Source: Chapter 8: William Walter Phelps: a lasting imprint. The History of Teaneck, Mildred Taylor. [Teaneck, N. J.] : Teaneck American Revolution Bicentennial Committee, c1977. pp.46-52.
William Walter Phelps: A Lasting Imprint
The outbreak of the Civil War found Bergen County once again divided in its loyalties. About a fifth of the county's residents had been slaves in 1790. The number had increased after 1804 when legislation for their gradual emancipation was adopted. Many had arrived from Southern states, looking toward freedom. Bergen County voted against Lincoln in 1860, giving Breckenridge 2,112 votes and the Great Emancipator 1,455.
Residents of Teaneck and the rest of Bergen County resolved to "stand by our banner in this eventful crisis" at a meeting in Hackensack on April 22, 1861. Henry M. Low of Teaneck was appointed to the war committee at a meeting in front of the flag-draped courthouse the next afternoon when the book was opened for volunteers to uphold the Union.
Bergen County supplied one full regiment of volunteers and soldiers for various other divisions of the Union armies. Once again the Demarests, Christies, Terhunes, Brinkerhoffs, Ackermans, Loziers, Kipps and Van Buskirks sent their sons off to war. Most of them were in the Twenty-Second Regiment which joined the Army of the Potomac. Henry Brinkerhoff, better known as "Bully Hank," died of typhoid fever at Belle Plain. According to a correspondent for the Bergen Democrat published in March, 1863, after Aquia Creek:
Then came our move to Belle Plain. Our move upon Fredericksburg frustrated by the elements, our three days in the woods -- mud and storm; our march back; our stay in one place until the wood is gone and then "changing camp" for we were chasing forests that seemed to melt before us. We are called "an army of occupation." Our work seems to be clearing Virginia.
The day after General Lee surrendered to General Grant at Appomattox an agreement was signed which would determine the future development of Teaneck. On April 10, 1865, Jacob Finck of Hoboken sold a tract of land to William Walter Phelps of New York. The transaction for several pieces of property totaling eighty-eight and a half acres was the beginning of what was to become the vast Phelps Estate.
William Walter Phelps arrived in Teaneck a week later, in a horse-drawn station wagon, draped in mourning for Abraham Lincoln. The late Mrs. Nellie Clausen remembered her parents speaking often of Phelps' dramatic arrival. He was twenty-five years old at the time, a graduate of Yale University's Class of 1863 and of Columbia University Law School. On the night of his graduation from Yale he married Ellen Maria Sheffield, daughter of Joseph Earle Sheffield, founder of the Yale Scientific School. Phelps's father, John Jay Phelps, was a prominent merchant and financier in New York. He was the first president of the Delaware & Lackawanna Railroad, which he had been largely instrumental in building.
After a honeymoon of almost a year in Europe, the young couple returned to New York, where Phelps set up a large and lucrative law practice. His tastes were esthetic and his health was not robust. He wanted a home in the country, intending to use it as a summer place. He selected the old Garrit Brinkerhoff place in Teaneck, built before the Revolution by the Zabriskies.
The property, now the site of the Municipal Building, is described in the deed dated June 14, 1763 as a part of the Sarah Kiersted Patent "bounded Northeasterly by the land of Garrit Dedrickse, southeasterly by the road commonly called Teen Neck Road, Northwesterly by the land of Jacob Banta." By this deed Christian Zabriskie acquired the land "together with all and singular buildings orchards gardens water mines minerals and all other property commodities &c." from John Jost Zabriskie, Jacob Hendrickse Brinkerhoff, Jacob Van Waggoner, Samuel Demarest, Wiert Banta, David Banta, Hendrick Banta, Garrit Dedrickse, Jacob Banta and Johannes Terhuen of Hackensack for one hundred pounds proclamation money."
Phelps's first intention was to use the Dutch farmhouse temporarily and build a large new home on the property. Following the birth of his daughter Marian, the old place became so dear to Mr. and Mrs. Phelps that they decided to keep it and add onto it, retaining the charm of the Dutch cottage. Two sons, John Jay and Sheffield, were born there later.
Phelps' father died in 1869 and left him an estate so large that looking after it became a full-time job. He gave up his law practice and moved to his home in the country, which he called the Teaneck Grange. He commuted to New York, discussing local, state, and national affairs with a coterie of friends in transit. These new friends, influential Bergen County Republicans, were so charmed by the personality and background of their young companion that they sent him as a delegate to a political convention in Paterson in 1870.
There he met other influential Republicans and began a distinguished political career. He was appointed minister to Austria by President Garfield, ambassador to Berlin by President Harrison, was twice elected to Congress and, a year before his death, appointed judge of the New Jersey Court of Errors and Appeals by a Democratic governor.
