James B. Duke, the tobacco and power magnate and future father of philanthropist Doris Duke, generously opened the grounds of his Hillsborough, New Jersey estate to the public as soon as the first section of his 2,500-acre park was completed. Reporters who were given early access to "Duke's Park" marveled at the beauty of the gardens, lakes, and watercourses, while also pointing out the barren, torn-up, unfinished state of much of the grounds.
|Construction at "Duke's Park" circa 1909|
Indeed, with between 300 and 400 laborers employed on the site, and the noise from dozens of horse-drawn wagons, steam shovels, and locomotives, it would have been impossible to miss the organized chaos of construction. Lakes were excavated, hills were formed, trenches were dug to lay pipe to supply water to dozens of fountains. All while early auto-trippers picnicked in the grass just over the rise.
|21 April 1903 New York Evening World|
In 1903, the second year of major construction, laborers were paid $1.25 per day for digging ditches, hauling stone, and planting hundreds of thousands of trees and shrubbery. The problem was that was twenty-five cents less than the 1902 wage - and so they went on strike.
|Road Graders at Duke's Park|
The New York Evening World reported on a particularly violent confrontation that took place between laborers and teamsters on April 21, 1903. The disgruntled men, described by the newspaper as "Italian and Hungarian strikers", attempted to block wagon drivers as they crossed the Nevius Street Bridge from Raritan to Hillsborough.
|Nevius Street Bridge looking north towards Raritan, circa 1912|
After the first three wagons plowed their way across the bridge at a gallop, evading clubs and projectiles, the ire of the striking laborers was greatly aroused. They briefly rushed in numbers to the north, Raritan, side of the bridge in an attempt to block any further trespass. Hundreds of spectators were now on the scene, as well as law enforcement.
Seeing the police, the laborers retreated to the Hillsborough Township end of the bridge where they regrouped knowing that the Raritan Police, who only had jurisdiction in Bridgewater Township, would not follow.
|22 April 1903 Philadelphia Inquirer|
The next five wagons were all turned back by the violent mob, despite drivers employing shovels to the heads of strikers as they tried to fight through. In all, just four wagons made it through the gate of Duke's Farm that day.
It's interesting to note that in the next year, 1904, J.B. Duke decided to employ armed guards, with full power of arrest given to them by the Somerset County Sheriff, ostensibly to keep unruly park visitors from littering and picking the flowers. Hmmm.