Story Headlines: That Other Allentown | Great headlines in history
Several years ago, a person I know well drove from Allentown to Trenton, New Jersey. Here he met a friend from his days at Syracuse University who worked for the college and hoped to start an alumni group in the New Jersey State Capital Region. After meeting and talking to his friend, they parted ways. But it soon became apparent to the Allentown man that he was lost. Hoping to find his way back, he stopped at a gas station and asked directions to Allentown. But as he followed them, he realized that he was nowhere near where he should be. Instead, he saw signs indicating he was heading to a place called Allentown, New Jersey. Quickly, he untangled the highway roads and headed home.
Some residents of Allentown, New Jersey might understand why their quaint community with a rich history but less than 2,000 residents is overlooked. “Allentown was four miles from everything and almost nothing,” was an old colloquial saying about the place. In fact, due to its location since colonial times on the main route between New York and Philadelphia, Allentown, NJ itself served a role that was much more than a “broad point in the road”.
The first inhabitants of the area were the Lenape-Unami tribe whose clan totem symbol was the turtle. Because they were located between two streams, they were known as the Crosswicks Indians as part of what is now called the Crosswicks Creek watershed. For approximately 2,500 years, several semi-permanent Native American villages occupied the area.
There were two Native American trails that ran through what is now Allentown. One led east along the coast of the bay, the other inland. With the arrival of British settlers these paths were enlarged. In 1683 Deputy Governor Gawen Lawrie linked them from the capital of East Jersey, Perth Amboy, to the capital of West Jersey, Burlington. This eventually led to a direct route between New York and Philadelphia known as the Lower York Road. “Main Street in Allentown developed from this Lower York Road, also known as Lawrie’s Road or Queen’s Highway,” notes a historical source.
Robert Burnett, a Scottish Quaker, emigrated from England to Perth Amboy due to persecution. He bought 4,000 acres of land. Her two daughters married local men: Margaret married Nathan Allen and Isabel married William Montgomery. From his stepfather, Montgomery acquired land which he named “Egilinton” after the family estate in Scotland. That same year, 1706, Allen acquired land on which he built a mill in 1714. Allen’s name appeared on so many early deeds that many people began to call it the town of Allen. It first appeared as Allentown on a 1749 map and finally in 1795 the village was officially Allentown on the state map.
Now, some may wonder what happened to William Allen (1704-1780), founder of Allentown, Pennsylvania? They may have always heard that the town in New Jersey was named after him. Some reference sources still include William Allen as a possible source of the name. It is true that William Allen owned land in New Jersey – iron furnaces – but that was much later. In 1719, when Nathan Allen built a flour mill and other mills and began selling building plots on the land he owned, William Allen was a student in his early twenties at Middle Temple Law School in London and the University of Cambridge. The official history of the Allentown New Jersey Historic Preservation Review Board makes no mention of his involvement in the founding of their community or his name.
Allentown, New Jersey, though founded by Quakers, attracted both Scottish Irish Presbyterians and Church of England Anglicans, later Episcopalians. Also, some settlers of French and Dutch origin settled there. In 1734, a coach service was established between the New York area and Philadelphia. “Allen’s Town soon became a crossroads that functioned both as a market village for the surrounding agricultural area and as a resting place for travellers,” the official history notes. Soon the village was teeming with workshops of blacksmiths, coopers (barrel makers) and tailors. Taverns have sprung up to meet the many needs of travelers on the Lower York Road.
Among these travelers in February 1756 was a Virginian named George Washington. Not quite a year before, when the French and Indian War broke out, he had barely escaped death in the defeat at Braddock in Pennsylvania. He now hoped to settle a dispute over rank with the Delaware militia command at Fort Cumberland. Traveling with several officers and their servants, he advanced rapidly.
During the Revolution, Allentown was at the heart of it. From 1776 to 1783, he presided over the Courts of Admiralty. They had to decide when a privateer or other shipowner appeared in court, how much money they would receive for selling the captured prize. Sometimes this can be quite controversial. US Navy Commander John Paul Jones merely said that rather than confront the Royal Navy, some captains would seize an easy target like a merchant ship just for the prize money. Jones accused the New England privateers of using their influence in Congress to get the Admiralty Court to influence him. They reciprocated by ensuring that Jones struggled to get a ship to command.
Due to its central location, Allentown was the headquarters of several important military units, including the New Jersey Militia and the Monmouth County Quartermaster Depot. The many taverns in the city served as meeting rooms for merchants where business was done.