Harriet Beecher Stowe happened to be going to Washington in the same parlor car with Phelps one day in 1873, and listened as he talked with a judge who was going to show him the way around the Capitol. The next week the intrepid Mrs. Stowe wrote in the New York Independent:
William Walter Phelps, the new young member from the desert of New Jersey, has the reputation of owning more railroads than I can take the time to count. That he is a most loquacious gentleman I can bear witness for coming to Washington in the same car with him, I decided that he talked faster and longer than any masculine mortal I ever beheld and concluded that he was a wild Bohemian just let loose from his lair on his way to the capital to write "Injun" story chronicles of Congress. Instead, he is one of the menagerie himself, and threw off from that flying tongue of his, the other day, a bright speech which made everybody laugh, even when translated to the newspapers--a very stern test.
Phelps attracted and courted the favor of bright people. He seldom came home to Teaneck without bringing guests. One of those guests was General Grant. Phelps wanted to make Teaneck a select residential community like Tuxedo Park, and persuaded some distinguished people to take up residence in the town. These included his brother-in-law, General Thomas B. Van Buren, who later became United States Commissioner to the Vienna Exposition and was for many years consul general at Yokohama. General Van Buren's daughter Edith became the Countess Castelmenardo. She occupied the Van Buren home as recently as 1913. The home was on the present site of Volk's Colonial Home on Teaneck Road.
Before the panic of 1873 Phelps formed the Palisade Land Company at Closter. Among the investors in the enterprise, which bought acreage between the Hackensack and the Hudson, were General Grant, President Rutherford B. Hayes, Samuel J. Tilden and General Van Buren. Phelps was continually adding to his holdings in Teaneck, buying up a farm here and a farm there until he owned more than 2,000 acres in the present township. He traveled extensively, and at the height of his career spent much of his time in Europe, but Teaneck was on his mind wherever he went.
He had two absorbing interests--trees and roads. He began planting trees the year after he came to Teaneck and did not stop as long as he lived. In all, he planted 600,000 trees, including some of the handsome copper beeches that grace the town today. At first he had only the help of his coachman, but later engaged experienced nurserymen. He grew 2,000 oaks from acorns, experimented with growing chestnut trees from the nut, and planted 70,000 Norway spruce, 65,000 American elms, and 50,000 white pines.
Vestiges of the Phelps avenues of trees may still be seen here and there in Teaneck. What he called the poplar experiment was an avenue leading from The Grange to the Nordhoff railroad station in Englewood. Lombardy poplars were alternated with laurel-leaved willows and white oaks which produced an effect not equaled in any other portion of the grounds.
Phelps made the most of every dip and rise in the land he owned, planting trees and shrubbery to produce enchanting effects from every angle. Road building went along with tree planting in his plan to surround himself with an estate of unusual beauty. At the time New Jersey's roads were noted for their red mud and deep sand which stalled horse-drawn vehicles. Phelps went to work on the roads on his own property and set out to build public sentiment for road improvement in general. After voters approved what was considered a liberal sum for road improvement, he offered to duplicate any additional sum they would name. He offered to pay a third of the cost of a steam roller, to pay half the expense of dredging the canal which was the main sewer channel, and to pay half the cost of macadamizing Cedar Lane from the track of the West Shore Railroad to the Hackensack River.
On his own property Phelps built thirty miles of road, eight miles being macadamized. The roads all radiated from The Grange. Because his daughter was fond of horseback riding, he cut and widened bridle paths through the woods. He built sixty little bridges of wood and stone just to please the eye. He purchased a stone crusher and located it on the Palisades where the land company had been.
When Phelps came to Teaneck, Cedar Lane Road was a spring-breaking, horse-miring thoroughfare except under the most favorable weather conditions. He widened it, cut down the steep grades, and spread macadam at a cost of $35,000.
Phelps built gate lodges where his private roads intersected public thoroughfares. The lodges were closed for a day or part of a day each year to maintain the legal privacy of his roads. Some of the lodges still exist. There is one at the entrance to Mackay Park in Englewood and another on Lafayette Avenue, just over the Teaneck boundary line in Englewood near East Forest Avenue. Across the street is a former gate lodge, but the carriage entrance has been closed in and it is a private dwelling.
Phelps's fondness for curved roads did not always find favor with owners whose property was being used for curves. Mrs. Kuntze took matters and an axe in her own hands when he decided to make a curving road from The Grange to Red Towers on River Road, where his son lived. When Phelps' employees started rounding off a curve on the Kuntze property (later Clausen's) in the present area of Route 4 and Queen Anne Road, she took an axe and promptly and efficiently squared off her property.
