Speed

Lombardy Street, looking east from Broad Street.

ON the modern map of Newark, Lombardy Street barely registers. Except for two disparate but imposing twenty-story towers flanking its entrance with their faces on Broad Street, it is devoid of buildings.  It points to the Passaic but, never coming within sight of the river’s edge, offers only a quick connection to streetcars and automobiles leaving the city’s core for an adjacent highway.

The thoroughfare has always been of modest length, but it wasn’t always so desolate. Well before the arrival of the mismatched twin towers, another species of titan loomed over it: soaring Lombardy poplars lined both sides, shading its homes and giving the street its name. William Whitehead remembered their “stately forms” from his boyhood, comparing them romantically to “the nobility of the old regime in the land whence they were brought.”  But the attraction for youngsters of his generation was much nearer to eye level: by the now-vanished Front Street, where Lombardy then terminated, stood the stables of John Noble Cumming, a prosperous entrepreneur in the fast-moving world of moving fast.1

“General” Cumming, as he was known–a lieutenant colonel during the Revolution, he would later hold brigadier general’s rank in the state militia–was a transplant from Freehold, New Jersey. A combination of mettle and money helped him shape his adopted town of Newark into a bustling commercial center. The briefest glance at his directorships and stock holdings shows an extensive résumé of complementary, if not interlocking, interests. They included the Hackensack and Passaic Bridge Companies, which improved the turnpike and spanned the two rivers between Newark and the Hudson waterfront; the York and Jersey Steam Boat Ferry Company, which provided the final link to Manhattan; the Newark Banking and Insurance Company, of which Cumming was a founder and the second president (Whitehead’s father served under his predecessor as the bank’s first Cashier); and the Associates of the Jersey Company, where Cumming’s investments helped create Jersey City out of the sand hills and marshlands of Powles Hook. Even ordinary Newarkers fell under the General’s sway, by virtue of the passenger, freight and mail service he controlled between Philadelphia and New York, powered by the horses cared for, fed and occasionally bred at his Lombardy Street establishment.

An 1850 view of Lombardy Street, showing its easy access to the Passaic River crossing, and the road to New York.

One day, outside the broad doors of the Cumming stables, appeared what Whitehead termed a “new” kind of stage. With benches above, below and in the rear it could accommodate 19 to 20 passengers, more than twice the usual capacity. The youths that gathered around it, Whitehead included, were drawn by its size and captivated by its beauty: it was decorated with vignettes, against a bright red background, of the hotels where it would stop on its route across New Jersey.2

This apparition, of which there seems to be no other record, was destined for the same service that four separate lines had provided just a few years before, all part of Cumming’s empire. The earlier stages were limited in how many fares they could carry or how fast they could travel, but the record Whitehead preserves of each one’s name, timetable, number of seats and cost suggests how insistently the crack of the coachman’s whip and blare of his bugle gave sonic shape to day-to-day life in Newark–perhaps more, even, than the bells in its church steeples.3

The progress of the stages gave travelers and merchants a taste for more capacity, more frequency and more speed, so that the success of John Noble Cumming and others ironically doomed their businesses to replacement by other forms of transport. The Morris Canal, opened in 1832, offered much greater carrying capacity for durable goods. The railroad, which first reached Newark in 1835, far surpassed the stages for speed and comfort. Steamboats from New York began to shorten the land journey to Philadelphia by calling first at Elizabethtown Point and later at New Brunswick on the Raritan River, shifting most cross-Jersey traffic southward, thus bypassing Newark. But the demise of horse-powered conveyances was slow. The “wonder-inspiring” mail stage continued to swing through Newark to drop its bags at the post office and, until the triumph of the automobile, horse-drawn coaches maintained connections to steamboat landings and railroad depots for remote settlements in New Jersey and elsewhere.

Thomas Thompson advertises new stage lines to New York.

A New York newspaper in 1817 touted an exclusive service to Philadelphia offered by one of General Cumming’s competitors: it allowed for “6 passengers only, and no blacks admitted, unless it be servants with their masters”–a reminder that progress never moves evenly or uplifts all.4 Black stage drivers, however, were a fixture on the nine-mile Newark-Jersey City run. Thomas Thompson, one of many in Cumming’s employ, did well enough in the trade to start his own coach business, providing service east by way of Hoboken and west to the mineral spring on Orange Mountain. At his death in 1827, Thompson was one of Newark’s wealthiest non-white citizens.5

When he was 44, Whitehead moved into a residence at 5 Lombardy Street that would be home until the end of his life. By the time he committed his recollections of old Newark to writing, Lombardy Street’s glorious poplars were faded or already gone, General Cumming’s stages and stables a muted memory. Because of Cumming and men like him, the world had discovered ways to move faster and farther. The modern age seemed a fulfillment, remarked Whitehead, of the prophecy of Daniel, “many shall run to and fro and knowledge shall be increased.” But he paused to add, with a historian’s reserve, that “whether we are improving our advantages in equal proportion to the increased facilities we enjoy, may be questioned, when we reflect upon what they accomplished who preceded us.”6

Copyright © 2019-2020 Gregory J. Guderian

[1] G. P., “The stage coach. An episode of ‘Newark as it Was.’” Newark (N.J.) daily advertiser 10 September 1863 2:2. For a detailed account of Cumming’s life see Richard A. Harrison, Princetonians 1769-1775. A biographical dictionary (Princeton 1980) 370-375.

[2] “The stage coach.”

[3] Whitehead (ibid.) enumerated the four lines as follows: “The ‘Pilot stage’ left [New York] at 5 A. M., carried seven passengers at $10 each and arrived in Philadelphia the next morning. The ‘Commercial stage’ left at 7 o’clock A. M., carried its passengers to their beds in Trenton at night and to Philadelphia the next morning by 11 o’clock; the fare being $6. The ‘Mail stage’ left at 1 o’clock P. M. and arrived at Philadelphia the next morning at 6, the number of passengers was limited to six at ten dollars each. … The fourth line was the ‘Expedition Stage’ which left at 4 P. M. and carried its passengers that night only as far as Bridgetown (now Rahway) or Milton, and by starting early the next morning reached Philadelphia the next afternoon. The fare by this line was also $10, and the number of passengers was limited to seven.” Although ascribed by Whitehead to a single year–1813–this accounting became canonical in later surveys of Newark history: on it are based the descriptions in, among others, William H. Shaw, comp. History of Essex and Hudson counties, New Jersey (2 vols. Philadelphia 1884) 1:187-8, and Frank J. Urquhart, A history of the city of Newark New Jersey embracing practically two and a half centuries 1666-1913 (3 vols. New York and Chicago 1913) 1:385-6.

[4] Thomas Whitfield, “United States Mail Coachees,” The New-York (N.Y.) Evening Post 26 July 1817 3:1.

[5] Thomas Thompson, “New line accommodation,” The centinel of freedom (Newark, N.J.) 22 July 1817 3:4. Thomas Thompson, “Mineral spring stage.” The centinel of freedom 13 March 1821 1:3. The auction of Thompson’s estate was advertised in Sentinel of freedom, and New-Jersey advertiser of 17 April 1827 3:5. See also “Newark as it Was – No. 12.” Newark daily advertiser 29 December 1863 2:3-4.

[6] “The stage coach.”

Images: Lombardy Street looking east, by a friend. Map of the city of Newark N. J. (New York: M. Dripps, 1850), detail, courtesy of Newark Public Library Digital Collections. “New line accommodation,” The Centinel of Freedom (Newark, N.J.) 22 July 1817 3:4.

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