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Camp Merritt Monument

Foundations of America

QU201 Prof. Scott Leone

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Camp Merritt Monument

New Jersey PalisadesThe historical Stony Creek granite has been used in some of the most famous landmarks all over New York City, New Jersey and New England.  They Include the Statue of Liberty, Columbia University and the Brooklyn Bridge. One of the lesser known locations for the famous granite is across the river on the Camp Merritt Monument located in Cresskill New Jersey. 
Camp Merritt, for which the monument was built, was located in several towns that are now part of Bergen County, New Jersey.  They include, Cresskill, Demarest, Tenafly, Dumont and Bergenfield.  It spanned over 770 acres and was the largest embarkation camp in the United States during World War 1.  The camp was named for the famous civil war cavalry officer, Wesley Merritt, 1836-1910.  This is not the same Merritt who the Merritt parkway in Connecticut was named for.  After the civil war Wesley Merritt went on to fight in the Indian wars and became a superintendent at West Point.  He was eventually promoted to major general and led troops in the capture of Manila during the Spanish American War.  Although this was the end of his military career in war, he went on to become the first military governor of the Philippines.  Finally he would serve as commander of the department of the east until he retired in the year 1900.
Plans for the construction of Camp Merritt began around the time of the Spanish American War.  Before the camp was built, soldiers were assembling in Sea Girt, NJ because of its easy access to the water.  The federal government began looking for a place where it could build a camp to mobilize 50,000 troops.  The upper part of the palisades in Bergen County was a perfect place because of its proximity to New York Harbor and high ridges for rifle ranges.  On May 10th of 1898 General Miles sent Lieutenant Mott, who was part of Merritt’s staff to report on the advisability of using the brow of the Palisades to build their camp.  However because the Spanish American war was so short the plans were never carried through, until the start of World War 1 brought new life to the project.  Hoboken, NJ was where troops would board the boats on their way to France, and the government needed an embarkation camp nearby.  In July of 1917, Brigadier General William Wright, Commanding General of the Port of Embarkation selected a site at the intersection of Grand Ave and Knickerbocker road in Cresskill NJ, that would become the center of Camp Merritt. 
 Construction began in September of 1917 and the primary engineers were MacArthur Brothers Company of New York.  The camp was to be an extensive project and they were given a contract of 5 million dollars to build it.  In total 1,302 building were built to house, equip and mobilize 50,000 men at a time.  The buildings included 611 two story wooded barracks that could hold 66 soldiers each.  The camp also included  189 lavatories, 165 mess halls; 44 barracks for officers’ quarters; 27 administration buildings; 39 warehouses; 15 post offices; 4 fire stations; 5 garages; 93 hospitals, and 94 auxiliary buildings, a motor repair shop, and a refrigerator plant.  The construction was not done there; 14 miles of paved roads were needed to be built as well as 11 miles of water lines.  The camp required 267 miles of electrical line, 1,029 electric poles and a sewage plant connected by 12.5 miles of pipe.  Maybe most important of all, a connector rail line was created and allowed troops to take the train from the camp to Hoboken.  The troops that didn’t take the railroad would have to take the trip up to the famous Alpine landing, in Alpine NJ.  They would continue down the steep and dangerous cliffs of the palisades where they were picked up by boat to be brought to the larger troopships in Hoboken.  This was the same route that the British used during the American Revolution as they tried to capture George Washington’s army and eventually Fort Lee.  The current town of Fort Lee, NJ was named after that fort and located in that same spot on the palisades.  The town of Fort Lee is also where the George Washington Bridge is located today.
The camp not only contained vast military equipment but had almost all the amenities that a person would ever need or want.  There was an open air theater that could hold around 2,500 people, where the enlisted men could perform and attend shows.  There were also plenty of athletics at the camp.  This included 30 baseball teams, 15 basketball teams, football, tennis, squash and track athletics.  The camp had a school for bakers and cooks with 164 kitchens that were available to them.  There were 14 post offices, 7 tailor shops, and a 24 chair barber shop which earned an amazing 2,250,000 dollars during its time running.  Using some of the revenue from their theatre productions some of the troops were allowed to organize a two day trip to Coney Island so that the soldiers could enjoy the beach and amusements.  Also the camp would combine Mother’s Day and Arbor Day into a huge celebration with fireworks, a competitive baseball game and other athletic competitions.  These were just a few of the luxuries that the soldiers got to enjoy for a few days before being sent off to risk their lives and face the horrors of war.   
