Traveling through the quiet residential town of South Orange, New Jersey is like traveling back through time. It’s full of Colonial, Tudor and Victorian homes, with beautiful parks, streets with gaslights and a busy Village center. The city has undergone some changes, but it’s ripe with history that dates back to the 1660s.
Its founders were Connecticut settlers who landed along the Passaic River shoreline. With the help of Capt. Robert Treat and Lt. Samuel Swaine, the settlers were able to purchase land from the current inhabitants Lenni Lenape Indians in July 1666. The Lenapes sold more land along the East Branch of the Rahway River to the mountain top to the residents in 1678.
The main roadway was an Indian trail called South Orange Avenue. However, in 1705, the state-mandated road statutes required landowners to take care of the first primitive highways. Residents took care of Valley and Ridgewood Roads and Main Street, which Washington and his troops would use throughout the American Revolution.
How people got around the town evolved from horseback to ox-cart to stagecoach. However, in 1836, residents saw the first line of railroad track installed between Orange and Village. The company – Morris and Essex Railroad – added more track to the line a year later, with a wood-burning steam locomotive pulling two cars.
Here’s where the South Orange Train Station is located.
With a railway line in South Orange, it served as a Newark suburb and summer resort. The line continued to expand, going into Hoboken in 1868, changing the Village from a farming and milling community into a residential railway suburb of Newark and New York.
Throughout the mid-to-late 1800s, South Orange residents experienced even more changes – swamp drainage and road construction, as well as the installation of gas, sewer and water lines. Until 1860, the town’s streetlamps used sperm oil. This changed when gas was introduced. The Village saw electricity in 1888. On Dec. 6, 1879, South Orange received its first-ever telephone exchange. The Central Office opened in 1899.
No longer was South Orange an area for farming, and its growth was further fueled by John Gorham Vose, a New York attorney. Loving the area, he bought a home along Scotland Road in the late 1850s. He developed the area around his home over the next few years, and before long, 175 acres along Center Street and Scotland Road had been developed.
It wasn’t too much longer that other successful businessmen came in to change South Orange’s community landscape.
In 1894, Village Hall was built, housing the fire department and later the police department (after the FD vacated the premises to another location). The city first saw a Post Office in 1841 in the Freeman’s Store, but it shut down due to its significantly cramped space. Another office opened in 1843, serving 30 areas families. Six sites housed the Post Office until the now-present-day office opened on Vose Avenue in 1937.
The oldest building in the Village is the Stone House, built around 1860, on South Orange Avenue, adjacent to Grove Road.
In 1774, Henry Squier built a colonial house along North Ridgewood Road that William Redmond later purchased (1850) and was leased to Flood, a community dairyman, to pasture the cows. Redmond built a brownstone mansion that the Orange Lawn Tennis Club currently uses.
The Mountain House, another South Orange landmark, was built about 1830, but subsequently destroyed in a fire in 1881. It was regarded as a water cure by two doctors because spring water from the mountain came down. On Ridgewood Road was a large two-wing wooden structure hotel owned by Mr. Lord of Lord & Taylor and leased to G. Baird. The hotel could hold up to 150 guests.
South Orange’s government has undergone numerous changes – from theocracy to democracy. There were a handful of houses, blacksmith shop, grist mill, store and tavern in 1776, but residents united to defend the county. The New Jersey Legislature founded the South Orange Township in 1861, which lead to the Village Charter in 1869. The city was finally able to levy taxes and borrow money in 1872.
Action by the State Legislature led to the separation of Township and Village in 1904, with the agreement that South Orange would stay in the school district.
The population of South Orange steadily grew, with 16,300 people in 1995.
In 1806, South Orange broke away from Newark to become its own entity, with residents coming together in 1780 to officially adopt its name. In 1793, the Wood’s Gazette newspaper used South Orange for the first time.
If you’re coming from the South Orange Public Library, here’s how you get to our office at 20 Valley St. #340.
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