
Among the first order of business after the borough was established was the organization
of the council. At the first town meeting, held January 8, 1895, Mr. John W. Howe
was elected Mayor, and G. A. Rawlins became Borough Clerk, at a salary of $150 per
year, in lieu of all other fees. The first ordinance that was passed ordered the
construction of a main outlet sewer from the intersection of Third Avenue and Walnut
Street to tidewater. The second one was to establish a Board of Health. These ordinances
were soon followed by others which finally created the sewer system that Linden
Township would not provide. As a health measure, all buildings were ordered to be
connected to the sewers and thus eliminate the use of outdoor “privies”.
By 1899 the borough made arrangements with the Westfield and Elizabeth Street Railway
Company which provided for electrically powered “trolley cars” to operate on the
streets of Roselle. This also necessitated the re-location of the historic Jouet
House out of the middle of East Second Avenue, where it had stood on the old road
to Wheatsheaf long before anyone dreamed of Roselle.
The route for these street cars was a double track coming from Elizabeth on Jersey
Avenue into Roselle with a slight kink at the town line where Jersey Avenue became
East Third Avenue. At Sheridan it was necessary to make a wide turn north to East
Second Avenue and make another wide turn onto that street. Although the trolley
cars vanished more than fifty years ago, the wide turns are still a part of the
After crossing Locust Street the tracks turned north to West First Avenue by way
of a private right-of-way known as Laurel Street. Here they went into Cranford,
crossing the Staten Island railroad tracks by means of a wooden trestle, whose height
made some passengers nervous.
The electrical power for these cars was provided from large powerhouse generators
and supplied to the cars by a system of overhead wires supported by poles along
the entire length of the route. A long, spring-loaded trolley pole at the rear of
the car made contact with the wire by means of a small roller at its top, thus feeding
electricity to the motors of the vehicle. A similar pole at the other end of the
car could be used to permit it to run in the opposite direction without having to
be turned around. As the trolley pole could be raised or lowered by a rope dangling
from it, daring youths would sometimes disconnect the pole, much to the annoyance
of the motorman who drove the car.
Along with its freedom from Linden Township, Roselle had acquired School #4, which
had been built for Linden in the 1870s by J. N. Meeker of Roselle, on the north-east
corner of East Ninth Avenue and Chestnut Street. This was a two story, wooden frame
building that provided both grammar and high school classes. After nearly twenty
years of use, on December 1, 1903, this school burned to a total loss. There was
little the firemen could do, as there was no water main at that point. A “bucket
brigade” was organized, using water drawn from the school’s outdoor pump, but to
no avail. Very little was left of the school but the chimneys.
With the loss of the school, the students continued their education in several houses
in the town, while plans were made to replace the building. A better location was
sought, as Ninth Avenue seemed too far away, and finally, land was purchased on
Chestnut Street between East Sixth and East Seventh Avenues. A single house on the
corner was moved off the grounds to a new place at 147 West Sixth Avenue, and a
new brick building, to be known as Chestnut School, was erected and classes were
held within it at the start of the school year in September of 1905.
In September of 1909 the council decided that suitable land should be purchased
upon which a Borough Hall, Fire Department, and Lockup building could be erected.
At that time town meetings were held in either the Tiernan Building on First Avenue
or the Wheatsheaf Inn on St. George’s Avenue at the opposite end of Chestnut Street.
On November 5, 1909, the purchase of a lot 100 x 180 feet on the west side of Chestnut
Street between Second and Third Avenues for the sum of $3,600 was authorized.
One set of plans for the new Borough Hall suggested a building with a Spanish style
of architecture, but instead plans of a Colonial design, somewhat like Carpenter
Hall in Philadelphia, were chosen, and construction could begin . Built of brick,
and re-enforced with iron beams, the new building was dedicated in November of 1911,
and served the community for sixty-six years.
