Clinton Hill: Magnolia Swamp and Mapes’ Scientific Farming

History and Landscape
Published December 17, 1998

Clinton Hill: Magnolia Swamp and Mapes’ Scientific Farming

| Published December 17, 1998

Inside the Jewish Children’s Home at 534 Clinton Avenue. The Newark Public Library

The boundaries or definition of Clinton, Clinton Township and Clinton Hill depend upon the century from which you are viewing them.

All of Newark and Essex County and portions of Morris and Passaic counties were once part of Newark Township. Following the American Revolution, Newark’s old boundaries shriveled to an area smaller than today’s boundaries. Many other townships outside of Newark sprang up, some almost overnight. On April 14, 1835, Clinton Township came into existence as one of Newark’s new neighbors. The township was named for DeWitt Clinton, who supported construction of the Erie Canal and served as governor of New York state. The township’s first public officials include Moses Osborn, as moderator; Nathaniel R. Brown as township clerk, and Jonathan T. Squires as assessor. It encompassed not only what is the present-day Clinton Hill section of Newark, but the Weequahic area, Irvington, Maplewood and portions along the Elizabethtown border.


All of Clinton Township’s geography was varied and pleasant, sloping from the First or Orange Mountain toward the Newark meadows. Through it flowed the Elizabeth River, which ran from north to south and included three lakes or ponds that were dammed so that ice could be harvested during the winter season for the following summer’s use. In the early days, the hills and valleys were covered with a thick growth of substantial timber. As late as 1808, wild beasts roamed the area. Boundary changes occurred in 1895 when several local farmers withdrew from the community and formed the Irvington section, later a separate community named for Washington Irving. In 1869 and 1897, additional portions of Clinton Township were annexed to Newark. In 1902, the remaining portion of the township became an official part of Newark, following a special act of the Legislature. Clinton Township was no more.

Bogs and Farms

For more than half of its existence Clinton was more of a farming area than a built-up community. Large farms prospered well into this century. In addition to its three ponds, the area included a major swamp and a deep river that are now mere memories but still can be located on maps. A 1913 Newark News article described the area as having luxuriant foliage that once beautified the hill area north of Springfield Avenue. At the time of the Civil War, peat was cut from the marshland bogs and used as fuel to heat Newark’s Military Hospital founded by Marcus Ward. Schoolchildren frequently complained of wet feet because of the constant runoff of water. On one occasion a small raft was built to ferry them to school. Magnolia Swamp and Kehoe’s Hole are memories, too. While swamps often are unhealthy places because of stagnant water, this was not the case at these sites because the groundwater was filtered by the heavy moss. Well into the last half of the 19th century, these spots were favorite hunting grounds for foxes, opossums and rabbits. Turtles and muskrats also could be found in great numbers. Kehoe’s Hole was a tremendously deep ravine, named for a man who was employed to fill it once land development began in the area. By the 1840s, farmers were following the advice of Professor James J. Mapes, father of Mary Mapes Dodge, who wrote 'Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates.' The elder Mapes brought the art of scientific farming to Newark and to the rest of the world. Professor Mapes took ordinary farmland at the south end of town where the soil had been exhausted, added manure, and created a spectacular result. Visitors were awed by Mapes’ flourishing grapevines, magnificent pear trees and bountiful acres of corn and potatoes. Never had local farms seen such a response to the planter’s touch. The age of scientific farming had arrived, and much of it started here in Newark in the agricultural laboratory of a Newarker who proved the importance of commercial fertilizer. Almost overnight, Mapes, who taught the virtues of modern farming by example, saw his neighbors adopt his methods. As a result, Clinton Township, including the Weequahic section, quickly became a farming showcase. The 1850 United States Census indicated that the township had a population of 2,500 and included some of the most important farmland in Essex County. Produce included wheat, rye, Indian corn, Irish potatoes, vegetables and all kinds of fruit.

