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Perth Amboy City


Perth Amboy City Hall is located at 260 High Street, Perth Amboy, NJ 08861; phone: 732-826-0290.

Perth Amboy as described in 1939 [1]

Perth Amboy conceals beneath a rather unkempt modern industrial surface a Colonial seaport with a history that goes back to 1651. Scarcely one descendant of an original family remains in the city, but a few old homes and historic buildings are still in use here as a rooming house or a roadside tavern, there as a private dwelling or a particularly decrepit unit of some slum area.

Highways from New Brunswick and the industrial cities of the north meet a network of roads from central New Jersey and the Atlantic coast that converge at Victory Bridge. To the east, narrow Arthur Kill separates the city from Tottenville, Staten Island.

To motorists bound to or from the Jersey shore, Perth Amboy consists of five traffic lights that sometimes tie up week-end traffic for miles. While cars creep along or come to a prolonged halt, drivers lean out to discuss with each other this red menace to the freedom of the road.

Passengers on the Tottenville Ferry from Staten Island get a more complete picture as the little red boat skirts the industrial water front, solid with wharves and factories, and eases into its slip at the foot of Smith Street. Beyond the slip, lining the bluff that fronts Arthur Kill and over looks Raritan Bay, are some of the older homes, with occasional lookout towers patterned to the type of bygone architects and builders.

Leading from the labyrinth of picket-fenced corridors in the ferry house is Smith Street, rising sharply for two blocks. The rise effectively hides the city, isolating the ferry house and its environs like a quiet fishing village. There is no intimation of the industrial community just over the hill.

From this spot, where Perth Amboy itself began, Smith Street runs west as a traffic-burdened shopping center, flanked by two- and three-story brick buildings of indiscriminate architecture with stores on the street level and offices in the upper stories. The street takes on a momentary modernity as it passes Perth Amboy's lone skyscraper, the 10-story Perth Amboy National Bank at New Brunswick Avenue and State Street and finally disappears amid huge factories and blackened pitted fields beyond Convery Boulevard.

Smith Street is the backbone of Perth Amboy, creating a city out of the diverse national and economic groups that live here. Poles, Russians, Hungarians, and Czechs come out of their working class section known as "Budapest;" the Irish (and now Poles, too) leave behind the area called "Dublin;" Danes and Germans emerge from the bosoms of their nationalist groups, and meet in the anonymity of this street with the democratic name. Seventy-two percent of Perth Amboy's population consists of the foreign-born and their American-born children; Slavs predominate, with Danes and Italians next.

There are approximately 100 factories within the city, and their products range through cigars, vaseline, refined metals, neckties, lead pipe, asphalt, munitions, cables, lingerie, and auto parts, to the total value of about $274,000,000 annually. But Perth Amboy's basic industry is the manufacture of ceramic wares tiles, bricks, terra cotta, and porcelain, made from rich local deposits of clay. Rows of kilns with tapering snouts pointing skyward are a characteristic feature of Perth Amboy and its environs.

The concentration of industry on this point of land is due to the presence of the fine natural harbor of Raritan Bay; the Raritan River, which flows into it; and Arthur Kill (or Staten Island Sound), one of the water ways serving New York City.

Perth Amboy is one of the few United States cities of its size with a volunteer fire department. Formed in 1880 after a tremendous blaze, the department quickly attracted members with a provision for lifetime exemption from taxes. The number of firemen and ex-firemen who pay no taxes has now become so great that any attempt to establish a paid department is resisted by a large bloc of non-taxpaying voters.

The site of Perth Amboy was part of a large tract purchased from the Indians in 1651 by Augustine Herman, a Staten Island Dutchman. After the English took possession of New Jersey, the charter to Woodbridge in 1669 stipulated "that Ambo Point be reserved ... to be disposed of by the lords proprietors." Political difficulties during the next decade probably hindered settlement. In 1682 the twelve new proprietors described the point as "a sweet, wholesome, and delightful place," a view evidently long held by the Indians, who used it as a camp ground and for fishing excursions in the bay. The proprietors announced their "purpose by the help of Almighty God, with all convenient speed, to build a convenient town, for merchandise, trade and fishery, on Ambo Point." They contributed £1,200 to build a house for each, and by August 1683 three buildings had been completed.

