History Chest: Origin of stone sidewalks in Rutherford

Rutherford has had a long–running love affair with its sidewalks. Yes, that's right, sidewalks. Just a few weeks after the borough was formed with considerable fanfare, and the newly elected governing body was sworn in, its first piece of legislation was for the protection of sidewalks.

 That first ordinance, approved Nov. 21, 1881, did decree that "no person shall drive over or upon the sidewalks of any street or highway in said Borough, any horse, vehicles, cows, goats, sheep or other animals." And thus began a lengthy series of legislative action during the 1880s that would cause the construction and repair of sidewalks throughout the borough. Most, but not all, were made from wooden planks, constructed or repaired by local tradesmen at the property owner's expense.

Rutherford was a small but vibrant community of 3,000 in this era, led by men who were successful in business and finance in New York. This group had succeeded in breaking away from Union Township, a larger municipality whose government was unable or unwilling to provide its communities with basic services, like sidewalks.

Among the New York businessmen who settled at this time in Rutherford was William McMain, who opened a hotel opposite of the Erie depot. McMain learned the retail trade under Alexander Turney Stewart who owned one of the city's most prominent department stores. His large, two-story brick McMain Hotel was a fixture in Rutherford's business district, and its owner was known for his panache. McMain caused a bit of a splash when his became the first Park Avenue business to install marble sidewalks.

A stone dealer named James H. Thorpe was responsible for McMain's choice of the dark, patent stone slab, which Thorpe called imitation marble. In early 1883, Thorpe began operating a stone yard and "manufactory" in a silo-like structure on Union Avenue, according to historic Rutherford tax records. His landlord was Mary E. Ames, for whom Ames Avenue was named. Thorpe's business soon came to the attention of the Rutherford establishment when he made an offer to the mayor and council.

The governing body's Street Committee, which was busy addressing the need for crosswalks and sidewalks all over town, reported on March 26, 1883, that it recommended the use of timber and cobblestones for building crosswalks. But it also reported a "manufacturer of stone ware recently located on Union Avenue had offered to lay a crosswalk of patent stone, 4 feet wide, from the Bakery corner of Union Ave. to the Depot Platform free of expense to the Borough."

About this time, Thorpe's patent stone was receiving publicity. The Hackensack Republican was impressed with his operation, reporting that railroad executives from New York were showing interest in the process Thorpe had invented. The Rutherford stone manufactory was making "imitation marble of every shade or color from plain white to black, with many variegated designs, made from sand found in unlimited quantities here in Union Township," The Hackensack Republican reported March 29, 1883. The newspaper quoted Thorpe as offering that "walks of the material will be laid at 18 cents per square foot, and warranted (sic) for 10 years."


Current Rutherford Woman's Club acquired historic
 grooms quarters in 1924. When David B. Ivison built 
Iviswold and the stable and grooms quarters on Montross
 Avenue in 1888, he had agreed to bear the expense of  
street improvements around his estate, including 
construction of patent stone sidewalks and a wrought iron
 fence around his entire property. 

Rutherford's governing body was beset with other important issues at this time, such as the replacement of Councilman Kenneth King, who died during his first term. They were also appointing marshals and a Board of Health and dealing with finding space for a "lock up" or jail to be operated by the newly established Rutherford Protective and Detective Association, forerunner of the police department. Thorpe's offer seems to have fallen off the table.

Meanwhile, Thorpe's imitation marble sidewalks were selling to some prominent private property owners. Joseph C. Cummings, a New York dredging company owner whose home was then at 286 Montross Avenue, had a marble sidewalk laid in May of 1883, as did Samuel Whiting Hollister, a dry goods dealer who lived at what became 224 Hollister Avenue (extant). Although it has been modified somewhat, and its sidewalks replaced by concrete, the Hollister house remains listed on the Rutherford Historic Preservation Committee's inventory as one of Rutherford's important architectural structures.

The Rutherford Street Committee continued through 1884 to rely on wood planks, often made of sturdy hemlock, to build sidewalks, contracted to Charles Planer or Fritz Gunther, two local builders of that era. Peter Kip, who agreed to the wood planks for his properties, complained about mischief makers who set the sidewalks on fire. Another headache was maintenance during winter months when a contractor named Frank Cunningham would charge extra to "care for all planks broken by (his) horse plough."

What eventually became of the stone manufactory of James Thorpe, who was known to some as Colonel Thorpe, is unknown. But when David B. Ivison, builder of Iviswold in 1888, agreed to bear the expense for roads built around his estate on Montross, West Passaic and Fairview Avenue, he included construction of marble sidewalks. The marble sidewalks can also be found on Mortimer Avenue as well as Santiago Avenue.

The owner of a Mortimer Avenue home recently asked the assistance of the Rutherford public works department to reposition a large vintage marble slab in the front sidewalk.

In 1885, the mayor and council adopted a revised sidewalk ordinance setting "specifications of carriage crossings." The measure allowed that sidewalks "shall be constructed or repaired and kept in repair with wood or stone." The following year, Councilman Horace H. Hollister, for many years the town doctor who practiced at 168 Chestnut Street (extant), received unanimous support for a resolution to allow that sidewalks on streets in the Borough be laid "at the discretion of the street committee as to materials to be used."

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