Alpha, New Jersey: The town the freeway DIDN’T destroy.

Stretching 144 miles from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to the Holland Tunnel just outside Manhattan, Interstate 78 is hardly among the longer limited-access highways in the country. And, while certainly busy, I’d imagine plenty other freeways out there link a greater number of major population centers than I-78. Elsewhere in New Jersey, the Turnpike unquestionably carries a far greater traffic volume. Truth be told, it’s hard to think of anything distinct or remarkable about I-78. And even the segment I’m about to analyze is no great shakes. But the fact remains that, just to the east of the Delaware River that forms the boundary between Pennsylvania and New Jersey, the path of this freeway makes an unusual turn—literally.

 

map1See it? Essentially the road creates a U shape when the more logical trajectory would have been a straight line, thereby adding at least two miles to the road’s length. So why did the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) design this strange bypass? A closer zoom might help explain.map2This time, I’ve added Google Maps’ red outline to emphasize the key municipality affected here. What we’re witnessing is, as is obvious by now, the Borough of Alpha.

The serene municipality of approximately 2,300 seems to lack any sordid details in the past that would give it a colorful history. Quite simply, it was a company town, and even though the cement industry that spawned its growth shuttered generations ago, the municipality has held steady thanks to its proximity to larger economic centers: specifically Phillipsburg, NJ and Easton, PA, which together comprise the eastern edge of the Lehigh Valley region (whose largest two cities are Allentown and Bethlehem, both in Pennsylvania). Alpha is close to a lot of things—it is in New Jersey after all—yet it still feels much like a rural town.

As the official website for the Borough of Alpha indicates, the area owes its settlement almost completely to enterprise. A.B. Bonneville, an Allentown resident passing through the area in 1891, noted the quality of limestone deposits and decided to set up a cement factory in the area. He founded what eventually became the Alpha Cement Company in 1895, and his business quickly attracted recent immigrant families that clustered around the business.  Shortly thereafter, Bonneville left his company and founded another cement manufacturer, called Vulcanite, on the other side of this settlement.  Within ten years, the community had calcified enough to warrant disaffiliation from the surrounding rural Pohatcong Township, and the State of New Jersey incorporated the Borough of Alpha in 1911.  To this day, some locals refer to the different sides of town as “Alpha” and “Vulcanite”, though the plants have been closed for about a century.

Unfortunately, I limited my photos of Alpha to a restricted but compelling district. That said, the area strikes me as distinct for two key characteristics: 1) its settlement and incorporation at the turn of the 20th century is uncharacteristically late for a state like New Jersey (it’s a young town); 2) Alpha is astonishingly lacking in any real commercial node. Despite the fact that it sits less than a mile from the much larger city of Phillipsburg, and a streetcar once connected the two communities, Alpha lacks any evidence of a mixed-use district where passengers would disembark. There’s no downtown, no main street, not even a real intersection. This Google Street View of a strip mall offers the highest concentration of commercial facilities in the borough. Besides this, scattered auto-oriented uses in the periphery comprise the extent of commercial activity. Alpha may have owed its origins on an industry (which apparently closed by World War I), but today it’s a bedroom community in the fullest sense of the word.

It would be unreasonable for me to postulate that these characteristics had any bearing on the FHWA’s decision to bypass Alpha in the path of I-78. Clearly, in this case, the planners chose an inefficient serpentine path, despite the inevitably greater construction costs over a beeline trajectory. Why would they do this? Usually, it’s because of topography. While much of the Delaware River Valley is quite hilly, the terrain does not pose any great challenges around Alpha. Another reason could be the greater cost of land of going through an urbanized area. While land values in Alpha are probably greater than the surrounding farmsteads, they’re nowhere near as high as if Alpha had a high concentration of commercial properties, or if it were a particularly affluent community. (Alpha is resolutely middle class.) Besides, many of the earliest limited-access highways careened right through urban downtowns, so the earliest architects didn’t let population density deter them.

