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A Brief History of Roselle

Historic Roselle, NJ 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 present-day Roselle.

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. Historic Roselle, NJ 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”. Historic Roselle, NJ

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 Historic Roselle, NJ 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 Historic Roselle, NJ 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 intersection.

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 Historic Roselle, NJ 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 later wars.

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 point.

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


  • The Roselle Land Improvement Company was incorporated under an act of the New Jersey Legislature approved February 8, 1866
  • The incorporators were A. D. Hope, Samuel Knox, Josiah O. Stearns, Edward G. Brown, Peter Sanford, John C. Rose, David Mulford, and James Moore
  • The act of incorporation was limited to twenty years.
  • The first officers were:
    • A. D. Hope, President
    • Samuel Knox, Secretary
    • John W. Mulford, Superintendent
  • On June 19, 1866, a map of the property was approved and ordered filed in the County Clerk’s office. It was filed July 18, 1866
  • On July 17, 1866, six houses were authorized to be built
  • On September 19, 1866, it was recorded that 1,300 feet of Chestnut Street had been graded and work on First Avenue was authorized
  • On April 11, 1867, W. W. Dilts was appointed Superintendent in place of John W. Mulford
  • The first sale was made to Adrian W. Smith, for the SW corner of Chestnut Street and Fourth Avenue on April 24, 1867. The second sale was to H. P. Baldwin, for the NE corner of Chestnut Street and Fifth Avenue on November 6, 1867. The third sale was to A. D. Hope for the SE corner of Chestnut Street and Fourth Avenue on February 24, 1868
  • On July 2, 1868, sales were authorized to the Presbyterian, Episcopal, and Methodist churches
  • On May 22, 1869, the building of the Mansion House was authorized
  • On April 28, 1871, the sale to the Baptist Church was authorized. Issuance of the deed was voted on February 27, 1875
  • On July 5, 1882, a lease was authorized to the Edison Company for Isolated Electric Lighting plant at one dollar per year, with an option of purchase for $1,200
  • July 10, 1883, the following Resolution was adopted:

    “Inasmuch as the Citizens of Roselle have made a liberal contribution for the purpose of lighting the streets with the Edison electric light for one year, therefore this Company will contribute $50 in aiding them to carry out the above purpose.”

  • On March 4, 1884, it was reported that liquor was being sold in the drug store of the Mansion House
  • March 19, 1885, the Mansion House was sold to James Moore
  • On October 14, 1886 the Mansion House burned down
  • December 16, 1892, consent was given to the Elizabeth & Plainfield Railroad Company to construct tracks on Third Avenue and Locust Street
  • June 16, 1885 practically all unsold property was deeded to shareholders in exchange for stock

Notes at the end of page state:
Holland
Van Court Inn – Rebuilt 1888
McDevitt 1899

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.