26 October 2014

"A Man Called Van Aken", Part One

Search the internet, or elsewhere, for the history of Belle Mead, New Jersey, and you will be sure to find a sentence that reads something like this: "A man called Vanaken bought up all the farms and set out to develop a city, and when he went broke, the property was bought by US Senator John McPherson and renamed Belle Mead."  What a mundane description of a story that includes fortune, ruin, and a charge of attempted murder!


Illustration from the New York Herald, May 19, 1897 

By the 1870s, New York real estate developer and land speculator William B. Van Aken had already amassed considerable wealth.  With holdings in Kansas City, Chicago, and and other locations west of the Mississippi, he now turned his attention closer to home.  Learning that the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad planned to complete their Philadelphia to New York route by laying tracks from West Trenton to Bound Brook, he quickly began buying farms in the vicinity of the small villages of Plainville and Harlingen, eventually accumulating about 800 acres.



Detail from the 1884 Pennsylvania Railroad Map, showing Vanaken Station

Van Aken shrewdly negotiated with the railroad, donating land for a station near the northern border of Montgomery Township, with an assurance that this would be a regular stop on the Delaware and Bound Brook line.  He then set about making such improvements to the land as required for successful, and profitable, development.  By the time regularly scheduled trains were stopping at "Vanaken Station" in 1877, he was well on his way to spending $280,000 (in 1877 dollars!) on roads, buildings, and lot surveying for his new city.

Twenty-five years after Van Aken's initial investment, developers were still trying to turn a profit in Belle Mead.

The next couple of years were a struggle for Van Aken. Expenditures were far outpacing sales.  Realizing his losses were mounting, he decided to divest everything.  Unfortunately, Mrs. Van Aken took this opportunity to sue for divorce, tying up all of the mogul's properties in court.  As the value of his investment decreased, the property went into foreclosure.

Enter millionaire senator John R, McPherson, with, (if you believe Van Aken's story), a plan to fix everything.

Continue reading in Part Two tomorrow.

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