So what’s the reason for the bypass? Could the planners have avoided this borough of 2,300 when designing I-78 because of a specific feature unique to Alpha? I’m going out on a limb here, but let’s zoom in just a bit further to that Google Map.map3Notice that patch of green immediately to the right of the word “Alpha” on the map. Want to guess what it is?IMG_3831It’s a sizable cemetery. Cemeteries, to be frank. I couldn’t confirm exactly how many there are, but at least two. Here’s another label on essentially the same plot of land.IMG_3818So Catholic and Presbyterian. That’s all fine and well, but then there’s a third.IMG_3819This is the clincher: it’s the unmistakable cross of an Eastern Orthodox church—a far less common sight than the other two Christian expressions. But not so rare here in Alpha. The Orthodox cross appears in multiple incarnations throughout this hybrid house of eternal rest.Alpha NJ Orthodox Cemetery

IMG_3828

While Ukrainian, Russian, and other Eastern Orthodox faiths are a relatively rare sight in much of the country, they’re fairly easy to spot in eastern Pennsylvania and Western New Jersey. More specifically, these faiths align strongly with the immigrant groups that Alpha originally attracted. Per the Alpha website, these included Hungarian, Slovak and Italian arrivals. And judging from the last names, the ethnicities intermingled quite fondly in the afterlife, jettisoning cultural differences to capitalize on limited real estate in the borough’s only dedicated space for a cemetery.IMG_3817IMG_3820IMG_3823IMG_3829

I have no idea if the FHWA ever proposed to plow I-78 right through Alpha. But it sure looks like, judging from the unusual path, that the bypass to the south of Alpha was a last-minute decision. And if they did originally propose a path right through the borough, the very odds that it could disrupt a sacred space would help galvanize opposition to this plan. Meanwhile, the chances that such a proposal would affect the burial ground of virtually all the historic immigrant ethnicities in Alpha could strengthen the remonstrators’ case even further. Putting religious differences aside, they’d unite in defeating such a proposal. Urban, rural, suburban or small town, cemeteries fall under particularly high preservationist and archeological scrutiny when construction involves earth disturbance.IMG_3827IMG_3825If I-78 had taken the beeline approach, it would have installed a huge chasm that would separate Alpha and the much larger Phillipsburg to the north. Freeways are chasms, whether urban or rural. They rarely confer a net benefit to the previously quiet residential lands nearby. Home values plunge. In the ideal world, the planners and engineers who constructed this strange, curvy path conducted a cost-benefit analysis, assessing the added price for extra lane miles of freeway through the U-shaped path, versus the inevitable loss of property value to the formerly quiet communities of Alpha and Phillipsburg.

In this case, Alpha won. Opposition prevailed, defeating the Robert Moses mentality of freeway construction (i.e., the quickest way from A to B). Whether because of a cemetery, a well-organized Orthodox contingent, a sinkhole, or general public disdain for high-speed vehicle sewers, Alpha is all that much stronger for this decision. Or it may be that planners and engineers simply knew better. Throughout the late 1950s and1960s, freeway design went right to the heart of town, aiming to revitalize ailing downtowns by improving their access from the suburbs. (It didn’t work.) But, like the Borough of Alpha, I-78 was a late bloomer; only a few segments operated in the 1970s, and the bulk of construction work took place in the late 1980s. By this point, not only were planners well aware of the ineffectiveness of plowing right through a town, but concerned citizens knew how to organize to defeat such a path. The result? Alpha and Phillipsburg both survive. And so do hundreds of graves in a distinctive cemetery, with Italian surnames next to German Palatines, Slovaks next to Magyars.

30 thoughts on “Alpha, New Jersey: The town the freeway DIDN’T destroy.