While most people in the county were inclined to support the British or hoped to remain neutral, the occupants of Allen’s Town were pro-independence. When Paul Revere came from Boston to raise money for the cause, they gave generously. New Jersey saw more battles and skirmishes than any other state in the American Revolution. The battles of Trenton, Princeton and Monmouth were all fought there. The reason for this was that the British felt that if they could gain control of the central part of New Jersey, they could separate the northern colonies from the middle colonies and disunite this so-called United States.
The Lower York route was used by both the Continental Army and the British Army. Trenton and Princeton were clean American wins. The Battle of Monmouth was a draw. When a thoroughly enraged George Washington showed up on the battlefield, he castigated General Charles Lee, who was responsible for this potential disaster in the making, as a “fucking poltroon.” Which was strong enough for this notoriously talkative man. In the battle was the famous Molly Pitcher, the wife of one of the soldiers who helped the men by bringing them water and acted as gunner when her husband was wounded. At the same time, the retreating British passed through Allentown and a skirmish, the so-called Battle of Allentown, took place.
When the war was over, 80 Pennsylvania militia officers took refuge in Allentown when troops who had not been paid for quite a while mutinied. A similar incident took place with the New Jersey militia. When Washington attempted to call on them to support their country, they shouted with one voice “NEW JERSEY IS OUR COUNTRY”.
The end of the revolution brought wealthy people to settle in Allentown, New Jersey. One was John Imlay, a West Indian merchant from Philadelphia and an investor in the race during the Revolution. He built a large mansion downtown, now called John Imlay House at 28 S. Main Street. The 15-bedroom Georgian country mansion contains 11 fireplaces.
In the 20th century, his French Louis XVI wallpaper was sold to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The complete room, complete with wallpaper, has been installed at the Winterthur Museum in Delaware. There are several other large houses from this era and other eras in Allentown NJ
Allentown had a black population in antebellum times and an African Methodist Episcopal Church. It was also a station of the Underground Railroad run by Quaker George Middleton.
During the Civil War, 63 men and boys from Allentown, NJ, served in the Army, most in the 11th and 14th Infantry. Ten were black men from the 22nd Colored Regiment. Over 600 of his men were from New Jersey and over 200 died in action. During the Siege of Petersburg in 1864, Sergeant James Wolby of Allentown was wounded and recognized for his bravery. All three Saunders brothers lost their lives in Petersburg. The 22nd Colored was one of the first regiments to enter Richmond. Allentown Sergeant George Ashby was New Jersey’s last surviving Civil War veteran, who died in 1946 at the age of 102.
Perhaps the most prominent black person in the community was Octavius Valentine Catto. The son of a South Carolina slave, he was prominent in the AME church circuit and received his education at the all-white Allentown Academy through the intervention of Dr. George Newell. Later, Catto moved to Philadelphia where he became a leader of the civil rights movement in that city, including racial integration on streetcars and the right to vote. He was assassinated in Philadelphia in 1871 and was buried in one of the largest funerals the city had seen up to that time.
In 1882, Allentown had a population of 1,100 and had an oil lamp street lighting system. On January 29, 1889, by an act of the New Jersey legislature following a referendum, it was separated from Upper Freehold Township. In 1899 Allentown got the Farmers Telephone system and by 1904 more telephones were being sold.
As with the rest of America, Allentown sent its sons to fight in World Wars I and II and suffered from the 1918/19 flu pandemic. Dr. Walter Farmer of Allentown was among those who, in 1937, came to the aid of the victims of the Hindenburg airship crash at Lakehurst, New Jersey.
In 1936, a huge storm hit the city, destroying 100 trees. But it was another storm, Hurricane Irene in 2011, that hit Allentown, New Jersey hard. Here is an account from a local source:
“The excess water was unable to reach the dam due to construction machinery, debris and gravel from a temporary road, which blocked the spillway. The water then began flooding nearby properties , causing extensive damage to several homes and businesses near the plant site and washing away the causeway.When Monmouth County failed to open the dam after the temporary road gravel was removed, someone came out under cover of night and opened them with a pipe wrench – a slow process that protected downtown from further flooding Allentown officials began the process of doing what needed to be done made with federal, state and local authorities to restore the city and region.
Other challenges they face include the transformation of the region by the industrial changes of the 21st century. In the words of Allentown, NJ historians: “If history is any guide, the people of Allentown will rise to the occasion and prevail.”