Four Corners

The intersection of Broad and Market Street in Newark in the 1920s, seen from the southeast.

NEAR the end of 1915, workers for the Public Service Railway Company took up positions at the junction of Newark’s Broad and Market Streets, and began to count.

On a single weekday, from before dawn until after dusk, observers at each corner tallied all pedestrians stepping off the curb or turning, all passengers on streetcars entering the intersection, and all passing automobiles and jitneys whose occupants they couldn’t count exactly. Using, for this latter sample, an average of three people per vehicle, and adding the numbers on foot or by trolley, it was estimated that between 6 a.m. and 7 p.m., the crossing saw about 280,000 travelers–a figure then exceeding the population of many medium-sized American cities, and even a few states.1

Although the timing of the study–three days before Christmas–may have colored its results, Broad and Market still bade fair to be considered the busiest single intersection in the United States. Downtown traffic partly reflected Newark’s prodigious industrial growth and burgeoning population. So dizzying had been the pace of change that to stand at the famed Four Corners and conjure the appearance of these streets a century or even a half-century earlier, when William A. Whitehead rode or strode over them, would have defied imagination. To evoke the crossing at an earlier time, when immigrants from New England first laid it out, turning the surrounding lands to fields and orchards; to picture the place earlier still, when wild animals freely crisscrossed the land and freshwater streams coursed through primeval woods, would be the province of art, not history. Whitehead the historian said as much: “striving, amid the tumultuous noises and busy scenes around us,” he admitted, “our conceptions must come so far short of the realities.”2

The “Town upon the Passaick” was born of a landing at the foot of present-day Center Street in 1666. Nearby the first town dock was built and the north commons reserved for a market. But the founders, specifying that “the Middle Highways both in the Length and Breadth of the Town” be a generous eight rods or 132 feet wide, twice the breadth of other streets, consciously or unconsciously drove commercial activity south, to what became the Four Corners.3

A view of Broad Street ca. 1830, looking south from Market Street. The town pump is visible at the center of the intersection.

It’s hard not to see in the present orthogonal street plan a disregard for the landscape on the part of those New England settlers. But in fact the position of the crossroads was influenced by topography, native footpaths and, even more, proximity to a fresh water supply. Along the “highway” that became Market Street, the village did not extend far in either direction. To the west were a series of dry hillocks and ponds; beyond these, a confluence of two streams became the “Watering Place,” one of four tracts set aside for the common use of citizens.4 Demand for leather turned one of these brooks over to the use of tanneries, and the remaining water sources were eventually canalized and the adjacent lands leveled and built upon.5 At an undetermined date a town pump sprang up at the very center of Broad and Market, where it stood into the lifetime of William Whitehead.6

By 1810, the year Whitehead’s mother bore him in the upper rooms of the bank of which his father was the cashier, a century and a half of activity at nearby Broad and Market had indelibly stamped Newark and its people. To varying degrees the history of each corner would shape Whitehead’s life as well. At the southwest was the original “town plot,” embracing the once uneven land and meandering streams between Broad Street and the Watering Place. Here had stood the first church, by 1810 its only vestige an old and neglected graveyard containing the remains of early inhabitants. Whitehead would live to see it obliterated in the name of progress.

The successors to this church and burying ground occupied part of a tract across Broad Street, selected by Robert Treat as leader of the first settlers, all others acquiring their lands by lottery. When Whitehead returned to live in Newark in his 30s, the clatter of the printing press emanated from a brick building on this southeast corner: it housed the offices of Newark’s first daily newspaper, the Advertiser, which over the next forty years recorded many of Whitehead’s activities, and placed in the hands of townspeople and country folk his writings on history and other subjects.

Most fabled of the four, the northeast corner was home to “The Hounds and Horn,” a legendary inn whose painted sign evoked the hunting parties popular with the gentry, especially those visiting from the South.7 Washington Irving dined there, penning a cryptic tribute to the proprietor and his mysterious servant: “Archy Gifford and his man Caliban–jolly fat fellows–a knowing traveller always judges of every thing by the inn-keepers and waiters.”8 Coaches made regular stops at Gifford’s tavern, assignations took place and business deals were struck: New Jersey’s first bank elected its founding board of directors here in 1804, naming Whitehead’s father its first cashier.9

Bust of Matthias Bruen, by Thomas Crawford.

