The unearthing of a 140+-year-old well by PSE&G crews working in Irvington generated a buzz in a neighborhood that has endured months of COVID-19 restrictions and revealed a vital piece of the town’s past as a farming hub.
A lost tool; a found well
In early December, after two years of upgrading pipes throughout Irvington as part of PSE&G’s Gas System Modernization Program, the three-person crew was working on their final block – Melrose Avenue. Street Leader Eric Krainski and Mechanics Dean D’Archi and Kevin Caccavella launched a pneumatic piercing tool into the ground that, like a mole, helps them dig a hole without disturbing much of the street. But something went wrong. The tool was lost.
Krainski called his supervisor, Nikyle Burney, for advice. Thirty minutes later, he called again to report that they had discovered what they thought might be a long-forgotten well. Burney rushed to the scene because — while it is common for crews to find old cobblestone roads, soda bottles and keys – it’s rare to find anything as significant as a well. It turns out that the lost tool didn’t strike the well, but instead fell into it.
Burney said neighbors posed to take pictures by the well and marveled at the piece of their town’s history.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing,” Burney said. “I was raised in Virginia and accustomed to wells, but to see a well in Irvington, in an urban town, is unheard of. You don’t often think about the history and what used to be here. That’s the beauty of it – having the community come together was an uplifting moment.”
From past to future
Several Irvington officials came to inspect and, the next day, North Ward Councilmember Orlander Glen Vick came out and talked to the PSE&G crew about the history of the area. He said some remnants, like stone from bridges, still can be found throughout town.
“This was once a wealthy community with milk farms and mills throughout,” Glen Vick said. “It’s an inspiration for the economic revival that Irvington needs today.”
Mayor Tony Vauss, who grew up in Irvington, said, “Our community has been rich and diversified in many ways. I’m glad this discovery by PSE&G is helping us raise awareness about our important history and vital redevelopment work underway.”
According to Irvington Historian Alan A. Siegel, the area originally was inhabited by a subtribe of the Lenni Lenape, who were attracted to the Elizabeth River, and saw its first European settlers around 1692 when wealthy German and Irish families moved there from Newark.
At one point, it was known as Camptown after its first farmer of note, Sam Camp, who moved there about 1725. But when Stephen Foster’s 1850 “De Camptown Races” minstrel song debuted, some residents so feared being associated with the song that they fought to rename the town after the respected Washington Irving.
Siegel said Irvington experienced a building boom in the early 20th century, starting with its first paved road in 1905 until every farm was consumed by 1930. In its heyday, hundreds of thousands of visitors came to Irvington annually just for Olympic Park, which started as a green park in 1887, added mechanical features in 1904 and ran as an amusement park through 1965. In fact, Olympic Park boasted 1 million visitors in 1930 and had the world’s largest carousel – which was later purchased by Disney and installed in Florida after the Irvington park closed.
Siegel said the area near Vailsburg, where the well was uncovered, likely held Irvington’s last farm, the 50 acres (or nearly 38 football fields) between Orange and Myrtle avenues originally purchased by John Wills, who moved there from New York in 1862 and whose descendant is the namesake for Wills Place, which ends at Melrose just a few feet from the newly rediscovered well.
Burney said he would have never known that, until about 1880, the Elizabeth River ran through this urban community, nor that farmers had relied upon private wells like the one they found.
“It doesn’t surprise me,” Siegel said, “because, until you had underground water pipes, everyone had a well.”
But, Siegel noted, the Elizabeth River started drying up and, by 1893, a group of concerned citizens formed a water company. Four miles of water main were constructed and in use by 1894. Irvington also relied on gas street lamps from 1874 until 1910, when PSE&G brought electric lights to town.
Burney said he figured that the old pipes seen running through the unearthed well likely fed those gas street lamps.
“People lived on this block forever and didn’t know the history,” Burney said. “It was a pretty satisfying find – even if it was accidental. It’s a great story.”