By Ron Leir Observer Correspondent BELLEVILLE – For the 13th straight year, as part of the Independence Day holiday observance, the Belleville Historical Society paid tribute to the Revolutionary War dead interred in the old Dutch Reformed Church cemetery and all the sons of Belleville who made the ultimate sacrifice in combat since then. This year, township residents were treated to a twopart celebration: On July 4, the Belleville Historic Preservation Commission designated the old church building – whose origin as the Reformed Dutch Church of Second River dates from 1697 – as a local landmark. Cemetery ceremonies were deferred to July 5 because of weather vagaries. On Friday, BHPC members, led by Robert Grolimond, installed a temporary plaque at the front entrance to the church which, according to historical accounts, was rebuilt in 1725, 1807 and 1853. For the past three years, it has been occupied by an Hispanic congregation, Iglesia Pentecostal LaSenda Antigua. A permanent bronze plaque, now on order, will be installed at a future date, Grolimond said. The Antonio Iovino family is subsidizing the costs, he added. The church building, whose steeple was used as a lookout during the American War for Independence, is the first structure to be given landmark status by the local commission during its two-decade life, according to Grolimond.
It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. As reported by the lostinjersey website, a legend has grown that tunnels under the church were used by American soldiers “to sneak across the [Passaic] river to scout and attack enemy forces,” but no proof of this exists. The graves of 66 soldiers killed at the Battle of the Second River on Sept. 17, 1777, are in the church cemetery but locals say there may be more buried on the church grounds. Frank G. Godlewski, a Montclair-based architect drawn to the Belleville site “because of the extreme historic value,”said the church is probably one of the first buildings in the fledgling colonies constructed of Belleville brownstone, the supply of which was controlled by the Crane family of the then- Cranetown (later Montclair), and which became a popular building material used in Brooklyn. The present-day church occupants have fallen on hard times, struggling to raise funds to restore a portion of its infrastructure, impacted by the tropical storm Sandy two years ago. Its pastor, the Rev. Miguel Ortiz, said: “So far we’ve raised $14,000 but we need $250,000 so it’s really just a drop in the bucket.” An 8-foot-long wooden cross dangles from the steeple. “Right now, it’s secured but it couldn’t survive another storm,” Ortiz said. Ortiz is hoping that with the attention being called to the church through its landmark status, the church’s fundraising efforts will be reinforced. “In the summer, just about every other day, people come to tour the graveyard,” he said. “It’s a big honor to be part of the town’s history,” Ortiz told the small crowd assembled for the landmark ceremony on Saturday. Sunday’s graveside ceremonies, attended by about 30 residents and guests, were highlighted by the multiple firing of a replica Revolutionary War cannon built by local contractor and Belleville Historic Society (BHS) member Michael Perrone. Participants read a “roll call” of the names of the 66 soldiers interred there, recited excerpts from the Declaration of Independence and laid a wreath at the George Washington monument.
In an interview with The Observer, Perrone recalled that when the BHS launched the annual observance in 2002, it was “held on the sidewalk” and “we placed a wreath on the chain-link fence” because “we couldn’t get into the cemetery – it was abandoned – the weeds were five to six feet tall.” So BHS volunteers undertook a two-year cleanup, removing 20 truckloads of debris and restoring some 40 tombstones that had fallen over and many obelisks that had toppled from pedestals. One of the buried tombstones, Perrone said, was from the grave of Capt. Henry Benson, a Civil War artillery unit commander killed at the Battle of Malvern Hill in Virginia in 1862. “When he was buried, it was the township’s first military funeral – it was the biggest thing people had ever seen.” Perhaps the cemetery’s most famous occupant, Perrone said, is Josiah Hornblower, a British native who resettled in America and who is credited with building the first steam engine in the U.S. in 1795. “Because of a British technology embargo, parts for the engine had to be smuggled into the country,” Perrone noted. A section of that first engine is displayed at the Smithsonian, he said. Hornblower served as a noncombatant captain during the French and Indian War and was appointed a New Jersey delegate to the Continental Congress. He died in 1809. Hornblower’s son Joseph was killed in the Revolutionary War in a battle in the present Union County. “It’s an honor to work here and do this,” Perrone said. “Where else can you go and have this kind of history and culture?”