Follow the River

The river of my childhood imagination

I grew up in the very urban Irvington, New Jersey. It borders the state’s biggest city, Newark. As you went west from town, you entered suburbia.

There is the South Mountain Reservation about 4 miles west and as a kid growing up in the 1960s my friends and I often rode there on my bike to “get into nature” and looked for adventures. It has Hemlock Falls, a mill pond where we fished and lots of trails in its more than 2000 acres. It was the closest thing I had to wilderness.

My only neighborhood oasis from urban life was the Elizabeth River which ran along the bottom of my street. I probably passed it almost every day. We called it “The Brook.” I don’t think I knew it was actually the Elizabeth River until I started getting into maps when I was 10 years old.

We played along and in that river all the time. We threw rocks. We made dams. We made little boats and tried to see which one would make it the furthest downstream. I imagined that some might someday make it to the ocean and to some other country. I put messages in my bottles asking the finder to write to me. I even included a self-addressed and stamped postcard in a few of them. No one ever responded.

Our parents always warned us not to go there. The water certainly wasn’t very clean and after heavy rain, it was full of rainbow eddies from gas and oil runoff from the streets. There were no fish for anglers, though were very small fish in some sections that attracted some big birds, such as night herons.

In my childhood days, there were several times when we read stories in the local newspapers about a kid getting drowned along the river because they were caught by stormwater. We imagined a wall of water gushing down the river. I would go there when it rained and stand on the bridge over Allen Street watching for a wave. I never saw one. The water just gradually rose.

The Elizabeth River isn’t a Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn kind of river. When it passed through my town it was captured by concrete walls.
It is confined all along the way in this artificial channel that was built in the 1920s and 30s and as part of the WPA projects.

When I was in sixth grade, I had a fairly detailed map of waterways in the state and decided to try to find the source of the river. The headwaters of the Elizabeth River are actually buried beneath East Orange in Essex County. I assume it is fed by underground creeks and streams. It doesn’t see the light of day until it is at the border between Irvington and the Vailsburg neighborhood of Newark. From there it goes pretty much in a southern direction through the center of Irvington.

My neighborhood was near that place where it emerges from underground. You could enter the underground tunnel part to the north when the water was low. I tried it with a few friends but the fear of the darkness, crazy rats, maybe even bats, and that sudden wave of floodwater prevented us from ever going very far underground.


I was happy to walk the full length of the open sections, In a dry summer, the water was restricted to an even smaller channel at the center, so you could walk most of the way on either side. We slipped on slimy rocks and got our sneakers and pants wet many times. There were places that had a kind of metal ladder to climb in or out but for most of the way, it would be tough to climb the walls.

There were times when older kids and even the police would see us down there and chase us out.

at Civic Square
Through Civic Square

Past my neighborhood, it flows past our area park and Irvington High School and along the east side of Civic Square with the library, town hall, and police and fire departments.

Further south, it forms the west boundary of the 19th century Clinton Cemetery. I always found this to be a creepy section, and then at the southern end of the cemetery, the river passes under the Garden State Parkway near Exit 143 and disappears as a surface waterway again. That was the end of the river for most of my young life.

going underground
The river goes back underground

When I was able to drive, I consulted maps and did some research and I decided to complete my river journey to the end of the river. It reemerges just south of the Union County line near the Parkway again.

By car and foot, I was able to track it to the Arthur Kill, a tidal strait between Staten Island, New York and New Jersey’s Union and Middlesex Counties. That strait is a major navigational channel for the Port of New York and New Jersey. The river’s mouth is Raritan Bay which is fed by the Passaic River, Hackensack River, Rahway River, and Elizabeth River.

Perhaps a few of my messages in bottles actually did make it along the river carried by heavier rains to this heavily used marine channel where you can see ocean-going tankers. They went out into the Atlantic Ocean. Maybe they are still adrift, searching for a shore to land upon.

