Nominated by Fred Voss; research and images by Marjorie Hayes Keeler and Fred Voss; narrative by Marjorie Hayes Keeler
To many in Cresskill and Dumont, the obelisk at the center of the traffic circle is somewhat of a curiosity. Many may know it’s a war memorial, dedicated to World War I soldiers. Far fewer may know that it is dedicated to nearly one million soldiers, nearly one out of every five American soldiers during WWI, who passed through Cresskill and Dumont, and lists the names of the 15 officers, 558 enlisted men, four nurses, and one civilian who died there—people who came from all over the US to support their country. This is the story of Camp Merritt.
The Camp Merritt Monument is a 65 foot tall obelisk of granite planned at the end of WWI to commemorate the camp itself and those who died at the camp. Many of those who died at the camp succumbed to the Spanish Flu epidemic which, beginning in 1918, killed more than half a million Americans, with a disproportionate number of those in the prime of life.
On the north face of the monument is a low-relief sculpture by Captain Robert Airken of a “doughboy” in a pose reminiscent of a Greek warrior and with an eagle at his back. At the base is a relief map of the camp streets and buildings. The inscribed names include 15 officers, 558 enlisted men, four nurses, and one civilian. On the southern face is the inscription, “In memory of those who gave their lives for their country while on duty in Camp Merritt. This monument marks the centre of the camp and faces the highway over which more than a million American soldiers passed on their way to and from the World War, 1917-19. Erected by the state of New Jersey, County of Bergen, Bergen County Historical Society, officers and men of Camp Merritt, many patriotic citizens and the Camp Merritt Memorial Association.”
General John J. Pershing, Commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, along with other notables dedicated the monument on Memorial Day 1924, an event which was attended by a crowd of more than 20,000 people.
Modeled after the Washington Monument, this obelisk is no mere token marker—it is a soaring memorial to those who died while on duty at the camp and, at the time of its dedication, would have dominated the landscape for miles around. There are many towns in New Jersey with memorials to those who died in WWI but none as large as this and none that stand on the site of an actual camp so important to the WWI administration of soldier deployment. It is also a testimonial of the extraordinary accomplishments of those who built this huge base in such a short time.
Why is this Monument Important?
Camp Merritt was constructed to assemble the soldiers and casuals of the American Expeditionary Forces heading to France. It was named after Major-General Wesley E. Merritt who fought in the Civil and Spanish-American Wars and was superintendent of West Point in the 1880s.
In April 1917, The United States entered WWI. In July of the same year, the US Army selected a 770-acre site in Bergen County to construct an embarkation camp. Located on the hill between Cresskill and Dumont the site had conveniently located railroad stations within one mile of the proposed center and some out buildings in Tenafly, Demarest, and Haworth. The Erie Railroad line passed through Cresskill, and the main line of the West Shore Railroad ran through Dumont. Chosen also for its proximity to the Alpine Ferry on the Hudson River which transported men to Hoboken for their trip to the French front, the site also offered good drainage, ability to bring in fresh water from the Hackensack River, and access to build sewage conduits out of the camp. The camp was to be erected quickly and the owners who leased their houses and land to the government and were assured their property would be returned to them. It was designed to house and process 40,000 men weekly and construction was begun around August 1917.
But before any buildings were ready, the first infantry troops arrived. These troops were housed in tents a mile north in Demarest on the site of an old racetrack. By November 1917, the plan was to have more than 1,000 buildings to house and care for the men for a few days to a week before they embarked for France. By the end of the war the camp had processed more than one million soldiers, the largest number of any US embarkation camp.
The US Embarkation Service regarded Camp Merritt as the best of the embarkation camps as it had painted buildings, good drainage, and many social buildings—including The Liberty Theater, which could hold 2,500 people. The massive enlisted soldiers club, Merritt Hall, was in comparison to most camps in the US, superlative in all ways. It was set up as a library with a fireplace and comfortable seating and offered soldiers billiards, thousands of books to borrow, and many home comforts such as pies and ice cream. By the summer of 1918 the population of the camp was approximately 45,000—yet the population of Dumont was less than 2,000 and Cresskill was less than 1,000.
The war ended in November 1918 and by October 1919 the camp was no longer needed. Embarkation camps are meant to be built, used as needed, and then torn down. The leased properties were returned to their owners and camp buildings were to be taken down and sold for other uses. Some were moved and/or re-purposed, but most were dismantled and sold-off in pieces. On 24 January 1920, the remaining buildings were sold to Harris Brothers for $554,000 and slated to be dismantled in the spring. The last of the soldiers left Camp Merritt around 1 February 1920. Harris Brothers opened a branch store in Tenafly to sell off the Camp and what was advertised as new items.
After the camp closed there were a number of large fires that burned the wood buildings, including many of the hospital buildings. The first of the fires was on the night of 13 March 1921 and began with flames bursting from windows simultaneously in four or five buildings in the hospital section. A second fire occurred in April of 1921 after two men were arrested for living in the barracks. Ten buildings burned at a loss of $10,000 and there was one more fire in June of that year. The last conflagration was in April of 1927 when a fire swept through 20 more buildings—many of which housed workmen and their families. The Harris Brothers’ insurance would cover most of the losses.
In 1935, Edward Aloysius Kenney, US Representative for New Jersey, introduced a bill for the establishment of a national military park on the site of Camp Merritt. The bill authorized $250,000 for the purchase of land and the development of the park. This bill failed and the site, which once was bustling Camp Merritt, was slowly absorbed into the suburban fabric of Bergen County.
But it was not completely forgotten. In the 1938 film, The Shopworn Angel, starring Jimmy Stewart. Margaret Sullivan, and Walter Pidgeon, Camp Merritt plays a part as the camp Stewart’s character has come to with his regiment.
Camp Merritt also lives on through this memorial obelisk dedicated to the 578 men and women who perished there; through the family stories of those whose ancestors lived nearby; in ephemera, photos, and letters from soldiers found in archives and attics; and in Bergen County’s story. The residents of Cresskill and Dumont, less than 3,000 in number, saw nearly a million soldiers and civilians pass through the camp. And, if you look closely enough, you can still find some structures, re-purposed from Camp Merritt, as homes for families today.
The Bergen County Historical Society, a sponsor of the memorial, has a number of articles about Camp Merritt, including a transcription of the names on the memorial, at www.bergencountyhistory.org.
GSBC Trustee Fred Voss, is currently conducting biographical research into select individuals on the memorial. This research may culminate in articles about these individuals and, possibly, a talk on the subject. If you have any background information (birth date, hometown, etc.) about individuals on the memorial, please send it along to email@example.com.