Nothing Phelps did so endeared him to the people of Teaneck and Bergen County as his offer to help when the Bergen County Savings Bank in Hackensack closed in 1880. Because of his poor health, his doctors had advised him to give up activity and travel abroad. He was en route to Italy when he received mail and newspapers from the United States telling of the bank closing. He cabled his New York office to pay immediately all deposits of $100 and under. There were about 1,078 such accounts. The Atlantic Monthly commented thus in its issue of July, 1881:
Leaving the realms of prayer and faith and returning to the palpable ground of good works, we actually have some magnificent charities. When the Bergen Savings Bank failed, Mr. William Walter Phelps, a politician and an office holder, late a member of Congress and now Minister to Austria, paid the small depositors their dues. It is said to have cost $20,000 and from a business point of sight I do not see how it can be justified; but for solid happiness, how can it be surpassed?
Mr. Phelps wasn't fooling when he decided in 1869 to retain the Teaneck farmhouse and add onto it rather than build a new house. Add onto it he did. With the aid of architects he made additions and alterations until in 1886 the building was 350 feet long, varying from 25 to 50 feet in width. He occupied the north room with a fireplace so high a man could stand in it. His bedroom was a platform above this huge room that served as study, office, and workshop. Adjoining this was a large library. The living, dining, and music rooms looked out over the broad park that surrounded the house.
Upstairs were the sleeping rooms and in the basement the billiard room, kitchen, servants' quarters and laundry. The picture gallery at the southwestern end of the building was the final touch to the home that was described as the most pretentious in Bergen County. Hundreds came to call when Phelps held his annual open house on New Year's Day, 1888. There were farmers from Teaneck, men of affairs from New York, political and literary friends from all over. One of the guests paid a flowery tribute to the host. It included these lines:
May his cup o'erflow with health and honor
And may The Grange stand
A fit setting for Bergen's noblest son.
Alas, The Grange did not stand much longer. On April 1, 1888, an explosion in the newly added art gallery with its seventy-five gas jets set the house on fire. Phelps was in Washington at the time. He was notified by telegram; there were no telephones. Messengers summoned Hackensack and Englewood fire departments. A timber at the south end of the art gallery was the only piece of wood left by the fire. It protruded over an iron door that impeded fire fighting efforts. In the spring of 1950 workmen excavating to lay the foundation of the present Police Headquarters dug up an iron door and found what appeared to be a wine cellar. To the workmen's regret, no wine was found. The Phelps Ruin was a spectacle in Teaneck until1925 when the Municipal Building was erected there. Covered with vines and lush growth, the tall chimneys, foundations, and eyeless windows were reminders of past grandeur. Many Teaneck men today who were boys then recall happy hours spent playing in The Ruins.
After viewing what had once been his beautiful homestead, Phelps set out to find a new home. He leased and later bought the house and twenty acres of land across Cedar Lane owned by C. R. Griggs, a New York cotton broker. It is the site today of Holy Name Hospital. In August of that year the stables and all of the outbuildings of The Grange burned. The carriages and such contents of The Grange as had been saved and stored there were also destroyed. Only the horses were saved. Phelps later purchased additional land near the Griggs house so that his farm took in both sides of Cedar Lane and stretched far east of Teaneck Road. His greenhouses were across from the present Municipal Building.
Early in 1889 Phelps was sent as a commissioner to Germany to settle with Prince Bismarck a controversy over Samoa. In September President Harrison appointed him ambassador to Berlin. He served until 1893 when, in failing health, he took a leave of absence. While on vacation he was appointed to a judgeship in New Jersey. He served until the spring of 1894 when his illness -- tuberculosis -- forced him to resign. He died at his Teaneck home on June 15. Services were at the Presbyterian Church of Englewood. Newspapers all over the United States noted his death. Eugene Field wrote: "He was always strong to sustain the weak. Struggling men received from him a helping hand, but his charities were never on parade."
At his death Phelps owned a good half of the present Township of Teaneck. He had planned to open his property to a few selected people who would maintain its exclusive character. His estate was left equally to his widow and three children, providing that his widow could live on the Englewood Farm (as he called the former Griggs property) as long as she cared to. His son, John Jay, headed a group of three executors who were to maintain the property as long as Mrs. Phelps wished it. When on of the executors died, the others, fearing that they might die before Mrs. Phelps, formed the William Walter Phelps Estate in 1917. Sheffield, the second son, died of typhoid fever, leaving minor children. The elder Mrs. Phelps died in 1920, Marian in 1923, and John Jay in 1948 at the age of eighty-seven.