The oddly-named Arthur Kill is an anglicization of the early 17th-century Dutch achter kill meaning “back channel.” It probably referred to it being located “behind Staten Island.” During the Dutch colonial era, the region was part of New Netherland. The Dutch kill comes from the Middle Dutch word kille, meaning riverbed, water channel, or stream. The area around Newark Bay was known as Cull Bay during the British colonial era. and the sister channel of Arthur Kill is called Kill van Kull which refers to the waterway that flows from the col (ridge or passage).

bridge in Elizabeth
South Front Street Bridge at the river’s mouth at the Arthur Kill

The channel is not a pretty part of the Jersey coast. It is primarily edged with industrial sites and is sometimes referred to as the Chemical Coast. The Staten Island side is primarily lined with salt marshes and is home to the Staten Island boat graveyard. It creates a border for Fresh Kills Landfill and Freshkills Park.

The Passaic River is the New Jersey River that gets the most attention. Its headwaters are in the Great Swamp which was once Glacial Lake Passaic as the Ice Age melted and the waters found their way counterintuitively north. It is still mostly unchanneled and above ground. It flows over hard, black volcanic basalt cliffs at the Great Falls in Paterson and empties into Newark Bay.

Still, my Elizabeth River holds a much stronger hold on my memory and imagination. To a small boy, “The Brook” was Twain’s Mississippi River even if I never was able to float on a raft downstream.

face in the wall
A strange “face in the wall” along the river

Classics Illustrated

Classics Illustrated is a comic book series featuring adaptations of literary classics such as Moby Dick, Hamlet, and The Iliad.

The series began publication in 1941 and finished its first run in 1971, producing 169 issues. (Other companies reprinted the titles after that.)

I am not the only kid who was first exposed to classic literature through the series. For me, that happened in the early 1960s.

Each issue of 64 pages was not only an abridged but accurate literary adaptation, but featured author profiles and various educational little fillers. There were no ads. No ads.

I always read the back cover catalog of titles to decide what was my next purchase. Luckily, my mom thought they were good for me to read.

I have very vivid memories of spinning the comic book stand at Sam’s Deli at Lenox & Madison Avenues in Irvington, NJ. I can hear the squeak.

Most comics cost 12 cents – Classics cost 15 cents – which made it clear that they were “special.” Oh, I also bought Superman and Archie comics. Sometimes, there were “giant” issues for a quarter.

I loved having a quarter to spend. Two comics and still a penny candy. Maybe a sour apple gumball. No sales tax. Or one comic, a 10 cent fountain soda or Fudgesicle and 3 penny candies. What a deal.

In 1942, the publisher became the Gilberton Company, Inc. with reprints of previous titles. With WWII, paper rationing forced a cut to 56 pages and costs later cut it to 48 pages.

These comics led me to begin reading the actual books.  I tore through the Jules Verne comics and I read the books. I doubt I could get through the novels any more. I reread Moby Dick many times – and I have reread that novel probably a dozen times.

The series actually became Classics Illustrated in 1947 with issue #35,  The Last Days of Pompeii. In 1951,they added painted covers.

By the time I was born, they had added Classics Illustrated Junior, some special issues, and The World Around Us.

They sold 200 million copies between 1941 and 1962 and then new titles ceased.

What happened?  Television, Cliff’s Notes (for those who had used the comics as such; many a book report was faked using the comics), increased mailing, paper and printing costs.

The comic book series was created by Albert Lewis Kanter who wanted to introduce some great literature to kids who were not reading the original books. It was also a time when the comic book industry was coming under attack for its “negative influence” on youth.

Sterling North, a columnist for the Chicago Daily News led the attack. He wrote that comic books were:

“badly written and badly printed. A strain on young eyes and young nervous systems the effect of these pulp-paper nightmares is that of a violent stimulant [and] unless we want a coming generation even more ferocious than the present one, parents and teachers throughout America must band together to break the comic magazine.”

Kanter’s plan eventually worked. I actually had a teacher who had issues in the classroom for us to read. He also gave me a box of old issues at the end of the school year which I still have. The series ranked as the largest juvenile publication in the world for a time.  Even kids who were avoiding reading the novels (or Shakespeare plays) were still exposed to some literary tales that would have otherwise never known.