  1. dixie dugan white

    But there’s no problem tearing up Native American burial sites for pipelines, highways, mine development. Hhhmmm.
    (patdugan@hotmail.com)

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Hi Dixie, thanks for writing, and sorry for my delay. It’s always interesting to see where activism helps bring in the government–or keep it out–as is preferred by the local population. Clearly, after centuries of serious injustices, Native Americans have enjoyed protections and far greater territorial sovereignty in the last 75 or so years than they before that. We now have examples like the Taos Pueblo of sites that the U.S. Government actively helps to preserve. But it doesn’t always work that way.

      As you noted, in contrast, we get the heated protests at Standing Rock, which I’ll admit I haven’t followed as closely as I should, but it seems more like a 21st century reinvention of the ribbons of highways that plowed through low-income neighborhoods in the 1960s and 70s. My home state of Indiana recently experienced an extension of the I-69 interstate from Evansville to Indianapolis, across state parks and some of the most environmentally sensitive area, as well as some threatened Amish farms. I’m only speculating on what happened in Alpha–it would be great to know if the cemeteries helped spare the town from the freeway.

      Reply
  2. Wanderer

    Interesting. This reminds me a bit of Colma, California, a few miles south of San Francisco. There’s a cluster of cemeteries there, removed from San Francisco in the 1930’s, I believe. There are two freeways that go through Colma, but they both manage to avoid the cemeteries.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Thanks for the observation, Wanderer. I had never heard of Colma, but it sounds fascinating–it was intended to serve as a necropolis all along. And it looks like the highway just skirts the western side of the municipal limits. And, judging from the fact that it has several successful shopping centers, I’d imagine Colma has no problem providing municipal services…

      Reply
        1. AmericanDirt Post author

          Thanks for the link, Brian. Interesting to see how shifting tastes–and how those tastes might have intersected with real estate interests in eternally space-constrained San Francisco–resulted in a place like Colma. Time will only tell if cremation is a fad or a permanent cultural response to the rising cost of conventional burial. If, in the future, we ever get nostalgic about how we used to bury our dead (much like nostalgia breeds revivals of other past trends–vinyl records anyone?), it is likely to come with a much steeper price tag than it did in 1880.

          Reply
  3. Chris B

    Think of Kokomo, Indiana, where the state DOT just completed a “bypass bypass”.

    Back in the 60s they built a highway with traffic lights around the east side of the city. Then came the mall and sprawl, and lo the bypass was too congested and slow to serve the trucks from the industries that had located along it.

    So in INDOT’s continuing quest to turn US31 into an interstate-grade highway from Indy to South Bend, they built a new limited access bypass (which they should have done the first time). But they didn’t convert the original bypass to limited access…all those strip mall parking lots and outlots were too valuable to take, and apparently Chrysler and Delco plants formed a bottleneck, so they plowed through farmland a couple more miles out.

    End result? The “interstate” bends around the town almost exactly the same way. Not because of a cemetery, but because the sprawl was too “valuable” to build a highway through.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Interesting, Chris. I’ve only been to Kokomo once, just a few years ago, and I did notice the two parallel highways. But it never occurred to me that it was built out of a lack of foresight the first time around. Now that you’re mentioning it though, of course that’s what happened…

      Who knows how much longer the shopping along S.R. 931 (the original bypass) will remain viable? What a dire sight that could be, if the original bypass ends up becoming just as fast-moving as the limited-access road, since all the “sprawl” themed businesses have failed, thereby eliminating any congestion.

      Reply
      1. Chris B

        Exactly my point. Sprawlmart will have to move out to the new edge in a few years.

        (While the city revitalizes the old downtown.)

        Reply
  4. Brian M

    Chris B: Sounds exactly like U.S. 30 and Coliseum Blvd in Fort Wayne, now bypassed by the massive loop road I 469 which swings way to the east. Not sure you can even tie it to land speculation all that much, as most of the surrounding land bypassed in resolutely rural.

