By: Anastasia Marchese
In 2004, in honor of West Caldwell’s Centennial, the Historical Society of West Caldwell authored a book entitled, “Celebrating a Centennial.” The book is highly regarded by local historians and is a great resource for anyone interested in the history of the area.
Now fifteen years later, new and vibrant interpretations of the past are still needed. West Caldwell is now 115 years old as a township, but the history of the development of the area extends much farther back.
The earliest settlers of European decent started coming to the area around 1699 from Newark. Present day West Caldwell was then part of a town called Westville which was situated in the middle of a larger area called Horseneck tract. Two mills that were built in the vicinity, one a sawmill built by Caleb Hatfield in the 1760’s which was later purchased by the Crane family. The other was a grist mill which was built by Uzal Harrison in 1798.
According to Beverly Crifasi, these mills “supported the growth of Westville throughout the nineteenth century.”
Crifasi is the Vice President/Historian of the Historical Society and has a wealth of information about local history. When asked about the history of West Caldwell, she explained the difficulty of separating the history of West Caldwell from other neighboring towns. “A lot of these towns were all one township and then over the years separated off in order to have more autonomy. Therefore, West Caldwell’s history extends far beyond the 1904 township inception, back to the sawmills and the roads that were built to move the goods produced by them to Newark and other population centers. It extends back to the people who lived during these days and the way their lives changed the landscape, both physically and sociologically.” Crifasi said.
The Crane family gets a lot of interest by local historians, but many times the personal contributions of individuals can be overlooked. One such person is Julia Hedges (Crane) Potwin. Born in West Caldwell on the Crane homestead in 1835, she received a very broken up education but went on to become a teacher and to pay for the completion of her education that way.
She later married Rev. Lemuel Stoughton Potwin D.D. who was a graduate of Yale and a minister. When Julia’s father died, he left her his property in West Caldwell, so she and her husband moved to the family estate.
“Throughout their marriage Lemuel and Julia Potwin had set aside one third of their income for philanthropy,” wrote Crifasi. “From this money, she bequeathed $5000 for the construction of the library and $500 for the purchase of books.” Julia’s private library was donated to the library along with a large portion of her husband’s as well. Her husband asked that the library be named in her honor, and she asked in her will that a public park be made in honor of her father, Nathaniel Samuel Crane.
The Potwin’s had no children but their legacy certainly lives on in West Caldwell through their generous philanthropy.
The Orton Bridge on Orton Road was recently repaired to maintain its original character as one of the few multiple arch stone bridges in Essex County. Named after Dr. James Orton, who moved to the area about 1810 “bringing his worldly wealth in a pair of saddlebags.” He was widely regarded as a fine physician and was well liked for his “inviting personal character.”
The bridge now bears an historical interpretive plaque that explains about the history of Dr. Orton and the historical importance of the bridge’s architecture.
Although a lot of this history predates the township, the rich history of the region continues to shape West Caldwell as it is today in its 115 year.