Two years later the population took a sudden spurt when the Earl of Perth permitted the immigration of nearly 200 oppressed Scots, many of whom were in prison as dissenters. These were soon joined by other Scots, English merchants, and French Huguenots. In 1686 the steadily growing commercial and shipping center was designated capital of East New Jersey. In 1718 Perth Amboy was granted the charter that makes it the oldest incorporated city in New Jersey. Five years later in Perth Amboy, William Bradford, official State printer, printed the Session Laws of 1723, the first printing in New Jersey.

The Indians had called this point of land Ompoge (large level piece of ground). Through a series of corruptions it became Ambo and then Ambo Point. This name persisted even though the community was dubbed New Perth in honor of the Earl; finally the two were blended into Perth Amboy. There is a story that the name arose when Indians, unfamiliar with Scottish kilts, referred to the Earl of Perth as a squaw. "No! Not squaw!" the Scot is supposed to have answered. "Perth am boy!" The nobleman, however, never crossed the Atlantic.

Tories were active in Perth Amboy at the outbreak of the Revolution, but several of the town's Royalist families fled when Revolutionists arrested Governor William Franklin and occupied the Governor's House in June 1776. Six months later the British jailed Richard Stockton, one of the five New Jersey signers of the Declaration of Independence.

During the war, Perth Amboy's tactical position at the mouth of Raritan River highway for the whaleboat raids of Revolutionaries upstream made it a goal for the contending armies. The town was occupied successively by the Americans under General Mercer and by the British under General Howe. Benjamin Franklin, Edward Rutledge, and John Adams stopped at Perth Amboy Inn in 1776 on their way to the conference on Staten Island, at which they refused Sir William Howe's offer of amnesty in exchange for surrender.

For twenty years after the Revolution, Perth Amboy was poor and barren, but from about the turn of the century until the Civil War the town enjoyed some vogue as a summer resort. The Governor's House was transformed into the Brighton House, a fashionable hotel, which became the social center for the hypochondriac rich utilizing the waters at the nearby spa. The city's industrial development began during the 1860s; its clay deposits were exploited, and steamboats replaced the sailing vessels. In 1832 South Amboy was made the terminal of the Camden and Amboy, the State's first railroad.

During this period, Eagleswood Military Academy was built as a school for young men. Eagleswood was also the home of Sarah Grimke, her sister Angelina Weld, and Angelina's husband, Theodore D. Weld, who were pioneers in the woman-suffrage movement and ardent Abolitionists. The school and home became the visiting place for many of the Abolitionists of the day, including William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips, and served as an important station of the Underground Railroad. One of the buildings is now part of a ceramics works.

Rebecca Spring, wife of the owner of Eagleswood, was also an Abolitionist. When John Brown and his companions were taken at Harper's Ferry and condemned to death, Mrs. Spring wrote to Aaron Dwight Stevens, one of the condemned men, and asked that she might bring his body for burial to Eagleswood. He replied that he was indifferent to what happened to his body after the spirit had left it, but agreed that she might bury him if his poverty-stricken father did not claim his body. Albert Hazlett, friend and conspirator with Stevens, also wrote to Mrs. Spring asking her to bury him by the side of his comrade. She visited the two men in the Baltimore jail and supplied them with food and clothing. After the execution the bodies were brought to Eagleswood and buried. In the 1890s the bodies were disinterred and sent to North Elba, N. Y., to lie with that of John Brown on his old farm.

The Lehigh Valley Railroad, which came to Perth Amboy in 1859, forecast the town's industrialization. After the Civil War, Perth Amboy gave itself wholeheartedly to the wave of industrial expansion that rolled over the land. With the establishment of new factories, foreign workers moved into the city, and the descendants of early residents gradually withdrew. Among the factories that followed the already firmly established ceramic industry was the refinery of M. Guggenheim Sons, a most important link in the chain of mines and smelters that in 1900 acquired control of the American Smelting and Refining Company. In 1912 the workers at the refineries struck against the 12-hour shift. Armed guards and strikebreakers broke the strike after a number of bloody street battles that resulted in the death of four strikers.

  1. Works Progress Administration, Federal Writers' Project, New Jersey: A Guide to Its Present and Past, The Public Library of Newark and The New Jersey Guild Associates; The Viking Press, New York, 1939.

**Information is curated from a variety of sources and, while deemed reliable, is not guaranteed.
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