By Alan A. Siegel,Esq., Township Historian
Fifteen thousand years ago what is now Irvington lay buried under hundreds of feet of glacial ice. As the climate gradually tempered, the glacier loosed its frigid grasp upon the land, and the present-day contours of the town emerged. The Elizabeth River is the chief geographic feature of Irvington, bisecting the town from north to south. The river, which enters Irvington at a point 140 feet above sea level, descends gradually until it crosses into Hillside at an elevation of 70 feet. The land east of the Elizabeth River is a gently rolling plain. To the west of the river a spur of the Orange Mountains reaches 220 feet above sea level at Franklin Terrace.
The first inhabitants of the Elizabeth River valley were the Awkinges awky or Hackensacks, a subtribe of the Lenni Lenape. No Indian village is known to have existed in Irvington, but the region’s plentiful game and well-stocked streams leaves little doubt that the Hackensack made their camps here. In 1666 several small vessels from Connecticut sailed up the Passaic River in search of a safe landing. Within a decade Newark’s first settlers laid out highways, erected a meeting house and established themselves on the banks of the river. The next generation looked to the west for additional land. Irvington had been explored soon after Newark was settled: The Indian trail that later became Clinton Ave. led straight to the Elizabeth River and the open meadows of the valley. History has not preserved the name of Irvington’s first European settler nor the date when he and his family cleared the woods to build the first rough cabin here. Tradition has it that Irvington was founded in 1692.
During the early years of the 18th Century a handful of families inhabited the valley, most of them clustered along the river. West Farms, as the place was first called, gained its earliest citizen of note when Samuel Camp sold his property in Newark and moved his family here about 1725. His son, Joseph, opened a general store on what is now Clinton Ave. about 1740, farmed the family’s lands, owned a sawmill on the river and operated a cider mill and distillery on Vinegar Hill. At midcentury Joseph Camp and his numerous relatives and descendants owned nearly one-third of the arable land in what is now Irvington, reason enough for West Farms to become known as Camp’s Town.
The story of the American Revolution was played out in miniature in what was to become Irvington. Joseph Camp’s son, Caleb, was a stalwart patriot. A member of the Provincial Congress, he served as a member of the General Assembly after independence was declared member of the Council of Safety for 11 years and Speaker of the Assembly. His neighbor and sometime business partner, Samuel Hayes, earned his laurels during eight years as a major in the Essex County Militia. More than 40 men from West Farms and vicinity served the America cause in the fight for independence.
Village life began to return to normal soon after the British were driven from New Jersey. In 1807 the “Great Courthouse Election” was held in Essex County to decide whether the County Seat would be moved from Newark to Day’s Hill, a site bounded by today’s Springfield, Florence and Elmwood Avenues. The election, which resulted in a victory for Newark, was later set aside by the State Legislature as “wicked and corrupt.”
Camptown built a new schoolhouse in 1809, saw it burn to the ground in 1826 and replaced it with a three-story brick building that was to stand as a landmark at the Center until 1913. The Camptown Academy was Irvington’s only schoolhouse until Central School on Clinton Ave. opened in 1870. A stagecoach line between Morristown and Jersey City began operating with a stop in Camptown in 1798. The new fast mail line from Philadelphia to New York City chose the village as a relay station in 1800.
Clinton Township, which included what is now Irvington, Maplewood and parts of Newark and South Orange, was created in 1834. What remained of the old township was absorbed into Newark in 1902.
By the mid 1800s Camptown was a village of about 900, most of them farmers but a growing number professional and business people from Newark, Jersey City and New York City who had sought the place out for its quiet country lifestyle. When Stephen Foster published his new ballad, “De Camptown Races,” in 1850, the “better folk” of the village were mortified that people would associate their hometown with the bawdy goings?on celebrated in Foster’s song. To Lydia Crawford, the wife of the local postmaster, belongs the honor of choosing Camptown’s new name: Her 1852 suggestion, “Irvingtown,” commemorated Washington Irving, America’s greatest living man of letters.
The last four slaves in Clinton Township were emancipated in 1846.
