Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Perth Amboy (Proprietary House)

With July 4 approaching, I thought a visit to the home of the last Royal Governor would be appropriate. So I headed out to Perth Amboy, accompanied by my 6-year old daughter, Daphne.

I have been to Perth Amboy many times, but only once before did I pass through the oldest part of town (on my way to a waterfront restaurant). Our main objective was the Proprietary House, but we ended up spending the entire afternoon wandering through the historic part of town.

Amboy was originally the capital of East Jersey. Although East and West were united as New Jersey in 1702, the colony retained dual capitals. However, neither Amboy nor Burlington (the western capital) had a true royal residence. The East Jersey Proprietors decided to build one in 1761.

When William Franklin (son of Benjamin) was appointed royal governor of New Jersey in 1762, he preferred to live in Burlington at first and did not move into the Perth Amboy residence until 1774. Within two years, he would be arrested in the house by a group of patriot militia.

The Proprietary House has not been fully restored. The stairs are very creaky, it's only partially furnished, and the paint is peeling off the walls so that you can literally see the layers of the past two and a half centuries.

Some renovations over the years - it was later a hotel and retirement home - destroyed the 18th century character (e.g. the central staircase was removed). However, I actually liked that atmosphere. Rather than walking into a sterile snapshot of an 18th century residence, you actually get a sense of the life this building has had and continues to have.

For example, you can have afternoon tea here on Wednesdays, in a crypt-like room in the cellar. We happened to be there on a Wednesday and witnessed a large group of women in very interesting hats. But I think my daughter was more impressed by the fact that the SyFy series "Ghosthunters" taped an episode here.

The docents at the Proprietary House were very enthusiastic (the tour cost only $1 or $2). They also pointed me to a brochure with a walking guide of "Old Perth Amboy." The brochure highlights more the 50 buildings or locations.

We focused mainly on the 18th century ones. And that meant starting with Market Square (which actually dates back to the late 17th century). Around the square stands some fascinating buildings, including City Hall - the oldest continually used public building in the country. Part of the exterior dates back to 1714. The interior, though, dates back to 1968 (using what appears to be the same plywood paneling my father installed in our rec room when I was a kid).

In and around the old square are a statue of the Earl of Perth and a replica of the Liberty Bell (which Daphne particularly liked, having seen the original in Philadelphia).

We also went out of the way to see the Kearny Cottage (1784) at the end of Catalpa Avenue, which serendipitously brought us to the waterfront. We discovered that Perth Amboy has an attractive waterfront with pleasant beaches on the Raritan River and an active water park.

Following the waterfront north onto Water Street, the strategic location of Amboy becomes clear. It's literally a stone's throw from Staten Island (the old Tottenville Ferry terminal is worth a visit). It's no wonder that the British used this as a supply depot during their occupation of New Jersey in 1777. Today, the waterfront is home to fishing piers and a handful of restaurants. Daphne and I stopped for ice cream here and watched the fish in the water.

Even with the modern industrial landscape, it's easy to see why 17th century settlers chose Perth Amboy as the spot to build their capital.


Dreaded Tourmaline aka Breena Clarke said...

Patrick -- I'm enjoying your blog. I'm interested in NJ's history with slavery. Can you direct me to sites in Perth Amboy that are connected to slave trade? Thanks for any suggestions you have.

Dreaded Tourmaline aka Breena Clarke said...

Patrick -- sorry -- I should have listed my email address -

Patrick said...

Breena –
Sorry I don’t know about the slave trade or slavery issues in Perth Amboy. A good starting place would be the Middlesex County Cultural and Heritage Commission (www DOT

big hoss said...

I have found your site about Perth Amboy very interesting and was wondering if you could direct me to a local historical society or local newspaper that could help me in my search to find some details of a relative of mine who left Ireland sometime around 1900 and settled in Perth Amboy. I believe his name to be either Jack or John Johnston and he was my grandfathers brother.Apparently he left Ireland in something of a hurry as he had deserted from the British Army.He was known to be living in Perth Amboy in the 1950's 60's my e-mail address is many thanks John Johnston Savage

Raymond Feldman said...

Unfortunately, that's one of most common themes for coming to America. Bill Murray said in the movie Stripes: "Our ancestors were kicked out of every decent country in the world". Also the name 'John Johnston' is so common that there could be 500 people in the immediate area who match your description. That's going to be a tough one! Good luck...

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