Metuchen Edison History Features

Recollections of

Boyhood Days

In Old Metuchen


David Trumbull Marshall

Published by The Case Publishing Co., Flushing NY 1930

(Second Edition)- (c) 1930


Clay Pits.

There extends across the State of New Jersey from Woodbridge to Trenton, a belt of territory which is underlaid with clay.

There are extensive pits at Woodbridge and all along the valley of the Raritan river on both sides.

When I was a boy my father did considerable surveying of these clay lands. The land originally consisted of swamp and woodland and was not worth much as land.

The original surveys were made with a surveyor's compass, such as George Washington used. This instrument was not provided with a telescope, as is the modern surveyor's transit, and as the bearings were gotten simply by the magnetic needle, the surveys were not very accurate.

Some of the deeds my father had to go by were a hundred or more years old and did not describe the properties accurately.

As the clay lands became more valuable greater accuracy in surveying became imperative.

Any good surveyor with a good instrument and reasonably clear going can make an accurate survey, but where one cannot be sure of the place of beginning, and the description brings one out many feet from the place of beginning that one does decide on, the chances of a mix-up are great. Such deeds and such descriptions characterized the lovely swamp and salt marsh land around Bonhamtown.

In 1880 my father surveyed a route for a railroad running from the clay banks belonging to Mr. Charles A. Bloomfield, of Bloomfield Manor, on the Amboy Road, near Metuchen, to the Raritan river.

The clay pits were on the bluff along the road through Bonhamtown, being about two miles from the Raritan river.

About half the distance was through woods and muck swamp and the rest over salt marsh.

The salt marsh consists of a layer of tough turf about 30 inches thick. This turf floats on a mass of soft, oozy muck which is, along the Raritan, from 10 to 60 or more feet thick.

A man may safely walk on this turf where the turf is entire.

Where there are holes or rotten places one is liable to go down out of sight.

For many years the farmers along the uplands mowed the salt marsh grass in the summer, dried it and made it into stacks and in the winter, when the ground was frozen they came with ox teams and carted the hay away.

Cattle eat a small amount of salt hay with relish.

Mr. Bloomfield filled in the route of his railroad with sand and gravel and strippings from the clay pits.

He used either horses to draw the clay cars or a light weight locomotive.

For years and years Mr. Bloomfield was obliged to add more fill to the route of his car tracks for the fill constantly settled into the mud.

During the World War the United States Government decided to establish an Arsenal on the Raritan River.

They took possession of a considerable tract of land below Bonhamtown, including much of Mr. Bloomfield's clay land and his dock and clay railroad.

The Government made a connection with the old gravel railroad at Bonhamtown, extended the standard gauge tracks on to the salt marshes and began hauling heavy freight with heavy locomotives.

I will quote from a letter written me by Mr. Bloomfield:

"The winter of 1917 and 1918 was very severe. Thc marsh at the edge of the upland was frozen four feet deep.

"One day I went down to the edge of the salt marsh where it joins the upland and saw tracks being built out onto the meadow.

"On enquiring what was being done I was told that several docks were being built and a track was to go down to each dock.

"I told them that there would be no doubt as to their going down but that the only way to save going down vertically was to build their tracks on the fill I had made.

"I had seen a hundred feet of fill disappear with its tracks, and on more than one occasion settle down 55 feet into the mud."

Tracks were laid on the old Bloomfield fill and also on fill placed on the marsh by the Government engineers.

When I was in the Army in 1918 at the invitation of the late Civil Engineer Maxwell of Hollis I visited the Raritan Arsenal.

The tracks were new and everything seemed all right.

I visited the Arsenal with Mr. Bloomfield a year or two later. The tracks were as crooked as snakes. They were about as level as an old cornfield.

The engineers had had to give up running heavy locomotives over the tracks and were hauling their freight cars with army trucks fitted with flanged car wheels.

One day about 1882 I was assisting my father in making a survey across some salt marsh. I had need of a pole to which to tie a flag.

I looked round and found an old mast which had been used for a cat boat. It was about fifteen feet long.

I cut a square hole in the turf with my hatchet. Put the mast in the hole and jumping up put my whole weight on the pole. It went down out of sight. I had to find a stick which could be supported by the turf. After setting up a surveyor's transit on the salt marsh turf, one must move about as little as possible and step gently, for the marsh trembles under one's tread and the instrument is liable to get out of level.

I was told by a Mr. Johnston of Hicksville that he was employed at one time to assist in laying out a route for a railroad in Canada.

They went over the route and in many places in the hills found swamps, or what in Canada are called "muskeags."

The surveyors were provided with iron pipes made in sections. With these pipes they sounded the muskeags.

Their orders were that if they could find no bottom to the mud at sixty feet they were to take some other route.

Mr. Johnston told me that at one place along the Hudson River a railroad company kept one gravel train busy for eighteen years filling in a low place on their road.

There was at one time, and may be now, a whole row of houses in Jersey City, just across the street from the Pennsylvania Railroad as it emerges on the east side of Bergen Cut, which is all out of plumb from the upward pressure caused by the displacement of mud because of the weight of the Pennsylvania Railroad fill.

At Woodbridge, N. J., and all across the state westward there are clay banks or clay pits or clay mines.