    The sheer ugliness of Coliseum Blvd (which has faded over the decades as Fort Wayne basically stagnated) inspired my interest in urban design and city planning. 🙂

    Reply
    1. Chris B

      Common denominator: INDOT 😉

      I wasn’t suggesting land speculation, only commenting that in Indiana, it didn’t require a town center or a cemetery to re-route a highway. Even disposable and not-so-nice aging strip malls, outlots, and parking lots are too valuable/expensive for INDOT to take (in the 5th Amendment “takings” sense).

      Reply
  5. Catherine Procita

    Thanks for this story! My family moved to Alpha from Italy in the late 1800’s. I have many relatives buried in St. Mary’s cemetery. My hometown, my family, my memories! My family are still living in Alpha! Im in near by Phillipsburg. I have lived in Easton, Harrisburg, and Scranton, PA. I lived in south Jersey. I always end up back home.

    Reply
  6. Toni Mathews

    I too am an Alphanite been out of town for maybe a year and a half in my 49 yrs. This town even though its small we are like a close knit family. Most of us went to school from k through 8th grade together and most still live in this town. I myself do not see myself anywhere else

    Reply
  7. Val (Eureyecko) Mamrak Colbeth

    My grandparents and Aunts and Uncles are buried in the Slovak cemetery . Alpha is a Great place and the memories of all the souls buried there are priceless, I visit often and I am very proud of my heritage. Thankfully it’s there, for whatever reason the highway didn’t come that way so be it. Great article always nice seeing a part of history and why or how it started. May all those people who are buried there Rest In Peace .

    Reply
  8. TONY BOULOS

    did you forgot the famous NEWLY RENOVATED almond tree manor in alpha n.j. on 319 east central ave. the former american legion the john dolak post # 446.the best in our area number 1 all around a premier banquet and catering facilities , for the occasion of you life. alpha has a lot to offer give us a chance to serve you.

    Reply
  9. Bonnie Large

    I actually know why I-78 has the loop. I brought the fact that there was a piece of “green acres” land, called Crestwood Park( which is actually in Pohatcong Township) that would be destroyed if the northern route was used for the interstate. There was a law that stated no park land could be used if there was a “feasible and prudent alternative.” The southern alignment was that feasible alternative. As Secretary of the Crestwood Playground Association, I petitioned the DOT and was able to force the issue of the southern alignment. The northern route would have taken 5.8 acres of the Crestwood Park. On the other hand, the southern route didn’t take any of our park land, and also left 28 acres of Delaware Heights park adjoining that community. An NJDOT Economic and Environmental Analysis Reassessment Study in March of 1979, stated that the southern alignment was a substantial improvement for that community, because the southern route would utilize only the undeveloped portion of their park, would not take any existing park facilities, or any Delaware Heights homes. The northern route would have taken 24 homes and 5 businesses compared to 2 homes and no businesses for the southern route. I went to a lot of meetings, sent a lot of petitions, and was a thorn in the side of the NJDOT! I was told that on one map, the loop was labeled as ” Bonnie Large Curve!” So that’s the true story!

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      I appreciate your contribution and clarification to the Alpha narrative, Bonnie! And it’s interesting to hear that Crestwood Park might have been the real clincher, since it’s not even within the Alpha municipal boundaries…yet the rerouting of I-78 to avoid Crestwood singlehandedly benefitted Alpha. It sounds like the principle of Pareto efficiency played itself out quite effectively in the planning of I-78 around Alpha, back in the day.

      Reply
    2. Sharon Kerekes

      The reason they put the playground in was to divert the highway. You can put a highway through a graveyard but not a playground. I remember my Dad and Uncles working on the playground. I was walking home from school one day and there was a man in front of my house with paint and metal markers. I asked what he was doing and He said “There is going to be a highway going right through your house”. Well, I was hysterical when my dad came home he spoke to my Uncle Crash. I guess they got the ball rolling to see what could be done. They raised money from a Strawberry festival. My dad was working of 78 at the time making it 3 lanes from 2. He had them bring in the dirt to fill in the edges getting rid of the cliffs.

