27 October 2014

"A Man Called Van Aken", Part Two

Today the name most frequently associated with Belle Mead is that of New Jersey Senator John Rhoderic McPherson.  Pretty remarkable considering that the millionaire politician from Jersey City held the farm property for only a few years, and sold it in 1891!



Senator John R. McPherson photo portrait by Matthew Brady

McPherson was born in 1833 in Livingston County, New York, and moved to Jersey City at the age of 26.  He knew how to make money in the cattle business, and kept right on doing it in New Jersey, especially after he was elected as a Jersey City alderman in 1864.  As the New York World put it in an 1897 profile, "He had a knack of getting on the winning side, especially when politics and business overlapped."



Patent for an improved stock car, 1876

After six years as an alderman, three as president of that board, he was elected to the New Jersey State Senate.  In 1876, the same year he filed a patent for an improved stock car design, McPherson was a Democratic presidential elector for Samuel J. Tilden in his failed bid to defeat Rutherford B. Hayes - the closest presidential election in U.S. history - setting up his own nomination and election by the New Jersey State Legislature to the first of his three terms in the U.S. Senate.


Senator McPherson in 1891 when he was being talked up for a presidential run
It was during McPherson's first term in 1878 that he learned of the plight of real estate developer and entrepreneur William Van Aken. A few years previously, Van Aken acquired 800 acres of property in central New Jersey along the proposed route of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad's Delaware and Bound Brook division with the intent of developing a small industrial city along the line.  Despite having secured a railroad station with the promise of regular service, and an expenditure of several hundreds of thousands of dollars in improvements, sales of residential lots were slow, manufacturers were not interested, and he was losing money.
Belle Mead looking west toward the Sourland Mountains
Van Aken's attempt to dispose of the entire enterprise was blocked by his wife - she had recently filed for divorce - and the property went into foreclosure.



Belle Mead looking east
According to Van Aken's later testimony, he and Senator McPherson were well acquainted through Van Aken's business interest in New York dockyards.  It was easy then for him to approach McPherson with a scheme allowing the senator to purchase the foreclosed property at a low price of $30,000 and continue Van Aken's development plan, with the eventual profits to be split between the gentlemen.

That's not how McPherson remembered it when the pair met again eighteen years later, with near tragic consequences.




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