Just south of Metuchen at Bonhamtown there are extensive clay banks. Some of these deposits of clay are near the surface and others are overlaid with gravel and sand deposited there by the glacier which covered the country north to the Arctic Circle.

The removal of this overlying earth is in some localities very expensive and frequently determines the question as to whether a given deposit of clay is worth working.

The clays of the New Jersey deposits vary in composition and color. The clays found near Perth Amboy are suitable for making common brick fire brick and terra cotta.

The clays around Trenton, many of them, are used for sanitary porcelain, electrical porcelain and fine chinaware.

One of my earliest recollections is of going to Crow's Mill, a mill on the creek below Weber's, and there seeing the making of bricks.

Common bricks are made by working the clay, as it comes from the pits, with enough water to make a stiff dough; putting this dough through a machine which forms it into bricks; drying the bricks and of these dried bricks building the kiln in which the bricks are burned.

When the bricks are sufficiently burned the whole stack of bricks is torn down.

Unburned bricks are piled one on another, leaving spaces between each brick through which fire may pass.

The bottom of the stack is formed into a sort of tunnel or archway big enough for a man to crawl through.

The stack, which may be fifty feet long, fifty feet wide and twenty feet high, is plastered over the outside with a thin layer of clay. The heat is produced by burning cordwood, which is shoved into the tunnels at the bottom.

The whole kiln is covered with a shed, open at the sides, the roof boards of which are removable.

There are such brick kilns on the road to Paterson, N. J., and dozens of them at Haverstraw, on the Hudson River.

Nowadays clays are used which when I was a boy were thrown aside. Tapestry bricks and all kinds of odd colored bricks are now made from clays which come out mottled and stained with impurities.

Clay for fire bricks is found at Bonhamtown and at Weber's.

Fire clay contains a large proportion of kaolin. These bricks stand great heat but are not so hard nor do they have the tensile strength or water resisting power of common bricks.

When I was a boy the men in the clay banks got ten or eleven cents an hour and worked ten hours a day.

I think they could buy about as much with their dollar ten as they can with the wages they get now.

The spoil or strippings from the clay banks sometimes present a problem as to what can be done with it. Usually, the strippings are used to fill exhausted pits.

At Weber's, we boys used to find masses of iron pyrites on the refuse dumps. These crystals of iron pyrites frequently form on pieces of wood which were buried in the swamps when the clay was formed.

Pieces of wood occur in these deposits which have changed into lignite, or brown coal.

Under the layers of clay one frequently finds leaves of trees so well preserved that it is easy to identify them.

One finds oak and sassafras and tulip and willow leaves.

I once boarded at the house of an old couple near Lake Hopatcong while I was surveying some mining properties.

The old man could not read or write, but he was very intelligent in the things which had come under his observation.

He said to me once, "Mr. Marshall, do you know that clay makes?"

"I know it does for I have seen leaves of trees way down underneath the clay which must have fallen there before the clay came."

Certainly a masterpiece of inductive reasoning.

As a matter of fact the beds of clay were formed by the settling of finely divided rocks from their suspensions in water.

Whatever was at the bottom of the pool in which the clay was deposited is there yet and some of it likely to stay there for some time.

I visited a clay mine on the south side of the Raritan River some time ago. The clay from this mine has to be washed to rid it of the "sulphur balls" as the masses of iron pyrites are called.

These masses occur from the size of filberts to pieces as large as cocoanuts. Some of them are very beautiful.

If left exposed to the weather they gradually decompose and form sulphate of iron, which is very soluble in water. If thoroughly dried and kept in a tight Mason jar these crystals will keep indefinitely.

"Sulphur balls" have to be removed from the clay because if left in, the iron forms an easily fused slag with the clay and the bricks are likely to be discolored or warped or to contain ugly, black blow-holes.

A proper amount of this pyrites properly disseminated through the bricks makes a fancy brick which is considered very desirable.

The spoil heaps of a clay mine would seem a most unpromising place from which to gather mineral specimens.

I have found on them not only beautiful specimens of iron pyrites but agate and chalcedony and jasper and once a stone of agate as large as a baseball which on being broken in two disclosed a mass of pure water-white crystals of quartz.

I had one of these halves polished. It is a beautiful specimen with its amber-red outer shell and its inside part of solid crystals.

Many of the gravel deposits along the clay pit area contain pebbles of agate and jasper which take a beautiful polish.

I polish my specimens on a wet carburundum wheel and finish them on a flat piece of cast iron fed with polishing rouge.

The whole amount of it is that any bright boy may find something worth while, no matter where he is located.

It only needs a little knowledge of stones or of flowers or of insects or of birds to keep an enterprising boy busy.

The country is literally crawling and flying and running alive with interesting creatures, and the ground everywhere covered with interesting specimens. One doesn't have to have a great deal of scientific knowledge to identify these things. If a boy is satisfied to spend his whole boyhood standing around or even in playing the perfectly futile games that so many boys play, he will never acquire any knowledge of Nature or of anything else for that matter.

Recently, 1930, the papers have reported the finding of foot-tracks of the Dinosaur in the Parker clay pits at Woodbridge.

These tracks are supposed to have been made about 100,000,000 years ago.

I remember seeing tracks in the Bloomfield clay pits at Metuchen.

These were probably tracks of people.

If so, they were of more recent date than those of the Dinosaur.



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Lasted updated 6/8/99 by Jim Halpin.