The area's most notorious storm
Journeys into River Edge
As we write Tropical Storm Fay is buffeting the area with rain and wind. It’s bad but we have seen worse.
It got us to thinking about the worst that River Edge has seen – here we speak loosely of River Edge as being this area over the centuries – no matter the name (Midland Township, Riverside, River Edge, Old Bridge, New Bridge Cherry Hill, North Hackensack et al).
In my lifetime there have been blizzards, small earthquakes and blackouts. But the three storms that come to mind are: Superstorm Sandy (2012), Hurricane Irene (2011) and Hurricane Ginny (1963) that uprooted a beloved Weeping Willow Tree at our house.
As anyone in town knows, a sudden cloud burst can bring flash floods to the south end of town and to low lying areas near the river or on town on streets such as Voorhis , Concord and Monroe near the paper path.
But if the sources of River Edge history and local folklore are a good source, the biggest calamity to strike River Edge was a tornado – the tornado of 1895.
It was more than a century ago, but many old timers still point to that event. The community, then called Riverside, was but a year old, having come into its old as part of the Borouoghitis movement of that time (which led groups of residents to unite to form boroughs from within and among the many townships that were the prevalent form of local government then).
On July 13, 1895 a tornado struck the Cherry Hill section of town. At the time the place was considered to be a peaceful village of 40 homes –a population of some 300.
But on that hot July afternoon at about 3:15 that all changed.
In a history of the borough, the tornado that day was said to have struck "suddenly and unexpectedly".
Eyewitness reports described a transparent U-shaped cloud, 200 feet across its based descending to the ground. Then the sky filled with objects, with debris falling to the ground, adding to destruction and confusion.
When it was over a cone-shape black funnel could be seen in the direction the storm had left.
It would eventually be reported that tornadoes had touched down later that day in parts of N.Y.C. and Woodlawn, Long Island as well.
Back here in town the damage was extensive.
A community history describes a path of destruction from approximately where Route 4 now runs to a point midway between Howland and Wayne and travelling from southwest to northeast.
Three were killed; many others were injured. There was wide spread property damage.
Pictures in our community's history display some of the devastation: a house just built on Hackensack Avenue totally collapsed; a side of Kate Vanderbeck's house on the northeast corner of Main Street and Kinderkamack was torn. The Cherry Hill Reform Church experienced extensive damage – including having moved a foot off its foundation.
A blacksmith shop was destroyed. A railroad depot was said to have completely banished.
To this day, however, when referring to that tornado of 1895 the first place mentioned is Freidman's Hotel. It once stood on the southerly side of Main Street at Elizabeth Street (MacDonald's), but on that infamous day it was totally destroyed. Conrad Freidman, who also operated a bowling alley, died in the rubble of his hotel.
Interestingly, the tornado of that day would play an important role in the naming of our neighborhoods. Before the disaster, Cherry Hill was considered a popular destination for vacationers. Friedman's was a popular resort –so was Buchsetch's - both not too far from the city by train or coach and accessible to boating swimming and fishing along the Hackensack River.
But the tornado was said to have given Cherry Hill "a bad name". That event as well as the existence of a period crime gang called "The Cherry Hill Gang" helped contribute to Cherry Hill's name being changed to North Hackensack in 1906 (A century later locals would seek to have the North Hackensack name replaced by New Bridge Landing)
Other storms also considered "biblical" in scope and destruction would soon follow in 1902 and 1903.
The History of River Edge describes those events:
"The aftermath of the 1902 rainfall was 'a vast sea of water as far as the eye could see and northward to Oradell…'. Starting on June 7, 1903, rain fell every day for three weeks, dropping a total of 8.61 inches in the area. Then in October, 12 inches of rain fell in just tiow days, washing out bridges, railroad and trolley tracks, stranding travelers, and leaving the whole Hackensack Valley awash".
Many years and many storms have followed. Politics aside, there was once a time, when one was little, it was thought that storms bigger and more ominous. Recently for many that perception has changed.
It seems that in recent years we have experienced 100 year floods two or three times in the last couple of years. Whether something else is at play, I'll leave to others on other pages.
Even in the midst of these calamities (and a pandemic) the defining life-changing event in the history of this town continues to be those weather events near the turn of the last century - those as in 1895, 1902 and 1903 – events still remembered though those who lived through it have long passed on.
SOURCE MATERIALS: The History of River Edge: 1693-1964; 1965; by Sigmund H. Uminski; Musket Anchor and Plow: The Story of River Edge, by Naomi Howitt and Groge Howitt, 1976, Arno Press