I remember reading The War Of  The Worlds (#124) and I remember reading the book which I had ordered in school through the Scholastic Book Club. (Thanks again, Mom, for always letting me order a book.)  Number 124 was a classic Classic. I’ve seen the old and new movie versions of that H.G. Wells classic, but my vision of what a Tripod looks like is still in that comic book. The comic of The Invisible Man had better special effects than any film of the time.

I don’t know if there is an equivalent for today’s kids.

Movie versions of classics? Not many of those are made anymore, but you can rent/download films of  To Kill A Mockingbird, Great Expectations and Romeo & Juliet. I’d rather see them read the comics.

Penny Postcards

mt college

Montclair Teachers College
(now Montclair State University)

I came across two shoeboxes full of postcards that I have saved over the years.

Some are cards that were sent to me. Some are cards that I mailed home from places and my mom had saved. Some are cards that were never mailed and that I just bought or found. I even have some that have nothing to do with my own life that were mailed by others to others.

These postcards are sometimes called penny postcards. It wasn’t that these postcards cost a penny, but that they cost 1¢ to mail.

Lots of people seem to collect postcards.

Take a look at
and this site about collecting postcards
which led me to look at this site
and that site has some interesting & odd special projects
and this one on tombstones
and there’s a search tool for all state archives, so I looked at New Jersey obituaries

A few local cards from the childhood section of shoebox #1.
Civic Square, Irvington, New Jersey
Chancellor Avenue Playground
Irvington General Hospital

civic square

chancellor playground


Camptown, New Jersey

I grew up in New Jersey. I grew up in a town that was originally part of Clinton Township and included parts of today’s Maplewood, Newark, and South Orange.

My hometown was called Camptown until the mid-1800s. In 1850, after Stephen Foster published his ballad, “Camptown Races,”  residents were concerned that the “wild” activities described in the song would be associated with their quiet community.

Camp towns were also tent cities that were temporary workingmen’s accommodations in many parts of the United States, especially along the rapidly expanding railroad network. Along with the workers and their horses came races and betting.

See dem flyin’ on a ten mile heat, Doo-dah doo-dah! Round de race track, den repeat, Oh, the doo-dah-day! I win my money on de bob-tail nag, Doo-dah! doo-dah! I keep my money in an old tow-bag, Oh, the doo-dah-day!

The wife of the local postmaster suggested the name Irvingtown, in honor of the currently famous author Washington Irving. It was accepted. The author was invited.

Washington Irving never showed up for his honor. That’s my hometown’s real story.

Irvington (dropping the w) was incorporated as an independent Village in 1874 and later incorporated as a Town, replacing Irvington Village. In my days there, it had about 65,000 residents making it one of the biggest “towns” in the country, although all of us were packed into a square mile.

After the 1967 Newark riots, there was a fast exodus of families who thought they were living in a suburban town and discovered they were part of the Newark urban sprawl in the most densely populated part of the United States.

Until 1965, Irvington was almost exclusively white. By 1980, the town was nearly 40% black, by 1990 it was 70% black.

Irvington has had a tough run of it the past 3o years, but I loved growing up there. I lived on Adams Street and it was a real neighborhood where you knew all the other families by name. I could wander as a kid from house to house, to the park, down to play at the brook, off to the downtown stores or one of the three movie theaters, and my parents never worried about me. It was a different time; a different world.

In my childhood, our family went weekly to Newark to visit my father’s parents’ home on S. 17th Street for a big family gathering. We would shop in the big department stores downtown, such as Hahnes’s, Orbach’s, Bamberger’s and Klein’s on the Square.

Doo-dah, doo-dah.

IRVINGTON (Images of America)
Alan A. Siegel takes us on a journey, starting when Irvington was a tiny village known as Camptown, to the twentieth century when Irvington was transformed almost overnight into a busy industrial and residential suburb of Newark, New Jersey.