By 1919, the Wheatsheaf Inn, still a popular gathering place, found itself in the
way of progress. Built long before Roselle was planned, Chestnut Street was aimed
directly at the inn, and the growing automobile traffic was becoming a hazard. Rather
than tearing it down, it was decided to move it backwards, out of the way. One section,
which had been a one-room schoolhouse located across the street and not needed since
the opening of old school #4, had been added to it as a restaurant and dance hall.
This part was split off and moved a few hundred feet along Wheatsheaf Road, to become
a single story bungalow. The larger, two and one half story original section was
moved, minus its huge fireplace and chimney, just far enough to be out of the way
of the extension of Chestnut Street, to become a private home. The small kitchen
wing was demolished. The moved portions still stand today.
When the United States became involved in the World War, Roselle sent its people
to help, as did the rest of the country. Some men did not return home, and there
are several streets in town that bear their names in their memory. Bronze plaques
on the Roselle Memorial Library are reminders of them and of the other heroes of
Roselle, New Jersey, is proud of its place in the history of our country and state.
Our high school is named for Abraham Clark, a Signer of the Declaration of Independence,
and a replica of his home stands at the corner of Chestnut Street and West Ninth
Avenue. Built by the local members of the DAR and SAR, more than fifty years ago,
it stands on land that was once a part of Clark’s farm, and contains within it a
small museum and the records of the State Society of the Sons of the American Revolution.
Near the corner sidewalks is a large granite boulder bearing a bronze plaque to
the memory of Abraham Clark. Placed there in 1919, it has a brief account of his
accomplishments. On Raritan Road near the Roselle Shopping Center is a smaller stone
that bears the initials AC and RC and the date 1737, placed there as a boundary
marker for the division of the property of Abraham and Richard Clark, ancestors
of the Signer. A small cross on its top is still used by surveyors as a location
Among Roselle’s claims to fame are that of being the first village lighted by Thomas
Edison’s incandescent light bulb, and the first church to be so lighted. The First
National Bank on Chestnut Street established the first drive-in window in Union
County, and in 1956 the Roselle Lanes was the first bowling alley in the country
to install the Brunswick Automatic Pin-setter machines. Deep sea exploration received
an assist in 1930 when Dr. William Beebe’s “Bathysphere” was made in the Watson-Stillman
hydraulic works on Aldene Road. The pre-Revolutionary home of Cavalier Jouet still
stands on East Second Avenue. Although confiscated from him during the war as he
was a noted Tory, it was returned to members of his family afterwards and was their
residence for many years.
Our population is about 22,000. We have some light industry, stores and businesses,
and single and multiple family housing. There are many churches of a variety of
faiths, and one public high school and one parochial high school, as well as five
grammar schools and one parochial.
Our form of government is that of a borough, with a mayor and six councilmen, one
from each of five wards, and one councilman elected at large. We have a police department
of about forty-five men and women, and a paid and volunteer fire department. Our
Department of Public Works is responsible for keeping the town clean and neat, with
the added help of many volunteer committees, all under the direction of the Council.
Some of our through streets are the responsibility of the Union County Board of
Chosen Freeholders, a body of nine persons. The Board of Education, an autonomous
body, operates the public school system. Medical emergencies are handled by the
Roselle Fire Department. While there are no hospitals in Roselle, our next door
cities have some of the best-equipped medical facilities in the country.
Excerpts from The Minutes of The Roselle Land Improvement Company
Notes at the end of page state:
Van Court Inn – Rebuilt 1888
Other information has it that the Windsor Hotel replaced the destroyed Mansion House
in 1888, and was unsuccessfully operated by six different managers until Mr. McDevitt
was forced to take over to protect his investment in it. He renamed it the Van Court
Inn for his wife’s Dutch family background. This could have been in 1899, as suggested
by the note above. After his death the Inn was run by the McDevitt sisters, his
daughters. The inn was totally destroyed by fire December 12, 1943.
The Mansion House was never rebuilt as such, but an entirely different building
was erected on that site as the Windsor Hotel, which, with no visible changes, became
the Van Court Inn.