My article “An Island Adventure in New Jersey’s Capital,” originally published in September, 2016, is still making waves, and I appeared as a guest at the January 18 Trenton Rotary Club to speak about the Trenton islands in the Delaware River, especially Rotary Island. The club had owned the island and operated a camp on it during the first half of the 20th century.
But I wasn’t alone. With me was Leonard Pope, 74, who as a young boy had lived on the island with his caretaker parents, Arthur and Grace Pope, until 1950.
“I’m the last living person who remembers living on (Rotary) Island,” Pope told me when he called after the article had appeared in both U.S. 1 and the Ewing Observer newspapers in 2017.
Pope told the Rotary members about his days on the island and the house with “a living room and kitchen combination. There were two bedrooms and bathrooms — heated by wood.”
He says the family had electrical lines from the mainland and remembers water coming out of the taps. He also recalls that the house was served by a septic tank.
Asked about living there during the winter and storms, Pope, who moved when he was nearly seven says, “When you’re a kid, it’s all an adventure. It was fantastic.”
Then it was over in an instant: December 5, 1950, at 1:30 a.m. to be exact. During the winter, Pope’s father would take a night job at the Trenton Oyster Crackers Company. To return home he would park his panel truck on the road across from the river and honk his car horn to alert his wife to turn on a spotlight. He would then board “a flat bottomed barge run by cables” extended between the mainland and the island. But on that cold night, Pope says his father “pushed off and sat down, and then the cable snapped and hit him in the head. He was dead before he hit the water. They didn’t find his body until the spring. (My stepmother) saw the whole thing.”
The family was taken off the island immediately and was unable to retrieve the photographs and other personal belongings soon lost to a flood. Now retired from the Trenton Police Department and a Vietnam War veteran, Pope says, “I haven’t been out there since that day. It was quite an adventure living out there.”
During the luncheon Rotarian George Pearson, a Lawrenceville architect, suggested I search for a copy of the 1970 book “History of the Trenton Rotary Club 1914-1969” and look up the section on Rotary Island.
Since I had missed any reference of this book during my research on the islands’ history, I was intrigued.
A week later Trentoniana librarian Laura Poll found it in a storage area box and shared it with me. Like Leonard Pope, the book is filled with details about the island.
The chapter starts by putting the island in geographical and geological perspective: three miles above the mouth of the Assunpink Creek, banks covered by wooded areas, a third of a mile level surface of 15 feet above the usual surface of the river, and a maximum width of 400 feet.
Its upper and western sides figure in Trenton’s boundaries and while Rotary Island is closer to the Pennsylvania shore, a New Jersey and Pennsylvania joint commission founded in 1785 said it should go to New Jersey because a deeper and more used channel was closer to the Pennsylvania shore.
What interested me from the start of the island investigation was ownership and use of the islands. And the Rotary chapter by Herbert B. Butcher provided the information: “Before the Revolution, it is said, the island was first used as a common pasture for cattle of various farmers. By the year 1755, a man named William Logan occupied the island and then Joseph White lived there and farmed it. After he died about 1816, various owners cultivated ‘White’s island’ eking out an existence here, probably aided by the abundance of fish in the Delaware, and braved the flood waters which, on one or two occasions, just covered the island.”
Butcher says a canoe club formed in Trenton by 20 men in 1889, with “each declaring himself of good character and at least a fair swimmer.” They purchased the island for $1,700 (approximately $44,000 in today’s currency), incorporated in the year 1900, and issued 200 shares of stock at a face value each of $50 ($1,700 today).
The members and their families camped there, referring to their streets of tents as Fifth Avenue. Unmarried members were relegated to a section of the island dubbed “the slums.” Everyone shared a club house with a stone fireplace, furnishings, and a piano.
Members included influential civic leader and restaurateur Edmund C. Hill, who owned over half the stocks, and Fred Donnelly, who became the mayor of Trenton.
By 1908 — with the public’s interest in canoeing waning and the club experiencing an operations deficit — talk moved to using the island for some public good. One idea was that it could be used as a health resort for children affected by tuberculosis. Area businessman, Rotarian, and secretary of the canoeing association William B. Maddock seized the idea and engaged a group of business members to purchase the island.
The group purchased the island, involved the Rotary Club to operate the finances, changed the island’s name to Rotary Island, and saw the island deeded to the Rotary Club by 1927.
Meanwhile, writes Butcher, “the island was put to use as it had never before witnessed. From the summer of 1918 through 1942, the Mercer County Health League operated a summer camp for poor and anemic children. The first year, the organization, then known as the Mercer County Tuberculosis and Sanitation League, sent 116 children for two weeks of regulated camp life on the island. This activity was spread over six weeks.”
The running of the camp was in the hands of this permanent, year-around organization to fight tuberculosis with fresh air, sunlight, wholesome diet, proper exercise, and rest.
Another factor facing children in Trenton was the air. As Butcher writes, in addition to soot, acrid and noxious fumes often spread over the city and that even the rain had an acid quality.
“The whole community was behind the project,” writes Butcher about providing health for Trenton’s children. “It was said, for example, over 100 women’s organizations in the county helped toward its support. Most of the money for the operation of the camp came from public subscriptions, from the sale of Christmas stamps and from the proceeds of tag day solicitations.”
Butcher writes that the first island dormitory was erected in 1919 and improvements followed annually with the help of the local Red Cross. “Building materials were supplied by the dealers and the members of the trade unions erected the buildings on weekends and at other times. The plumbers extended the water system. Masons worked on the foundations and the whole construction received attention of skilled craftsmen,” writes Butcher.
More dormitories worked and during the depression when unemployment was high, organizers found ways “to get more things done on the island. The buildings were put in good condition and, for the first time, wired for electric lights; wires, poles and fixtures were donated; the Philadelphia Electric Company furnished the insulators and made the connection with their system,” writes Butcher.
In 1933 a new cable, donated by the Roebling company, replaced the tree attached cables with those anchored securely in concrete and steel by Trenton bridge engineer Albert Bugbee. The Leigh Coal Company supplied a new scow (or barge) that traveled on the suspension cable.
Meanwhile, strides had been made in treating and eliminating tuberculosis, and in 1943 the league declined to continue to operate the camp — for which the Rotary provided the land and covered whatever property-related costs were needed. Additionally, war time shortages of personnel and resources impeded operations.
A Rotary committee attempted to find the best way to keep the island operating with projects run by the Rescue Mission and support by the Community Chest. But the Mission did not want to invest in the property, and a church group that followed decided to create a camp elsewhere. The sun set on Rotary Island.
As Butcher notes at the end of the section, “The island over a period of 35 years under Rotary auspices had harbored 7,000 or more young people each for at least a week in an invigorating atmosphere during which time it became a landmark in their memories. Now it fell into disuse largely because of the general improvements in transportation facilities and so, when the great flood came in August, 1955, there were no campers on it to be swept away by the inundation. On March 4, 1966, the island was sold by the Rotary Club and proceeds used to establish a trust fund for charitable purposes. It amounts to $67,000.”
But as two codas to the story show, that is not all.
As Diccon Hyatt wrote in the January 3, 2018, issue of U.S. 1, “When the Trenton Rotary Club sold Rotary Island in the 1960s it used the money to establish a college scholarship program for local students. But last year the scholarship, which pays $2,500 a year for four years, went unclaimed due to lack of applicants.”
And there was a moment after the recent Club Meeting. I asked Leonard Pope to take a ride with me to the spot where his father died 68 years ago.
There we stood on a winter afternoon next to the river and the cable that connected him to the island — and where his life was changed forever. A photograph captures the moment — and a piece of Trenton history.