Picturing Our Ancestors’ Neighborhoods Back in the Day, Part 2

Yesterday, the walk through Nostalgia Lane ventured into the small town of Calais, Maine and the surrounding villages of Meddybemps, Red Beach and Robbinston, ancestral homes to the maternal side of my family tree.

The paternal branch of my tree – the Slovak side – included many family members who made the life-changing decision to leave their Rusyn villages near the Tatras Mountains for the economic opportunities that the Industrial Revolution offered in the United States.

Aside from a few years spent in Pennsylvania, my father’s grandparents made their homes in Passaic, New Jersey. Dad’s father’s side of the family lived the rest of their lives in the Passaic area. Nana’s parents returned permanently to Udol, but Nana herself was drawn back to Passaic in November 1910. She had aunts and uncles, cousins and friends who were already long settled in the area and, eventually, her brother, Peter, and sister, Maria, both moved to Passaic, too.

What was Passaic like at the beginning of the 1900s? It was a vibrant city with old Dutch families and thousands upon thousands of European immigrants who came to work in the factories along the Passaic River. Passaic is a great example of the “melting pot” concept for which America is known.

The late Victorian era seems to be the high point of personal photography becoming available and affordable to the masses. There were photographers’ studios – in fact, the house in which I grew up was first owned by a photographer and I think my bedroom was his studio – and there were traveling photographers. That made for lots of photos showing life as it was at the time.

I check EBay often for vintage postcards, both for Maine and Passaic. There are a more limited number of small town postcards up for sale than of larger cities, but that makes sense given the much smaller population.

There are many, many old photos of Passaic. Let’s start today’s virtual trip to the early 1900s via those vintage postcards.

When Nana arrived back in Passaic in 1910, she returned to the neighborhood near St. Michael’s Church, where she was born. Today’s church hadn’t yet been built when she was born in 1893. The parishioners met in an old wooden structure in the neighborhood. St. Michael’s cornerstone was laid in 1902 and the church was long finished by 1910.

While the church is still there today, the area around it is totally different.

Notice the railroad tracks almost at the front door of the church. The spire towers came down – the rounded portions – after a few years because they were structurally unsound.

Not only did the train run through the neighborhood, but the Dundee Canal was also right across the street from the church. The canal is still there, but it has covered and paved over in 1940 and is a parking lot.

If parishioners didn’t pay attention to where they were walking, they might have found themselves very wet!

Passaic grew really quickly as factories started up. There were only 6,500 residents in 1880, but about 13,000 when Nana was born in 1893. When she returned in 1910, the population had skyrocketed to 55,000.

Nana loved to go shopping along Main Avenue, where all the best shops were.

The trains were important to Passaic’s economy, as the factories needed a way to ship their goods.

People needed medical care, too, so Passaic General Hospital was built. This is the same building where I was born many years later!

Schools were built at a rapid pace to keep up with the influx of immigrants. Theodore Roosevelt School #10 was built as a 2-story building.

However, by 1915, a third floor had been added. both my father and I attended #10 School.

Some of the other schools to open included #3, #4 and #6 Schools. They all look like such stately buildings.

Although I haven’t bought any postcards of Passaic’s parks, there wee several, in spite of the city being so industrial.

The well-known, at least in Passaic, flat iron building (small red brick building in the center of the photo), at the corner of Prospect Street and Main Avenue was a familiar landmark to me growing up. That’s because I got off the bus there and walked up the hill to the YWCA for summer day camp.

These postcard scenes brought on lots of nostalgia for me, as I lived in Passaic until a few weeks before my 12th birthday. Nana saw Passaic in the heyday of its growth with new buildings and houses springing up on still vacant land.

By the time I was born, Passaic was an established city with no empty land at all. However, even though I was already familiar with Passaic before I started collecting my vintage postcards, I still feel like I know a little about what life was like back in the beginning of the 20th century.

There are other postcards in my collection, which I haven’t shared because they date from the 1950s and 1960s, so may still be under copyright restrictions. Those scenes are ones I remember well.

I’ll close with another reminder to check out EBay for genealogical items. You never know what you are going to find and if you want to get a taste of your ancestors’ lives, you might find those postcard scenes just waiting to be snapped up – by you!


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