Irvington sent nearly 70 of her sons to fight for the Union in the Civil War. Amos J. Cummings, sergeant major of the 26th New Jersey Volunteers, was the most decorated, winning the Congressional Medal of Honor for “distinguished gallantry” at the Battle of Salem Heights. Irvington’s George Jefferson, a private in the U. S. Colored Troops, lost an arm at the Siege of Petersburg.
On March 27, 1874, the state approved legislation that created “a body politic” known as the Village of Irvington. Until then only a section of Clinton Township, Irvington was now an independent municipality with its own mayor, village trustees, police department (1893) and fire ,. department (1894). Laws approved in Trenton in 1903 and again in 1908 that would have joined Irvington to Newark were turned aside as local voters soundly rejected the idea of annexation.
By the turn of the century Irvington had been transformed from a country village to a thriving middle class suburb of Newark. The town’s first electric trolley in 1890 was largely responsible.
Throughout the period 1860 to 1890, when horse-drawn trolleys on Clinton and Springfield Avenues were the swiftest means of travel between Irvington and Newark, Irvington’s population hovered between 1,500 and 2,000. By 1905, just 15 years after the first electric trolleys plied Springfield Ave., there were 7,180 people here. Irvington’s development began gradually in the late 1880s, gained momentum at the turn of the century, then skyrocketed during the 25 years between 1905 and 1930. Irvington’s population was 11,877 in 1910. Ten years later 25,480 people called the town their home. By 1930 the number stood at 56,733, an amazing 223% increase.
Milestones along the road of Irvington’s growth include: Wooden sidewalks and gas lamps in the Center, 1874; the first telephone, 1884; a volunteer fire department, 1894; an underground water system, 1894; the first Town Hall, 1895; the first auto owned by a town resident, 1900; a paid police force, 1902; the first paved road (Clinton Avenue) in 1905; the first airplane built here, 1911; and the founding of a free public library, 1915.
Over one thousand Irvingtonians served in World War One, 26 giving their lives in the war to end wars. Less than a generation later Fireman Robert Wyckoff of the USS Arizona was the first Irvington casualty of World War Two, killed in the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor. Seven thousand served; 172 died.
Since the building boom finally ended in 1930 after consuming every farm and field in town, Irvington’s population has remained relatively stable. A little over three square miles in area, Irvington is one of the most densely populated places in the state. Census takers in 1905 found that one-fifth of Irvington’s people were foreign born, most of them natives of Germany, England and Ireland. During the first three quarters of the 20th Century, a wave of immigrants swept over Irvington. German Americans bought or rented so heavily in the East Ward that from the 1880s to the 1950s they were the town’s most dominant ethnic group. The town’s Jewish community, numbering over 9,000 in the 1970s, was virtually non-existent until 1900. The largest ethnic group by the 1970s, Polish-Americans moved here in force after World War One. Italian-Americans began arriving in the West Ward in the early 1940s, followed in the 1960s by Ukrainian-Americans, 4,000 strong (most of them in the North Ward) when the 1970 census was taken.
The Newark riots of July 1967 hastened an exodus of families from that city, many of them moving the few short blocks to Irvington. Until 1965 Irvington was almost exclusively white. By 1980 the town was nearly 40% black, by 1990 it was 70%. On July 1, 1980, Fred Bost, the first black to serve on the Town Council, was sworn in as East Ward Councilman. Michael G. Steele, the town’s first black mayor, was elected in 1990, followed by Sara B. Bost in 1994. The current Mayor is Wayne Smith.
For further information about Irvington’s history, consult the files of the Irvington Public Library or Out of Our Past, a History of Irvington , New Jersey, by Alan A. Siegel, published as part of the town’s centennial celebration in 1974. Other books on local history include: For the Glory of the Union, a history of the 26th N. J. Volunteers, a Civil War regiment raised in Irvington, Images of America: Irvington Township, a photo history, and Smile, a Picture History of Olympic Park, all by Alan A. Siegel. The Irvington Historical Society’s most recent publication, An Outline History of Irvington, New Jersey, is available free of charge from the Township Clerk.