      Reply
  10. Nikell Webster

    I am from Alpha also…. tiny little town it is! Back when I was growing up I remember what a great little self sufficient town we had! We had our own cemetery, churches, grocery store, Christian pool hall with the best hot dogs, stories and penny candy you could get, a grade school that went up to 8th grade, a police station and fire station, a library, a public pool, a deli, gas station, pizzeria (alpha sub shop), a bar, a ceramics shop, several sports fields, a public park equipped with play equipment, we had an apartment complex too! a liquor store, a legion post, a diner- ice cream place, another restaurant called Johnathan’s pumpernickel pub, a florist , a dry cleaner, a car wash, a pharmacy, then later in my youth years came a bagel smith and a video rental store….. its crazy to think how small but self sufficient out town was. I remember growin up there with parades and bicentennial celebration and strawberry festivals down at the firehouse….. my little feet pounded those streets for years! My mom was from phillipsburg originally before she moved there. They were Irish and English. My dads mom and her family settled in Pottsville Pennsylvania from Calabria Italy and his dad was Irish and his paternal grandmother was Lithuanian. They also were in the Pottsville Pennsylvania area as coal mining was how they made their living. People went to that region for those jobs but my dads family moved to alpha after his parents divorced and so did my mom and her siblings and mom after her parents divorced and that is where my mom and dad met. They were only 15 and 16 when they ran to Virginia and got married. Then came my sister when they were 19 and me when they were 23 and 24. I grew up in alpha basically from age 4 to age 19….. I now live in Georgia but there is a part of alpha that will always have my heart….. I grew up on lee avenue right along the train tracks. If I close my eyes and listen real hard when I get in bed at night I can still hear the whistle.

    Reply
  11. Ron Brunetti

    I was in charge of cutting the grass at St. Mary’s from the time that I was 11 until I was 18 (1955 – 1962).
    I went to one of the DOT meetings with my dad, where they had large maps of several proposed routes. At that time they had one with the big U in it. Another route would have been on the north side of Alpha St. We lived on the S.W. corner of 5th Ave. & Alpha St. ( Alpha St. is the third street above the word Alpha.) There was never any proposal to go south of there into the cemeteries.
    Good Article!

    Reply
      1. AmericanDirt Post author

        Thanks for the details, Ron. I’d imagine it was obvious from a very early point that, even if a path through the cemeteries would have been the most direct, it would have been too controversial among long-term Alpha residents.

        It’s interesting to speculate what might have happened if the I-78 segment had cut through northern Alpha along S.R. 122. It might have had a null impact on population change: while the path of the highway undoubtedly would have sacrificed some homes, its presence through the borough could have prompted auto-oriented businesses (and additional population growth) nearby…IFF the proposal included an exit at Third Avenue into Alpha or S.R. 122 northward into Pohatcong. If the plans did not include any exit ramps, I don’t see how it would have elicited anything but a negative impact on Alpha, destroying land values through noise and congestion without conferring any highway-related economic development. That’s my guess…

        Reply
  12. Noreen

    My Bah, Anna Dolak, (Alpha mid-wife 1903 – ?) would be pleased the land was spared. Also, the history of how the cemetery wound up there is equally interesting. This land has truly been blessed by God. Mark 10:19 “What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.”

    Reply
  13. April Micci

    Correction: there were TWO cement mills in town. Alpha first, then Vulcanite. Alpha cement was not “briefly called vulcanite”. In fact, the side of town you were on and the mill/quarry you worked for often was used to determine the good/bad side of town.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Thanks for the clarification, April. I re-read the history from the Borough of Alpha website and noticed that I misinterpreted it the first time. I’ve made changes to the blog to correct for the fact that there were two co-existing cement companies.

      Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Thanks for your comments, Sharon. I don’t necessarily always have something to say to everyone’s comment…but it is interesting to think what is more culturally acceptable for new highway construction: playgrounds or cemeteries. These days, it’s common that, during excavation, the finding of a single instance of a human skeleton puts an entire land development plan on hold until researchers can determine the origin.

      Reply

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