Newark’s Lethal Traffic: February 19, 1903 to April 25, 1972

Evidently, Newark had the most centralized downtown in the nation, making it extremely fragile and debilitating. The businesses, however, held a firm belief that people would always bring prosperity to Downtown, no matter where they lived, as long as accessibility was provided. In the above short period of ten years, as the figures indicate, American people’s understanding of “accessibility” shifted drastically from mass transit (e.g., trolley cars) to their beloved private motor cars. This meant not only could they drive to Downtown Newark, but also they had to find a place to park. As Miller McClintock of Harvard told the National Association of Building Owners in 1926, it would not profit a central business district with even the most convenient arteries of travel if there was not sufficient parking. After Raymond Boulevard was created above the old Morris Cannel in 1930, the corner near Military Park turned into the most congested spot and, a few years later, came the corner of Broad, Orange, and Bridge Streets. After the 1970s, the deadly congestion moved to Penn Station.

On the icy morning of Thursday, February 19, 1903, over 100 noisy children were tightly packed in trolley car no. 291 of the North Jersey Street Railway Co. on their way to Barringer High School. When the streetcar passed Orange Street to approach the “G-grade” intersection of Clifton Avenue and Lackawanna Railroad, the motorman, Pete Brady, found that the long brass handle could not stop the trolley, as there was no sand on the track. In seconds, the approaching train smashed into the trolley. Eight girls and one boy were killed, including Rosebud, a 14 year-old girl from James Street, and more than 20 were desperately injured. Their severely mutilated young bodies, without heads and arms, were laid side by side on the blood-stained snow for hours. Mayor Doremus proclaimed the coming Sunday one of public mourning.

While investigating the tragedy, Thomas McCarter resigned in June as the State Attorney General to start the largest mass transit system in the world under Public Service Corporation (PSE&G). He consolidated tens of small chaotic electrical trolley companies and invested over $10 million for track maintenance and new cars. Newark started its era of modern transportation. In 13 years, the company peaked to expand its ridership from 215 million to 451 million, while Newark’s traffic worsened to become ever more lethal. From 1916 to 1919, 3,702 persons were injured in traffic accidents in Newark and 362 were killed. The death toll was 119 and 114 for 1928 and 1929, respectively. After WWII, Newark’s streets became more congested and drivers and pedestrians more impatient. The nationwide epidemic of traffic deaths led President Truman to call the Highway Safety Conference in 1947.

Four Corners. A Newark Evening News editorial in 1914 claimed, “No matter how large a city grows, if it remains a ‘one corner’ community, it will continue to be suggestive of a village, a bloated and a bustling one, perhaps, but a village just the same…” People also referred to Newark as a “one street” town. This predicament has made Newark more vulnerable than any other urban centers. Entering the automobile age, Newark’s arteries, Elizabeth and Clinton Avenues, Washington and Broad Streets, and Broadway, all originated from Lenape’s Great Minisink Trail. In the very first entry of the city record on October 30, 1666, the city founders agreed on the future thoroughfares before even dividing the land and, thereafter, always invested in “highway” maintenance much more heavily than social welfare and education.

In 1915, Harland Bartholomew, later the nation’s most influential city planner, just started his career in Newark as an assistant engineer. He observed at the time, “The logical development and growth of a modern city depends almost exclusively upon its transportation facilities…. Most all large cities have now at least reached, if not far outgrown, the limits to which they were originally planned.” Newark had suffered from severe traffic congestion on its fragile infrastructure. In any weekday of 1915 from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., 18,923 vehicles, 5,661 trolley cars, and 246,724 pedestrians passed Four Corners, the intersection of Broad and Market Streets. Twice a day, during the rising and setting of the sun, a tremendous pendulum of man-power of 12,000 workers, mostly Newarkers, swung through Four Corners on their way to and from their work at Port Newark alone. By 1922, during these same 10 hours, 42,000 vehicles of all sorts, or every one and one-sixth second per vehicle, converged upon the intersection, one of the most congested centers of the country: 2,600 trolley cars, 4,200 jitneys, and the rest other vehicles. In 1925, a Public Service’s count indicated that, in the evening rush hours, trolley cars carried an average of 31 passengers each; buses 20.4; and private automobiles 1.8. In 1926, a 12-hour check at the Four Corners counted 36,596 vehicles, including only 1,260 trolley cars and 3,709 buses, compared with 30,614 vehicles that passed through Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street in New York City.

Evidently, Newark had the most centralized downtown in the nation, making it extremely fragile and debilitating. The businesses, however, held a firm belief that people would always bring prosperity to Downtown, no matter where they lived, as long as accessibility was provided. In the above short period of ten years, as the figures indicate, American people’s understanding of “accessibility” shifted drastically from mass transit (e.g., trolley cars) to their beloved private motor cars. This meant not only could they drive to Downtown Newark, but also they had to find a place to park. As Miller McClintock of Harvard told the National Association of Building Owners in 1926, it would not profit a central business district with even the most convenient arteries of travel if there was not sufficient parking. After Raymond Boulevard was created above the old Morris Cannel in 1930, the corner near Military Park turned into the most congested spot and, a few years later, came the corner of Broad, Orange, and Bridge Streets. After the 1970s, the deadly congestion moved to Penn Station.

