While Belleville industrialized early, its geography has included a mix of agriculture, housing, and manufacturing. From its incorporation in 1839 to the present, the Township has been in transition from an agriculturally-focused village to a manufacturing town to a residential community with an industrial base. A perspective on this diverse history is important to understanding the Township as presently developed, as well as in planning its future direction.
Jersey City, originally known as Bergen, was settled in 1633 by Dutch settlers. The Dutch expansion soon led to other settlements, including one called the Second River. This settlement would later be known as Belleville. The first landowner was probably Hendrick Spier, who arrived on the second vessel bringing settlers from Holland. He built his home near the present day SOHO section on a tract consisting of hundreds of acres of unbroken forest. His holdings extended from the house to the Passaic River, a distance of about two miles.
An early residence of note was the Van Cortlandt-Van Rensellear mansion, built in 1683. The mansion was destroyed long ago by fire. It was reputed to have escape tunnels in the basement for use during the Indian raids. The names of at least four Belleville streets are derived from the original owners and those who married into the family. These streets are Cortlandt, Schuyler, Bayard, and Van Rensellear.
During the Revolutionary War the British sent many foraging parties into the S econd River Colony. General Washington and his troops passed through Belleville on November 22, 1776. They came down Main Street, then known as River Road, with the British in hot pursuit. A bronze plaque at the front of the Dutch Reformed Church lists the names of sixty-two veterans of the Revolutionary War who are buried in the cemetery behind the church. A major cleanup has made the Church’s cemetery more accommodating to visitors and increased interests in its historic value.
Belleville’s location at the junction of two rivers was an important factor in its successful development, as water power was a major resource in colonial days. The Second River provided both waterpower and access to the Passaic River, where coal and other supplies could be brought by boat from New York.
A major marker of the coming industrial revolution was the first steam engine in the United States, brought to Belleville by Josiah Hornblower in 1753 to pump out the Schuyler copper mines. In 1797 Hornblower also achieved notoriety with two associates for building the first steamboat in New Jersey at Belleville. Although slow, the steamboat probably assisted Fulton in perfecting his ideas, which led to the famous run of the Clermont in 1809.
Also of note is that the wire used by Samuel Morse for his first experimental telegraph line from Washington to Baltimore was manufactured by William Steven and Co. in Belleville.
A powder works for the manufacture of gunpowder was established by Stephen Decatur in a former grist mill located on the Second River. Powder was produced for use in the War of 1812. In 1814 an explosion caused extensive damage, killing several employees and injuring others. Nevertheless, the powder works continued production until about three decades ago.
The Eighteenth Century continued to be a time of industrialization for the Township. Belleville Engine Works was established in 1794. A New Jersey Cooper Mine Association was formed the same year. In 1798 the first ship building plant in Belleville was established.
Industries operating in Belleville in the Nineteenth Century included an umbrella manufacturer founded 1816 by Thomas Uffinger, a clock company founded in 1845 by A.D. Cram, the manufacture of mordents for dyeing and settling colors (founded in 1847 by John Eastwood), and the Riverside Rubber Co., founded in 1878.
Development of Municipal Government
On July 4, 1793, a section of Newark known as the Second River changed its name to Belleville, a meaning “Beautiful City.” Then, in 1812, Belleville became part of the newly created Bloomfield Township. Belleville became a separate township in 1839, taking in about one-third of the area included within Bloomfield. Its present geographic boundaries were set in 1869, when Belleville absorbed the portion of Woodside north of the canal. This area is now known as the Soho section. Newark absorbed the balance of Woodside.
Belleville was formed as a township in 1839 with a population of only 500. It became a city in 1874, and again became a township in 1876. Belleville became a town in 1910, but reverted to township status in 1981 to gain a larger share of federal revenue sharing funds.
The Township’s form of government has also changed several times. Belleville was divided into districts in 1871, with a commissioner appointed to each district. A mayor and council were elected in 1874, serving until 1876. The commission form of government was established in 1914. A council was adopted in the late 1960’s, but the Township returned to the commission form. The Township reverted to the council form of government beginning July 1, 1990.
Initially Belleville had no provision for police protection beyond that noted in the Township Law of 1798, providing for the appointment of constables to insure peaceful procedure at the annual township meeting. The functions of these constables were gradually expanded to include serving warrants and collecting delinquent taxes. A court room and a jail with three cells were authorized by the Township Committee in 1894. A police department was finally established in 1907.
In 1882 Belleville created a fire district covering only the more densely settled section. The system operated on a voluntary basis. Auto Chemical Company No. 1, established by town ordinance in May 1914, was the first decided break with the volunteer system. Special mention of Belleville’s fire fighters was made in a resolution of thanks passed by the City of Newark after the great fire of October 28, 1936. The fire “continued to rage for five hours, completely sweeping the whole square bounded by Market, Mechanic, and Broad Streets.”
In 1792 a school was erected on the lot of the Dutch Reformed Church. This church school became fully secularized in 1829, when State law provided for the election of school committees in each township. The school served Belleville until 1852. In the following year, the razed material from the old Dutch Reformed Church was used to construct a four-room school called the Academy at Academy and Stephen Street. The old school site was used for a new church building. A second school district was organized in the Montgomery, or Soho, section in 1838.
Under the Township School Act of 1890, the Academy became School No. 1. The Montgomery School became School No. 2. The Act also provided for a board of education to replace the board of trustees for each school.
Jasper Crane built a dam in 1730 where St. Anthony’s Church now stands. A lake known as Silver Lake, 300 feet wide and a half-mile long, was formed. It existed for more than 150 years until a storm on July 30, 1889 caused floods that destroyed the dam and resulted in the lake draining. All traces of the lake were gone by the 1920’s. Today the area of Belleville known as Silver Lake is located on the southerly end of the Township. It is bordered by Newark Avenue in Bloomfield and Bloomfield Avenue in Newark.