"Images of America: South Amboy"
By George Francy ©
From just about anywhere in South Amboy, several times each day, you can hear the train whistle. It is one of the distinctive things about South Amboy. And the way that sound reaches through the whole city is representative of how the railroad, and transportation in general, have been key to the city's existence. Although the train whistle somewhat melds into the background, the rail line brought the rest of the world to, or at least through, South Amboy. That is what makes it all the more impressive that this community of almost nine thousand retained its character through the years. Working-class families, mostly Irish and Polish, came, had children, stayed, and kept the town as their own.
South Amboy used to be much larger. It once extended southwest to where Cranbury is today, and south to the Monmouth County border, a sprawling township 18 miles long and 6 miles wide. Not it is one square mile. Monroe, Jamesburg Cranbury, Old Bridge, and Sayreville were all once part of South Amboy. Gradually those municipalities broke off in the mid-1800s, apparently with little objection from South Amboy's leaders. As South Amboy historian William Marshall tells it, it wasn't easy collecting taxes from those far-flung residents. And perhaps there was enough to worry about in the bustling city.
As with the rest of the country, the first inhabitants in the area were Native Americans. The name "Amboy" comes from a Native-American word, "Ampoge"; it also appears on deeds and maps as Emboyle and Amboyle, which eventually resulted in the name we have today.
South Amboy, too, grew out of another city. Perth Amboy, on the north side of the Raritan River, was a colonial port and the first capital of the territory called East Jersey, which would eventually merge with West Jersey to form the state as it exists today. The area to the south of the Raritan was called the South Ward of Perth Amboy, and its location is key, as South Amboy was on the way for travelers between New York and Philadelphia. But even before it was known as the South Ward of Perth Amboy, it was called Radford's Ferry, after a water transport that connected the Amboys. Legend has it that Ben Franklin passed through that way many times, and possibly John Adams as well.
It was a five-day journey by stagecoach to Bordentown, another resting point on the way to Philadelphia. To accommodate travelers, several hotels sprang up, with taverns for socializing, beginning South Amboy's long and prolific tradition of bars. The first is believed to be the Rattoon Tavern, located on Bordentown Avenue, which a the time extended to near the now-defunct Jersey Central Power and Light Company generating station.
John Rattoon appears to have been a loyalist to the English crown, although he entertained both English and Patriot travelers. He was reportedly a conduit for the letters in which Benedict Arnold offered to betray George Washington and the insurgent colonists.
Although the closest real fight was the Battle of Monmouth, near Freehold, New Jersey is known as the "crossroads of the revolution," and Washington and his army passed through and spent a lot of time in the state. South Amboy's connection may have been as a lookout point for ships on the bay, and there were reportedly raids for goods and skirmishes back and forth between the colonists and the British, who were anchored in or near the Raritan Bay. One of the important early residents was Major General James Morgan, who knew George Washington and who was put in charge of a militia for patrolling and protecting the area. The family name was applied to the Morgan section of Sayreville.
Unlike towns to the west and south, South Amboy did not have fertile soil, so its economy was based not on agriculture, but on shipping and manufacturing. Like several neighboring towns, there were good-quality clay deposits, which grew into a healthy industry of pottery and terra cotta, the cement-like material that is molded into the ornamental adornments on buildings locally and in major cities. There were once three terra cotta or pottery factories in South Amboy, centered on Swan Hill, at the south end of Broadway.
It was the railroad, however, that was the greatest contributing factor in building the city. The Stevens family owned land in Perth Amboy and South Amboy, and would later go on to settle in Hoboken, where they founded the Stevens Institute of Technology. Colonel John Stevens brought the first steam engine, the "John Bull," made in England, to New Jersey. His sons founded the Camden & Amboy Rail Road in 1831; here again, South Amboy's location on the route between the Amboys and Philadelphia was the reason, as the rail line basically followed the old stagecoach route.
While the Camden & Amboy was the first, it was only one of several railroads that passed through the city, including the New York and Long Branch. There was also the Raritan River Rail Road, which traveled west to New Brunswick and eventually became part of Conrail.
Many of those trains were headed for the water and the shipping that it provided. Pennsylvania coal was the primary material transported on box boats, or barges, to New York City, but there were also dozens of other types of goods shipped, including military explosives, which led to two of the most disastrous events in the city's history.
The first of these disasters was in 1918 at a World War I munitions packing plant that was reportedly the largest of its kind in the world. Although the plant was in the Morgan section of Sayreville, South Amboy was the closest settlement of any consequence, and it took the brunt of the damage. The blast started on October 4, and was felt as far away as Manhattan. A series of fires and explosions continued for three days, killing some 70 people.
The second, and more direct blast occurred on May 19, 1950, at the "T" docks. Explosives were being loaded onto a barge when something went wrong, and 31 workers called "powder monkeys" for the gunpowder they handled, were killed. Debris was blown to the streets near the waterfront, and reportedly every window in the city was blown out.
The Raritan Bay, which on some early maps appears as "Amboy Bay," once came much further inland than we see today. As [historical photographs] show, the water lapped up near where the railroad line passes today. South Amboy resident in the 1800s and 1900s called this the Minnie ditch, for the minnows that could be caught in this shallow water and used for fishing. In 1953, the Army Corps of Engineers started depositing material outward into the bay, and in a reversal from the 1800s, South Amboy grew for once, by 66 acres.
This land is now key to South Amboy's future. Although talk started at least as early as 1962 about what use the land would be put to, it is only now, as the city reaches its bicentennial in 1998, that a plan has been formed under Mayor John T. O'Leary. There is already a new school, library, and waterfront county park. Housing for the elderly and detached homes are part of the mix, maybe followed by shops and a restaurant. In the downtown area, a government/business program is well underway to renovate storefronts to a "turn-of-the-century" look.
And, as always, the rail line is key. Although now solely in a line for commuters to New York City, the train is the centerpiece of an envisioned transportation hub that would also incorporate buses and maybe a ferry, truly coming full circle to South Amboy's beginnings.
The above is author George Francy's Introduction to his excellent pictorial history of the city, "Images of America: South Amboy" (Arcadia Publishing, 1998). click HERE for a link to an online store to purchase.