History: The Wizard of Menlo Park
Edison, formerly known as Raritan Township, was first settled in the late 1600′s, when it was part of Woodbridge and Piscataway townships.
Old Post Road, the earliest public road in eastern New Jersey, passes through Edison and is said to have been used by President George Washington as he traveled through the state on the way to his inauguration in New York City in April 1789. A re-enactment of that journey took place in Edison in 1989, during the celebration of the bicentennial of Washington’s first inauguration. His route was retraced, and special ceremonies were held at the historic St. James Church on Woodbridge Avenue.
The Bonhamtown area of Edison, on Old Post Road, is named after Nicholas Bonham, a freeholder from 1682 to 1683. The hamlet is said to have been the site of an old Native American village and later a Continental Army camp and battleground during the Revolutionary War. As early as 1693, Bonhamtown served as the seat of justice for Middlesex and Somerset counties. By 1834, the village featured 10 to 12 dwellings, two taverns, a store and a schoolhouse.
Revolutionary War skirmishes took place in Bonhamtown, Piscatawaytown and along what is now Woodbridge Avenue. In fact, the St. James Episcopal Church building served as a hospital for wounded British soldiers during the war. Six British soldiers killed in one of the area’s skirmishes are buried in the cemetery at the church.
In 1777, the local militia engaged in a battle with British and Hessian troops who were advancing toward Gen. Washington’s troops. Washington’s troops had taken refuge in the nearby Watchung Mountains. This battle, which is part of the Battle of Short Hills, is known as The Oak Tree Engagement. It took place at the intersection which is now Oak Tree and Plainfield roads.
Edison grew in the second half of the 19th century as the attractiveness of the rural landscape became more accessible with the opening of the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Easton and Amboy lines. By the late 1800′s, many residents commuted to jobs in New York and other parts of New Jersey.
One of the many passengers carried on the Pennsylvania line to Raritan Township was Thomas Alva Edison, later to be known as the “Wizard of Menlo Park”. It is said that he chose the Menlo Park site for his laboratories because it was the highest point along the Pennsylvania Railroad between New York and Philadelphia. The establishment of Thomas Edison’s industrial research laboratory – he preferred calling it his “invention factory” – in 1876 brought global fame to the township as it became the site for some of the most innovative research and manufacturing feats in world history.
While there, Thomas Edison invented items that led to more than 400 patents. These Menlo Park inventions include the phonograph, the electric railway (which incidentally, ran along present day Middlesex Avenue) and the incandescent lamp. Christie Street, on which the Edison Memorial Tower now stands, was the first street to be illuminated by incandescent lamps, and Mrs. Jordan’s Boarding House, home to many of Thomas Edison’s workers, was the first residence to be lighted that way. When Edison moved out of Menlo Park, the buildings fell into dilapidation, and the laboratory was even used as a chicken coop for some time while before it fell down.
In 1937, the Edison Memorial Tower was erected to commemorate the years Thomas Edison spent at Menlo Park. In 1986, the Edison Township Historical Society erected 12 period street lamps surrounding the tower to commemorate the illumination of Christie Street. The Edison Memorial Tower is located on the National Register of Historic Places. During the past decade, the township has placed a renewed focus on reviving this historical gem. Fundraising campaigns are ongoing to restore the Tower and develop a new Thomas Edison educational center and museum.
From a rural-residential community in the 1920′s, Edison has grown in population and industry. It ranks as the fifth largest municipality in New Jersey.
In 1954, a group of citizens proposed a change in the name of the township, partially because of the confusion arising from the fact that several municipalities in the state were named Raritan. The name the voters selected was Edison.