Did you know….
there was a time when Chatham kids could ice skate from downtown Chatham all the way to Florham Park? And that a toboggan ride could last from the top of Fairmount Avenue down to Main Street and beyond?
Those were the days!
This was back in the early to mid-1900s. The Passaic River meandered through grassy meadows and woods on the north side of Chatham. The marshy flood basin surrounding the Passaic, the freshet, provided acres and acres of open space to skate on. Reportedly half the town could be found skating on the freshet on cold winter days.
Shinny hockey games, figure skating, racer skating, ice boating and ice sailing were all part of the fun. Ice sailing involved skating while holding a large sail with a wooden bar across the center. The skater would hook an arm under the bar, and when the wind hit the sail, off they’d go.
Younger Chathamities would strap on clamp skates and play “tickly bender”, skating hard to create cracks in the ice, then constantly moving from one spot to another to avoid falling through. Skating on the on the freshet was ideal because the water beneath the ice was shallow. The Passaic River was much deeper and several drownings had occurred.
Sledding on the freshet was also popular, but the most exhilarating sleigh rides originated atop the Fairmount Avenue hill. Sledders would station a lookout at the intersection of Fairmount and Watchung Avenues and, prior to the train tracks being elevated in 1915, another lookout at the train tracks.
In order to have enough heft to ride all the way to Main Street, 8 to 10 riders were required, which meant using a toboggan. Once the scouts issued the “all clear,” the person at the back of the toboggan would provide a running push then jump aboard for the 3/4-mile run down to Main Street. In one famous toboggan run, the driver hooked a right onto Main Street and the ride continued until the toboggan came to a stop close to the library.
Flexible Flyer-type sleds were used to careen down the hill on Fairview Avenue and to plummet into the Fair Mount Cemetery, dodging through the headstones. These sledding paths remain current-day favorites, providing wintertime fun for the kids of Chatham.
To learn more about life growing up in Chatham in the 20th century, look for the books Ten on a Toboggan and Other Tales and Chatham at the Crossing of the Fishawack at the Library of the Chathams.