History of Essex County, NJ
Written by: Essex County, 2011
The recorded history of Essex County begins in 1666, when 30 Connecticut families headed by Robert Treat arrived to establish a settlement along the banks of the Passaic River in what is now the City of Newark. The following year the settlers purchased the land from the Lenni Lenape Indians for $800.00.
Essex County was officially established in 1682 by the East Jersey Legislature as one of the four original counties of present day New Jersey (Bergen, Monmouth and Middlesex were the others.) By the time of the American Revolution, Essex County had become quite prosperous. After the war, the Country entered into a period of unprecedented industrial growth. This was due in part to the completion of the New Jersey Railroad, the Morris Canal, and the establishment of the Morris and Essex Railroad. Factories that grew up around the rail and canal arteries drew waves of immigrants from Europe and the population began to swell.
In 1895, Essex County became the first County in the United States to create a Countywide park system. That year, the Governor of New Jersey signed legislation creating the Essex County Parks Commission and the first 60 acres of land were acquired from the City of Newark as the beginning of Branch Brook Park. The Parks Commissioners had the foresight to retain Frederick Law Olmsted, the creator of New York’s Central Park, to design 20 of Essex County’s 25 parks and reservations. Those first 60 acres have grown into 5,745 acres of green space which include vast reservations, developed parks, golf courses, tennis courts, ice and roller skating complexes and a zoo.
The “roaring 20’s” was a decade of growth and prosperity, particularly with the construction of Newark’s first skyscrapers and the development of the building trades industry. Newark Airport was opened, Port Newark came into being, and the Newark City Subway was under construction. It was also at this time that many of the County’s boroughs and townships experienced major development and expansion and those early suburban shopping centers were begun.
The stock market crash of 1929, along with the enforcement of prohibition, temporarily crippled the thriving economy of Essex. But with the repeal of prohibition, the reopening of many major breweries and the gradual national recovery, Essex began to grow once again.
The central section of the County, once known as the “trolley car suburbs”, grew rapidly after the turn of the century when trolley lines were built to carry workers from industrial Newark to the less crowded outlying towns of Irvington, East Orange, Orange and Bloomfield. Commuter railroads which passed through Newark carried commuters to Manhattan from suburban towns such as South Orange, Maplewood, Millburn, Glen Ridge and Montclair.
Development of the western section of the County was slowed because of the difficulty and expense of crossing First and Second Mountains. However, the demand for modern industrial development and new residential spaces forced development to the west. With the completion of Route 280, communities such as Livingston, Fairfield, Roseland, Cedar Grove, Essex Fells and the Caldwells become the County’s fastest growing communities. Residents of the western section enjoy modern homes and shopping malls as well as room for further development and expansion.
New industrial and professional office parks, hi-tech centers, and luxury condominiums and townhouses in the western portion of the County provide an attractive setting along with an expanding tax ratable base.
Since its inception, Essex County has been the industrial and financial hub of New Jersey. Countywide, total real property values now exceed $36 billion with an annual growth in 1996 of $78 million. With the opening in 1997 of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, Essex will rival New York City as a cultural center for music and dance showcasing the nation’s and the world’s best artists. A County-sponsored baseball and soccer stadium complex will bring minor league baseball back to Essex County in the 1998 season.
With Newark International Airport and Port Newark located within its borders, Essex County is a major national transportation hub with a superior network of rail, highway, and air and sea transportation and is home to one of the world’s largest containerized shipping ports.
Today Essex County, with 21 municipalities ranging over 127 square miles and a total population of 765,348, is New Jersey’s second most populous County. The Essex County economy continues to shift from a manufacturing base to a service oriented economy and many corporate giants as PSE&G, Bell Atlantic, ADP, and Prudential have their headquarters located in Essex County.