The People

John Brown, an early settler whose will is dated 1689, lived in what we would consider today’s Clinton Hill section. Other familiar names of his era and beyond include Edward Riggs, Samuel Lyons, William Camp, Micha Tompkins, Thomas Luddington, James Brown, Hugh Robert, Zachariah Hall, Ezekiel Crane, David Ball, Joanna Conger, David Tichenor and Thomas Hayes. Brown was recorded in deed in 1718 as having 25 acres along the Elizabeth River. Robert had a home near the Great Swamp (Springfield Avenue) in 1720. John Tompkins lived along the Passaic River, but later moved to Hanover, and Joseph Roberts, a carpenter, had dealings with sawmill owners Ezekiel, Samuel and Israel Crane on the Elizabeth River. David Bell was a blacksmith in Springfield. Ephraim Camp has a plantation at 'Cheapside,' and Caleb Camp served on the Council of Safety and was a member of the New Jersey Assembly at the time of the Revolutionary War. Job Camp, son of Samuel, died in 1796. His will indicated that he owned a slave. Not much is said of slavery, but this was hardly the only incidence of it. Shaw’s 'History of Essex' records other instances of slave labor. According to an 1846 account, 'Merchantable negroes toiled and sweat under our sun.' Henry Meeker, prominent in Clinton, was a descendent of William Meeker, whose activities can be traced to the 1644 New Haven colony. Cyrus Durand, an inventor and businessman of Huguenot stock, was born in 1787 and was involved in making silverware and gold clock cases. He was best known for his development of the lathe and press work. Later, he became a manufacturer of bank notes. Clinton Township personalities who helped build the modern community in the 19th century included the Shanleys, Tylers, Demarests, Nyes, Barclays and Trefz families. Michael Shanley was a transit magnate. Herbert P. Baldwin, who attended Grace Episcopal Church, was associated with Newark Academy and Cooper Union in New York City. He was a chemist of considerable note and was well known in Newark and New York City.

The Township

Eventually, Clinton Township became industrial, then residential, in character. At first, Belmont Avenue was rural, strewn with cornfields and swamps, alternating with farms and house gardens that produced corn, berries and apples. At the summit of Belmont Avenue, now Irvine Turner Boulevard, stood the old Pressingorder home, a tiny house on the site of St. Peter’s Church. Its occupant ran a tailor shop and saloon. Shaw’s 'History of Essex' noted that, 'like other parts of the Hill section of the city, West Newark also owed its progress chiefly to the German (community).' It was here also that Rudolph Ledig became known as a supporter of the underground railroad, the route slaves followed to freedom. Certainly one of Clinton Hill’s most colorful personalities was former New York Mayor John Opdyke. The story is told that 'from the Opdyke house and the fields surrounding, one could cross the broad expanse of (Newark) farmland, past the cluster of buildings that was Newark, and over the meadows to Manhattan. Whenever (New York) city business summons the mayor, a large white flag was raised over that city hall and Opdyke would rush to Manhattan to conduct the city’s business.' Remember that steamboats at Newark’s Passaic River docks took passengers to Manhattan many times a day.

After the Civil War, Clinton Hill began to change. The isolation that had held back progress was now challenged by the opening of roads and the establishment of trolley lines that penetrated an area that had been the domain of the trapper and gardener. As Elizabeth Avenue traffic became more intense, horses pulled strawberries, cherries and milk to downtown Newark. The horse cars that once ran up to Clinton Avenue and stopped at Badger Avenue were extended as developers went about chopping up the old farms to create residential streets at a feverish rate. Before too long an increasing number of voices were being heard for the return of the small Clinton Hill community to its original owner—Newark. That was because Newark could provide the services not available in smaller towns. This kind of request from Newark’s contiguous neighbors was common during the early part of the century. Even Hudson County communities wanted to be part of the town. Paved streets, sewers, sidewalks, firemen and police and an excellent educational system made Newark a most attractive partner. As a result, within less than a century of independence, the Clinton Hill community wanted to come home. And it did. Just as New York City had annexed Brooklyn and other areas, Newark was on a march to regain its lost territories.


While imperialist Newarkers wanted to see the old city regain some of its lost lands, the community spoke loudest in the demand for the annexation of Clinton Hill. Frank J. Bock bought the old Prosper P. Shaw farm and started to develop the area near Hawthorne Avenue. Consequently, other farms were purchased. Soon other developers began a stampede into the area. One report referred to new streets being laid out in feverish fashion. But it was Bock who made a nuisance of himself, arguing for amenities from city government. He insisted that the area was hot real estate ripe for development. Although his original plea for improvement was turned down, the city eventually capitulated, maybe because the officials were tired of hearing from him or, as one report said, 'partly because they had been convinced of his argument.' Single-family homes began to replace strawberry fields and cherry trees. Commuter buses began to replace milk wagons along Elizabeth Avenue. Soon, sights would be set upon Vailsburg for yet another expansion to the west. In the long run, however, a greater Newark was not a possibility. Instead, Newark remained small, the smallest of America’s 50 cities. And it wore with pride the title 'The Biggest Small Town in America.'