Pleasures, plants and palaces

Along the Water Front.

FROM the age of twenty-one, William Whitehead found his responsibilities lay some distance from Perth Amboy, yet return visits still breathed into him a kind of twofold vitality. As he mused upon the stories and sites making up this once proud city’s past, he also roamed through the gardens and groves where some of his own happiest moments were spent. Retracing those boyhood steps through the ancient capital, he cast his imagination back to the city’s beginnings, and pictured its “little-known pioneers, wandering over the green sward among the clumps of trees which ornamented the point.”1 To venture out with Whitehead on one of these walks was to enter deeply into the past. For Whitehead, though, it was also to confront what had so swiftly and irretrievably changed.

Beginning at the foot of High Street one had a glimpse of Perth Amboy at its inception. Here stood the first public house or tavern, built to serve passengers crossing the Raritan aboard the first ferry. Both facilities were instituted in 1684 by Gawen Lawrie, East Jersey’s deputy governor, who so embodied the ambitions of “the embryo city” that, in Whitehead’s judgment, he might “with truth be considered its founder.”2 Among his directives from London for “the worke of building this Towne” was the order to construct a governor’s house “at the publique charge” with “Garden, Orchard and other accomodations.”3 Using early maps to show Lawrie’s execution of his plan for Perth Amboy, Whitehead recreated “the manner in which it was originally laid out and located,” pinpointing a site southwest of the Market Square as probably that of the governor’s house.4

Another element of Lawrie’s design, “to leave a row of trees along upon the River, before the houses, for shade & shelter,” 5 can perhaps be identified with one of the delights of Perth Amboy before the Revolution. While the Long Ferry Tavern functioned as “the customary resort of the gentlemen of the town,” this tree-lined walk extending along the Raritan’s sandy shore proved an enticement to all. Known as “Love Grove,” it served as the setting for many courtships, and would of Whitehead’s, if the charms of such an Arcadia could have remained.6

We have an image of the tavern as it looked to Whitehead, for time spared it even beyond the span of his years, though not without alterations. The same can’t be said for a two-story house further up-river, the dwelling of John Johnstone, another of Perth Amboy’s founders and a physician beloved of the poor. The residence of the onetime druggist from Edinburgh could be discerned only from a scattering of stones; his well-supplied garden and fine orchard were now fields, marked by “a few aged trees.”7

The house of his youngest son, educated in Europe and a medical man like his father, had vanished too. Letters of the Dutch botanist Gronovius, whom he sent plant samples from America in exchange for books, were all that remained of his industriousness; extracts from those letters fill the last few pages of Whitehead’s volume on Perth Amboy.8 The callings of another of the good doctor’s sons, Andrew Johnston (the final e fell off with the American-born generation), made it logical to live nearer the town’s business and civic center. He occupied what Whitehead believed was the first Johnstone mansion, a home palatial enough to be christened “Edinborough Castle.”9

Proceeding west from the location of Dr. Johnstone’s dwelling, Whitehead would arrive on the edge of the “old Race Ground.” Memorable if not regular fairs and races there once drew the young, the graying and the gray, and saw “many a pair” amble off in search of shaded seclusion. “Gay and animated was the scene then,” Whitehead learned, something “a visitor to the spot may never reasonably expect to witness there again,”10 after rich clay deposits made it a thriving site of brick manufacturing.

Literature conditioned Whitehead, as it did many of his generation, both to revel in idyllic landscapes and to grieve their inevitable erasure. He could see that pleasant bowers and vistas must vanish, either from prosperity–“innovations under the name of improvement”–or from adversity–“impoverishment of soil…, the wash of water, and the fall of trees.”11 Perhaps most lamentable of all was the disappearance of plant life evocative of the past–his past: “Trees that chronicled the names of chosen companions in connection with his own no longer exist; vines that furnished him and them their luscious fruit have disappeared, the victims of the axe or of old age; foliage that offered a grateful relief from the noonday sun has vanished.” But even searching “in vain for the land-marks of memory,” he could call Cowper’s lines to mind:

. . .  scenes that soothed
Or charmed me young, no longer young, I find
Still soothing, and of power to charm me still.12

When summering in Perth Amboy late in life, Whitehead didn’t cease to retrace the paths of younger days. Among his papers are melancholy notes of two such excursions, both on the Independence Day holiday but sixteen years apart. In 1861 he observed “some changes” but “few improvements” in scenes he had thought would forever remain attractive, writing, “they have lost their power to charm–and I shall probably never look upon them again.” In 1877, with his two granddaughters beside him, he made the same walk of memory: “going along the beach to Sandy Point & returning by way of Market Street–a Rail Road & various other changes left little to be recognised as ‘of old’.”13

That the beginnings of Perth Amboy roughly coincided with the exploits of Captain Kidd and other pirates led to rather foolhardy efforts, some narrated at length in Whitehead’s pages, to find buried treasure there.14 No gems, silver or gold ever came to light. In our day, the relentless rush of time hasn’t slowed, but prosperity, or adversity for that matter, allows for a pause now and then. When this occurs, spades are sharpened, pits dug, and the soil beneath Perth Amboy sifted for another sort of treasure, promising to uncover secrets that may confirm or modify the anecdotes Whitehead recorded, or his own pleasurable recollections.

The Long Ferry Tavern, from an 1832 sketch by Whitehead.

Copyright © 2019-2023 Gregory J. Guderian

[1] G.P., untitled correspondence dated Perth Amboy, June 5th, 1849, Newark (N.J.) daily advertiser 7 June 1849 2:1.

[2] William A. Whitehead, Contributions to the early history of Perth Amboy and adjoining country (New York 1856) 260.

[3] William A. Whitehead, East Jersey under the proprietary governments: A narrative of events connected with the settlement and progress of the province, until the surrender of the government to the crown in 1702 [1703]. Drawn principally from original sources (Collections of the New Jersey Historical Society, 1. New York 1846. Hereafter East Jersey 1) 126, (Second edition revised and enlarged. Newark 1875. Hereafter East Jersey 2) 168.

[4] Whitehead based his printed map, facing Contributions 9, “upon an old one, on parchment, in the office of the Surveyor General of the Eastern Division.” His rendering of the title of this parchment drawing corresponds closely, but not exactly, with the title of a manuscript map in the New Jersey Historical Society “made by John Still for William Burnet,” and filed, as Map 258A, with a similar “Mape of Amboy-perth 20th February 1685/6 pr John Reid.” Reid became Deputy Surveyor on his arrival in the province, and was appointed Surveyor General in 1703. The Still map may be the copy provided to Whitehead by Commodore L. Kearny. The New Jersey Historical Society also holds an engraving of Reid’s version, numbered Map 258. All of these versions place the governor’s house in the same location. Whitehead’s reasons for adding the word “probably” to his map are not known.

[5] “Abstract of a letter from Gawen Lawrie Deputy Governour of East Jersey to the Proprietors at London, dated from Elizabethtown the 2 of March 1684,” printed in George Scot, The model of the government of the province of East New Jersey in America (Newark 1874), in East Jersey 1:284, East Jersey 2:418.

[6] G.P., “Amboy – Its Reminiscences.” Newark (N.J.) daily advertiser 19 June 1849 2:1; Contributions 261.

[7] Contributions 70-71; “Amboy – Its Reminiscences.”

[8] Contributions 73, 417-420.

[9] Contributions 71 n25, 72.

[10] Contributions 306; cf. “Amboy – Its Reminiscences.”

[11] Contributions 307.

[12] Ibid. The verses are from William Cowper, The task, Book I, 141-3.

[13] Manuscript notes in printed copy of Contributions facing 307, Manuscript Group 177, William A. Whitehead Papers, New Jersey Historical Society.

[14] Contributions 312-16.

Images: 1) Along the Water Front, Perth Amboy, N. J. 2) The Long Ferry Tavern, from Contributions to the early history of Perth Amboy and adjoining country 262.

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