Historian's Corner
 

You live in Kenilworth, but how much do you really know about its history?

Walking the Path of History…

[from The Kenilworth Historian, the official newsletter of

The Kenilworth (N.J.) Historical Society Inc., Special Issue Sept. 1999]

“One of the most impressive things about Kenilworth’s history is that so much has occurred in this relatively small community, and so many famous people have passed through and even resided here.” So observes former Kenilworth historian Robert Woods, who has spent much of his life researching and documenting the Borough’s history.

Some highlights of Kenilworth’s history:

·        Kenilworth’s roots can be traced to a pre-Revolutionary farming community. The Sayre-Shallcross home, near Black Brook Park, is Kenilworth’s oldest surviving structure. Built in 1710 by the tradesman Daniel Sayre, who used water from the nearby stream to cure leather, the home later belonged to Sayre’s grandson, a soldier in the U.S. Continental Army.

·        One of Kenilworth’s most famous landmarks was the 186-foot Tin Kettle Hill, located in the northeast area of town. During the Revolutionary War, Gen. George Washington designated the site as a key beacon hill for alerting soldiers in the heights above Springfield that the British were on the move. The Springfield troops would, in turn, fire a cannon signaling the militia to prepare for battle. Between 1903 and 1906, the soil from Tin Kettle Hill was removed and used to elevate the tracks for the Pennsylvania Railroad.

·        John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiator of the famous Jay Treaty with Great Britain, maintained a 60-acre country estate in Kenilworth until about 1795.

·        The original plan for Kenilworth, designed by J. Wallace Higgins in 1895, called for wide thoroughfares, industrial zones and connections with mass transit via trolley lines and a railroad, which eventually became known as the Rahway Valley Railroad. Among other features, the plan included a yacht club, national press club home and opera house.

·        The community now known as Kenilworth began in the late 1800s as a real-estate venture that was named New Orange by the businessmen behind the project. In 1904, after some of the original partners died, the remaining principals formed the corporation Kenilworth Realty and referred to their venture as “Kenilworth.” They derived the name from a literary society to which they belonged, called the Kenilworth Club in honor of Sir Walter Scott’s renowned novel Kenilworth. Published in 1821, the novel relates to England’s famous Kenilworth Castle, which in 1563 was gifted by Queen Elizabeth I to her favorite suitor, Robert Dudley.

·        The year 1899 marked the start of the building boom in Kenilworth, which drew to the area tradesmen such as James Arthur, who contracted to build “a hundred homes in 100 days.” It was around this time that such other well-known family names as Hoiles, Knudson, Hiller, Gow, Grippo, Vitale, Amorosa and Rego also became established in Kenilworth.

·        Upsala College, the Rahway Valley Railroad and the Kenilworth Inn, all of which were formerly located in Kenilworth, attracted many famous people to the area, including Thomas Edison, who conducted research projects here, and former Sen. Thomas Heflin (D-Ga.), who aspired to run for the U.S. presidency in the 1932 election.

·        Rahway Valley Railroad Station, once situated at North 31st Street, served at the turn of the century as the hub of activity in the community and as a backdrop for numerous movies — particularly, Westerns.

·        On June 18, 1907, the Bill of Incorporation creating the Borough of Kenilworth and establishing the boundaries of Kenilworth, Cranford and Union was signed into law by N.J. Governor Stokes. A provisional government later was elected to run the Borough until elections were held the following November.

·        Elmer Guy, the community’s popular Public Service trolley line conductor in the early 1900s, was widely known for his good deeds and is said to be the prototype for the conductor in the renowned Toonerville Trolley comic strip.

·        The original Kenilworth Inn, located at the corner of 20th Street and the Boulevard, housed in its stables the acclaimed Kensington Riding Academy. This foremost equestrian academy in northern New Jersey hosted many prominent horse shows and rodeos.

·        The Union County Bandits were captured in Kenilworth by former police chief Alfred Vardalis on Feb. 26, 1921, ending a three-month crime wave in the county. Vardalis was cited for bravery by the state and county.

·        One of the most tragic incidents in Kenilworth history occurred on Jan. 1, 1940, when the tax collector stormed into the Council Caucus Chamber with the intent of assassinating the entire governing body. August Stahl, then borough clerk and former mayor, was killed instantly, and former police officer Andrew Ruscansky risked his life in disarming the gunman.

·        Famed aviator James Doolittle, who in 1942 won particular acclaim for his raid on Tokyo, crashed his plane in Kenilworth on the foggy night of March 14, 1929, while attempting an emergency landing at Kenilworth’s former airfield located near North 24 Street. Doolittle credited the accident with reinforcing his commitment to finding a solution to all-weather flying. He later achieved this through the use of blind-landing instrumentation — a feat considered to be one of the aviator’s most notable aeronautical achievements.

If this information peaked your interest in Kenilworth’s colorful history, join us at the Kenilworth Historical Society! Support our on-going programs and projects!  Visit us via the link on this website – click on Kenilworth Historical Society.  At the site, you can find out about our latest projects and programs, learn about our fundraising efforts, maybe even plan on joining us at our next meeting!



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