Traffic Regulations. The modern traffic converged in Newark in a sudden, triumphant, but extremely chaotic manner, particularly after 1903 when the Model T Ford started to be mass produced. At the time, Public Services consolidated nine trolley companies, that each further included a dozen smaller operators. From town to town, and even street to street, traffic followed different rules, if they ever existed. The city administrators and businesses believed that, through unified regulations, the streets for horses could effectively move a deadly jam out and into a new automobile era.

In 1914, the city engineer Morris Sherrerd advocated German rules for unified traffic laws, such as the intersection right of way to vehicle on driver’s right. Meanwhile, the state commission, led by a Newark businessman A. V. Hamburg, adopted a series of regulatory measures, such as surveys of road conditions, signs and warnings, and street standards, right-of-way provisions, and one-way street rules for narrow thoroughfares. In 1915, New Jersey adopted the first set of unified traffic ordinances in the nation, including prohibition of any advertising signs by roadside. To adopt unified traffic regulations, including ones as simple as three-color traffic lights and policemen’s whistles, involved much more than some administrative rules, but a cultural change into the automobile age. In 1922 alone, the city’s Police Traffic Division, including 122 men at fixed posts, 43 of the motorcycle squad, and 12 of the mounted squad, made 3,114 arrests for violations. One can hardly imagine a quixotic scene: a horseman in front of a 70-foot trolley, or hundreds of excited jitneys, trying to bring eternal order to a corrupted chaos. On September 1, 1928, the state initiated another large set of motor laws, which defined reckless driving as “willful or wanton disregard of the rights or safety of others.”

The chief “villain” of Newark’s traffic regulation was Public Safety Commissioner William Brennan, who banned parking on streets near Four Corners in 1921. Some restaurants, such as Presto Lunch Room of 148 Market Street, had to ask their suppliers to carry milk, meat, and bread on their shoulders to their kitchens many times daily, negotiating blocks of crowded sidewalks with shoppers. Mr. Brennan was angrily accused of “violating citizens’ constitutional rights,” the same rights later defended by his son, Justice Brennan Jr. during his 34 years in the U.S. Supreme Court. The City Commission was pressed to pass increasing number of traffic ordinances, such as the anti-jay-walking ordinance and rules against notoriously reckless jitneys. The city spent more than five years to eliminate the left-turn from Market Street onto Broad Street. The best illustration of regulatory measure on congestion was the handsome art-deco signal tower in the middle of Four Corners, where a policeman could flip traffic signs. City officials predicted “a steady stream in motion for at least half the length of the city center” and an effective traffic policeman, rather than “an animated windmill. However, the celebrated tower stood helplessly in the ever-larger traffic stream as a hazardous obstruction itself. The tower was dismantled in 1937 to make room for one more traffic lane.

More Roads and Wider Streets. When its population peaked at close to 500,000 in 1930, Newark counted over one-third of the entire state’s retail business. Members of Broad Street Association dominated the city’s businesses, as well as its traffic planning, based on a simplistic assumption: If you build, they will come. The fragility of Newark’s streets had long been recognized. There was no major artery that could alleviate heavy congestion on Broad Street. Washington Street had a mystical jag crossing Market Street, a fatal defect that slowed traffic flow for many years. On the other side of Broad Street, the original Mulberry Street merged into McCarter Highway, creating an extremely confusing traffic nightmare. (Only in 1945, it was redirected into Central Avenue.) The most talked-about new street arrangement was the Diamond-on-the-Cross plan, proposed in 1912 by engineer Charles Puff. It called for the construction of four parkways whose focal points would be the court house, Lincoln Park, River Street (near today’s Penn Station), and Washington Park. Attended by 900 people from 411 municipalities, the Regional Plan Association’s first meeting on traffic in 1924 suggested extending Central Avenue diagonally to meet Market Street. For a decade until the Great Depression, Newark’s businesses and planners dreamed about building a subway under Broad Street for its whole length. However, with the prohibitive cost and questionable traffic impact, none had been implemented.

As Harland Bartholomew observed, the city “could soon exhaust their bonding power paying for street opening and widening projects,” while failing to build out off congestion through a “vicious circle.” All over Newark, thoroughfares were paved over cobblestone in the 1910’s, widened in the 20’s, and realigned and, some of them, turned into one-way streets in the 40’s. The Broad Street Association advocated expanding Bloomfield Avenue’s width up to 100 feet, ten feet wider than Broad Street. When eminent domain cases were rampant in these projects, emotion went high. John Dreyer, a milk dealer from Stuyvesant Avenue, ended his five year battle against the city’s street expansion in the late 1920’s with an American flag on a manhole cover. Carrying his shotgun and boxes of shells, he dug up the new asphalt pavement with a pick.

