Residents Take Pictorial Tour of the History of West Orange

West Orange historian Joseph Fagan displays a metal spike salvaged from the rebuilding of the wall at Eagle Rock Reservation during the construction of the Essex County 9/11 Memorial. Credits: Steven Maginnis

WEST ORANGE, NJ - Historian Joseph Fagan presented a lecture on March 15 at the West Orange Public Library as part of a series of presentations about the township's history in connection with the sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) of its incorporation. The lecture, the third of seven such presentations being held at the library, was devoted to postcards and photographs of the town throughout the years.  

Fagan accompanied his talk with a slide show of many of the postcards and photos in his collection.  While he had plenty of pictures and postcard illustrations of obvious sites like the Crystal Lake resort near the current location of Pals Cabin, a good deal of the presentation was devoted to transportation, from the early days of the automobile to the height and decline of the Erie Railroad.

Fagan showed many photographs of the annual Eagle Rock Hill Climb, held from 1901 to 1904. Drivers of the earliest would start at the bottom of the hill, where Eagle Rock Avenue currently meets Main Street and Harrison Avenue,  and race against the clock to test cars for endurance.  Participants included Charles Duryea, who with his brother Frank developed in 1893 the first American automobile powered by a gasoline engine (seven years after German engineer Gottlieb Daimler's first gasoline-engine car).   Duryea won the 1901 competition for the quickest run up the hill for gasoline-powered cars, with a then-record time of three minutes and 45 seconds, with a three-wheeled vehicle.   Thomas Edison later entered an electric car when that category was added.

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"In that regard, " Fagan said, "West Orange helped contribute to the development of the automotive industry.  Certainly it would have happened without West Orange and the Eagle Rock Hill Climb, but they certainly played an important role in doing so." 

The auto-related photos Fagan displayed showed familiar landmarks in dramatically different settings.  Two of the houses shown at the starting line for the Eagle Rock Hill Climb stand today - one is the current location of the West Orange Pharmacy - but the setting shows more trees lining an unpaved street.  Likewise, Northfield Avenue from Pleasant Valley Way is clearly recognizable in a photo from the 1930s, but it runs through an empty landscape not yet filled by landmarks such as the Codey Arena.

Fagan also concentrated on West Orange's railroad heritage, showing pictures of its two railroad stations along the Erie Railroad line into town - the main West Orange station at Main Street and the station at Park Avenue and Spring Street, which primarily served residents of Llewellyn Park.  Several photographs displayed also showed the freight spur directly serving the Edison battery factory.  Fright service lasted into the 1980s, while passenger service ended in 1955.

 Among the more surprising photographs of the railroad were those depicting rail yards and even stockyards occupying the area around the intersection of Main Street and Northfield Avenue where modern office buildings now stand  St. Mark's Church, the only structure a modern West Orange resident would recognize in these pictures, is the oldest building in the township.   

Fagan explained that the stockyards were used for horses.  "What used to happen," he said, "is, horses would come in from out West, and the horses would be unloaded, and they'd have to be handled by experienced horsemen, what we know as cowboys."  

Even more interesting than West Orange's connection to the Old West was the 1913 incident of two young boys who let a live lion out of a boxcar.  Local officials tried in vain to subdue the lion until it owner, a vaudeville entertainer  named Lalla Selbini, arrived at the scene called out the lion's name and got it to submit to her like a kitten.     

Fagan had many interesting stories to tell about Eagle Rock Reservation, which was the site of a resort before it was gradually converted to county parkland in the early twentieth century.  Although the basic outline of the reservation has remained intact, there have been notable changes.   Among the surprises were photos and postcard illustrations of lost landmarks such as a picnic refectory known as the "Ice Cream Pavilion" and the Eyrie mansion, the 1854 home of Llewellyn Park developer Llewellyn Haskell, which was located in the middle of Eagle Rock Reservation until 1924.  Haskell had originally planned to build his development on the site of the reservation, which would have included his house.

Two forgotten landmarks at the reservation included a 100-step walkway leading from the foot of Mountain Avenue, which ran below the wall at the observation, and the wooden fence the wall itself replaced.  The wall has stood since 1907, and remained undisturbed until it was selected as the site as the Essex County 9/11 Memorial.  Having been the scene of onlookers watching the World Trade Center towers burn and fall on September 11, 2001, and having been turned into a makeshift memorial with flags, poems and other mementos left behind, it was a logical choice. Fagan showed many pictures of the construction of the memorial and regaled the audience with the story of how he was able to remove several spikes from the original wall during the construction, one of which he displayed proudly before the slide show.

The memorial construction site was also where he befriended one of photojournalism's greatest heroes. On the Saturday afternoon of the Labor Day 2002 weekend,  Fagan met a photographer from the New York Times - the only other person there that day - who had covered the Vietnam War.  

"I thought that was very interesting," Fagan explained.  "I said, 'Oh, you know, there's a great story, there was a movie out, about this guy who was a photographer from the New York Times and covered the Vietnam War and escaped from Cambodia.'"   

The photographer turned out to be the very same man - Dith Pran, the subject of the 1984 movie The Killing Fields.

"We spent the next six hours together over lunch, and he told me all about his experiences," Fagan said. He and Pran remained in touch until Pran's death in 2008. 

The next lecture in the series, "Significant Achievements in West Orange Athletics & Sports," will be presented at the library by track coach Joe Suriano at 7 P.M. on Thursday, April 19.


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