The northwest corner, busiest of the four in 1915, perhaps also held greater sway than the others over Whitehead’s life, although the lines are long and buried deep. Since the 1790s the general store of Pennington and Bruen was established here. William S. Pennington left the partnership for a career in law and politics, but Matthias Bruen and his brother Caleb prospered as furniture makers and cider distillers. Their influence in town affairs was proportionate: when the Bruens’ cabinet shop caught fire in 1797, the store and most of its contents were saved through “extraordinary exertions” of the citizenry.10

Although Matthias Bruen left to seek still more riches in New York, he was bound to Newark through business ties and the families of himself and his wife Hannah Coe. William Whitehead’s father, by marrying Hannah’s sister Abby, became a brother-in-law of Matthias, leading to the Whitehead family’s move from Newark to the colonial capital of Perth Amboy. There reigned a greater quiet, where the currents of history could flow over young William with more potency than in the place of his birth.

Copyright © 2019-2023 Gregory J. Guderian

[1] “Four Corners one of world centers.” Newark evening news 29 December 1915 1:4. See also “Newark has busiest traffic center in country,” Newark Sunday call 28 October 1917 pt. 3, 9:1-7.

[2] W. A. Whitehead, “A historical memoir of the circumstances leading to and connected with the settlement of Newark, May, 1666.” Proceedings commemorative of the settlement of Newark, New Jersey, on its two hundredth anniversary, May 17th, 1856 (Collections of the New Jersey Historical Society, 6 supplement. Newark 1866) (7-55) 36.

[3] Records of the town of Newark, New Jersey, from its settlement in 1666, to its incorporation as a city in 1836 (Collections of the New Jersey Historical Society, 6. Newark 1864) 4. The future Market Street was reduced to a width of six rods, or 99 feet.

[4] The other three common lots were the Burying Place, the Market Place and the Training Place; the last two survive today as Washington Park and Military Park. The area west of Broad Street along Market was once “poor land, chiefly swamp, comprehending three small knolls of high and dry land fit for a cemetery,” according to a manuscript history of First Presbyterian Church by its pastor Alexander Macwhorter; this history is quoted in Jonathan F. Stearns, First church in Newark. Historical discourses, relating to the First Presbyterian Church in Newark; originally delivered to the congregation of that church during the month of January 1851 (Newark 1853) 70n. Of the Watering Place city engineer Edward S. Rankin wrote, “[H]ither came the settlers to water their cattle and to carry away pail fulls for domestic purposes. Thus was the establishment of a public water supply coincident with the founding of the City.” Indian trails and city streets (Montclair, N.J. 1927) 52. Cf. eundem, The running brooks and other sketches of early Newark (Somerville, N.J. 1930) 18, 32-36.

[5] On the importance of these sources to the leather business, see “Newark as it was – No. 21,” Newark daily advertiser 15 July 1864 2:3-4, and “Newark as it was – No. 33,” Newark daily advertiser 21 May 1866 2:3.

[6] Town officials in 1813 directed that a notice concerning hogs running “at large” be posted “at the pump opposite Capt. Gifford’s in Broad Way”: Records of the town of Newark 204.

[7] Histories call the tavern by different names. A published remembrance in the 1860s calls it simply the Gifford House: “It was probably as well known at that day (within the recollection of the writer) by Southerners visiting the North, as the St. Nicholas or 5th Avenue Hotel is now known. Mr. Gifford applied the euphonious term to his Southern patrons of his ‘Rice Birds.’ At that day fox hunting was the amusement for gentlemen; the Gifford House was the headquarters for them, and on the sign was painted a pack of hounds, with the sportsmen and their horses arrived at the death; with the fortunate hunter holding the fox up by the hind legs.” “Newark as it was.” Newark daily advertiser 13 June 1863 2:3-4.

[8] “Memorandums for a tour, to be entitled ‘The stranger in New-Jersey; or, Cockney travelling,” Salmagundi; or, the whim-whams and opinions of Launcelot Langstaff, Esq. and others 4 (24 February 1807) 62.

[9] Centinel of freedom (Newark, N.J.) 22 May 1804 2:4.

[10] Centinel of freedom (Newark, N.J.) 1 February 1797 3:1-2.

Images: 1) Four Corners, unattributed photograph via  2) Broad Street, unidentified print, image courtesy of Newark Public Library. 3) Thomas Crawford (1814-1857), Matthias Bruen, marble bust, ca. 1840, The New Jersey Historical Society, Acc.1970.29, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Sheldon Whitehouse; image courtesy of The Proprietary House Association, Perth Amboy, N.J.

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