Every road leads away from Rome. During the Great Depression, the city and businesses finally won the ideological war against mass transit. By 1940, trolley tracks were removed from almost all thoroughfares by hundreds of WPA workers. Ironically, the tracks were sold as pricy scrap steel to Japan for its war efforts. The highway lobby succeeded in getting federal dollars away from cities. While contributing significant tax revenue to the state, Newark could not get a penny from federal road grants unless the county government took over ten major arteries like Bloomfield, Central, Springfield, and Lyon Avenues. Very often, to speed up suburban traffic, these roads were widened to eliminate sidewalks for local pedestrians.

In 1912, Lincoln Highway (Route 27) literally went through Newark’s streets. However, in the late 1920’s the road planning had changed towards decentralization. Route 1 was a monumental effort of the highway lobby. Its stretch on the Pulaski Skyway lifted the roadway far into the air over the Passaic and Hackensack Rivers, but by-passed Newark completely through the meadows. Downtown businessmen cried loudly on the wrong direction of road building. “With the modern signal lights, Broad Street can handle many times the number of vehicles now using the street,” President Moses Plaut of Broad Street Association pleaded. Mayor Raymond and Chief Engineer Costello declared, “It’s about time we had a showdown with the state.” A compromise, however, went only as far as building a viaduct ramp to Port Newark. In 1930, the city again failed to have the county to extend Route 10 to Broad Street through Park Avenue. The Downtown business community railed against the state’s decentralization policy, pointing out that Essex, Ocean, Hunterdon, and Sussex unfairly got 37, 410, 333, and 324 percent of returns, respectively, for their tax contribution. With over two decades’ advocate and planning, Newark was happy about the construction of the East-West Expressway (I-280) in the 1950’s. Soon, the city was disappointed that most cars zoomed through scared Newark to their spacious and clean suburbs, leaving its run-down shops and lethal streets behind forever.

Over the years, some “radical” thinking had concluded that conventional wars against traffic congestion would fall far short. For instance, some 80 years ago, Howard Williams proposed to exclude private cars from congested streets in cities of the area. Frank Grad designed a futuristic Broad Street in 1926, with three to four layers of stacked roads, subways under ground, airplanes taking off from rooftop landings. Traffic police may need wings like angels in Newark of 1975. Pedestrians got killed? Easy! Engineers in the 1924 Regional Plan Conference drew a “sidewalkless” Newark, with pedestrians traveling arcades built into the walls of the building a story above ground; street intersections crossed at one-story heights by graceful foot-bridges. The Newark-at-Venice would not have muddy canals beneath its spans, but well-ordered traffic.

Cross-town Expressway to nowhere. In an April 1913 editorial, the Newark Evening News pointed out that without a cross-town connection between the city’s north and south extremes, “people of many localities are seriously hampered and the material development of un-served neighborhoods is stultified by retardation.” In 1961, the downtown businesses desperately hoped that a five-mile-long cross-town throughway (Rt. 75) would move shoppers into the city. Meanwhile, the rest of the state needed to get travelers to New York City and Newark Airports, as well as everyone but the poor, out of the city as fast as possible. An estimated cost of $73.3 million would be shared by the state and federal governments for such a throughway. The right-of-way purchase started in the Weequahic section and other areas. The connection vestiges were in place from I-78 and I-280 in Orange and First Streets. Newark was the only large northeastern city that was not “served” by a major inner freeway system. The downtown companies bet on the project as the last lifeline of the city. Louis Danzig of the Newark Housing Authority was responsible for land semblance, although he believed that the city’s life depended on people in its neighborhoods, not suburbs.

After fires burned for five days in 1967 along the planned Rt. 75, connecting the city to the outside world was no longer desirable, but much feared. The land acquisition was halted. For the city and its physically and spiritually scared people, the aged pipedream of the ephemeral project had to die to yield land for public housing and $13 million reimbursement to the depleted city revenue. On April 25, 1972, John Kohl, state transportation commissioner, notified Mayor Ken Gibson that Rt. 75 had been eliminated from the master plan. This time, Newark’s lethal streets killed more than nine beautiful young lives—they killed the city and its last aspiration, together with its glorious history as America’s pioneer city of civil aviation, mass broadcasting, and telecommunication.

As Lewis Mumford observed, in those 70 struggling years, and more so today, “instead of planning motor cars and motorways to fit our life, we are rapidly planning our life to fit the motor car so that we have no life that is worth living.” For a “living downtown” and a living city of people with sustainable lives, Newark needs wisdom and courage to leave its lethal traffic behind.

Author: Ken Walker

Husband, Father, Newarker, PCA Elder, Business Analyst. In a glass case of emotion since 1978.

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