Mrs. Ormsbee saves her family

As anyone who has lived in or near the Pequannock valley knows, we get floods from time to time. The convergence of three rivers makes it inevitable whenever there is prolonged and copious rain. I’ll write a post on several infamous floods at some point, but this post is about a flood that took place in April 1927, and a young mother, camping out in a riverside bungalow in Pompton Plains, who rescued her family from one.

I can’t match the breathless writing of this newspaper article, so I’ll just post it. Click on each image for a full-sized and readable version. I’ve added my comments afterward.

Part One of this incredible tale. Click to open full-sized image.

Pretty incredible, right? Imagine you’re in the middle of nowhere (Pequannock Twp was a lightly-populated village at this point), sleeping soundly in what was probably a one-room bungalow right on the river. You are awakened by odd sounds, you swing your legs off the bed and… into knee-deep water.

Since the article only calls her “Mrs. Ormsbee”, I took to the Ancestry website and discovered that her name was AliceShe was born Alice Miller in Beacon NY in 1900. She was 24 at the time this happened. With her was her mother (age unknown, but likely in her 40s) and her two young children, a son aged two and four-month-old daughter.


Part Two of this incredible tale. Click to open full-sized image.

So: It’s the middle of the night, it’s raining , your cabin is flooding, and it’s pitch black outside because the power is out. She leads her mother and two very young kids through the darkness to the bridge, hoping to get to the main road, only to find herself falling into the river because half the bridge is gone. She grabs a canoe and gets her family into it, and they all endure a night of terror until they’re rescued in the morning.

(The article notes she was “embarrassed by their clothing” likely because they were in their night clothes, and didn’t stop to get dressed.)

But what an incredibly brave young woman, at a time when women were widely regarded as kind of helpless, and weren’t expected to do or know much. Her two-year-old son, Roland, because a doctor and died in 1995. I don’t know when or where Alice passed, but I’ve reached out to someone who has her in his family tree. Perhaps I’ll learn more.

“Remember the Maine!”

The intersection of the Paterson-Hamburg Turnpike and Wanaque Avenue, in Pompton Lakes, has featured several noteworthy structures. Here’s one of them.

During the Revolutionary War, a house known as the Yellow Tavern stood close by the intersection where the present-day Federal Square memorial now stands, on a triangle of land. The tavern welcomed visitors on their journeys throughout north NJ, including General George Washington and his officers and men. It was razed about 1890 “to permit the changing [widening] of the roads,” as an old manuscript put it. (The house that replaced it, much later known as the Ramapo Valley House, survived… but that’s another post.)

The Yellow Tavern, from an 18th Century drawing.

A memorial consisting of a cannon (Civil War, perhaps?), a stack of cannonballs, and a “liberty pole” topped by an American flag, stood upon the triangle of land at the historic intersection until 1914, when a town memorial was dedicated on the site, on Labor Day, to honor several Pompton Lakes residents who lost their lives when the U.S.S. Maine exploded in Cuba’s Havana Harbor on February 15, 1898. This tragedy cost 260 American lives and later led to the Spanish-American War of 1898.

The site was used as a war memorial for many years before the Maine memorial was erected. Click for full-sized image.

Consisting of a raised round platform and a fieldstone-and-concrete tower, the monument on the triangle — also known, for some reason, as Federal Square — “contains a copper ventilator from the Maine battleship. The ventilator was transported to Pompton Lakes by Harry Hershfield, a Pompton Lakes Mayor who went on to become a state Senator.” As you can see in the photo below, the existing memorial was incorporated into the design, and a chain was draped around the raised platform.

This photo was taken about 1918. Click for full-sized image.
The plaque on the memorial, in honor of the local members of the Council of the Jr. Order of the United American Mechanics. Click for full-sized image.

Since then, many cosmetic changes have been made to the memorial site, which now features nice greenery and a historic marker denoting the site of “Washington’s Headquarters”. The origin the cannon was forgotten long ago, and the pile of cannonballs disappeared at some point. Two memorial stones honor the dead of World War I, World War II, and the Korean War. A flagpole flies the American flag and, below, a POW/MIA flag in memory of those who served in the Vietnam War.

The Pompton Lakes Liberty Bell was presented to the borough in 1957 by the Pompton Lakes Elks Club. Click for full-sized image.

And so the Maine monument at Federal Square has remained, nearly untouched, although time is taking a toll.


The copper ventilator, unprotected from the elements, has been slowly disappearing over the past century. Click for full-sized image.

Why is this article titled “Remember the Maine!” ? The actual cause of the explosion will likely never be known, but the theory that a Spanish mine in the harbor was the reason she sank (never mind that she was riding at anchor) caught fire with the press:

[P]opular opinion in the U.S., fanned by inflammatory articles printed in the “yellow press” by William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, blamed Spain. The phrase, “Remember the Maine! To hell with Spain!”, became a rallying cry for action, which came with the Spanish–American War later that year. While the sinking of Maine was not a direct cause for action, it served as a catalyst, accelerating the approach to a diplomatic impasse between the U.S. and Spain.

Wikipedia

Later investigations would plausibly suggest that the explosion was more likely caused by a magazine explosion within the vessel, possibly caused by a coal fire.