The first troops began to arrive at camp Merritt in August of 1917 before the construction had even begun.  They were housed in an old racetrack that is now Northern Valley Regional High School.  Between November of 1917 and November of 1918, 578,566 soldiers would pass through camp Merritt on their way to Europe.  16,052 out of the 578,566 were officers.  One of those officers was then future president Harry S. Truman.  He arrived at Camp Merritt on March 23rd of 1918 from Oklahoma and was a Captain with 129th field Artillery.  He was only there for 5 days and by March 28th he was already on his way to France aboard the USS George Washington.  Other famous people who passed through camp Merritt were Alvin C. York, the famous Medal of Honor winner, Hank Gowdy a player for the Boston Braves and the first Major League baseball player to enlist and Thomas C. Neibaur who was the first Mormon to win the Medal of Honor.  One of the bravest soldiers to pass through camp Merritt was a man by the name of George L. Fox.  After serving in the Ambulance Corps he was awarded a Purple Heart and Silver Star.  After the war he became a Methodist Minister only to reenlist again in World War II.  After giving up his life jacket to safe soldiers lives during the sinking of the USAT Dorchester he was awarded his second Purple art and the Distinguished Service Cross. 
The Influenza epidemic that was happening all around the world at the time also hit the soldiers in the war and those stationed at Camp Merritt and other military camps.  The epidemic was so rampant that more people died in the influenza epidemic of 1918 than died in World War I.  The virus infected about 500 million people or around one third of the world population, but not everyone died from it.  Around 16 million people were killed during the war, while 50 million were killed by influenza which was about three percent of the entire world population.  The virus eventually spread to New Jersey and the epidemic started at Camp Merritt on September 19th with 58 soldiers and continued to spread.  Within 3 weeks there were 999 infected, 265 dead and a 26.5 % mortality rate.  Because the epidemic got out of control many of the soldiers were sent to nearby Englewood Hospital which was a civilian hospital outside of the camp.
Eventually after the war had ended, on March 21st 1919 the war department announced that 27 camps would be abandoned, including Camp Merritt.  The camp was only used again when the Secretary of War gave a speech on Memorial Day in 1919 to 25,000 troops.  Camp Merritt was officially closed in late January of 1920 as the last troops returned from overseas on January 26th.  The Harris brothers firm of Chicago was given a contract of $552,554 to dismantle the camp.  Many of the building left standing were lost to fire in the years to come after the war.  The land that was used was sold off or returned to individuals who had leased it to the government.  Even the railroad station were soldiers boarded the train to Hoboken was lost to fire in November of 1970.
At 11 Am on May 30th 1924 the Camp Merritt Monument was dedicated by General of the Armies John J. Pershing.  The monument was placed at the intersection of Grand Ave and Knickerbocker road in Cresskill NJ, which was the geographical center of the former camp and the same place where Brigadier General William Wright, had originally selected to build the camp.  The monument is 65 feet tall and is made entirely of the famous pink Stony Creek Granite.  The monument was built by the Harrison Granite company of New York with pink granite from one of the Stony Creek Granite Quarries in Branford Connecticut.  Inscribed on the monument are the names of 558 enlisted men, as well 4 nurses and 1 civilian.  At the base there is also a sculpting of a helmeted soldier done by the famous artist Robert Aitken whose most famous work includes the West Pediment of the United States Supreme Court Building located in Washington DC.
In conclusion although Camp Merritt only stood for about 3 years, its service to the military during World War I was invaluable.  Today the vast area that was once one of the largest military camps in the country can hardly be recognized.  It has been absorbed by the surrounding community and transformed into average suburban communities.  Today only the monument stands as a reminder of the importance of a camp that over a million soldiers passed through in only 3 years. 

Last Updated on Saturday, 06 November 2010 11:55  


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