Local History: South Orange Hotel
The hotel was demolished in 1969 after being declared a fire hazard.
In South Orange, we often have no choice but to be hospitable and allow our guests to stay overnight if they do not stay at the nearest hotel several miles away. However, up until the 1910s, many people stayed at the South Orange Hotel, which, until 1969, was located at Village Plaza, at the convergence of Valley Street and South Orange Avenue.
Since South Orange town records only go back to 1869, when the Village was founded, we don't know officially when the inn was built. Several legends surround the history of the hotel.
Edith Bishop Sherman, who lived on Melrose Place, was mentioned in the April 20, 1969 edition of the Newark Sunday News. She claimed that the South Orange Hotel was built around 1700 on the property of the son of area settler Robert Treat and that it was meant to be an inn for people going to New York City.
In 1714, the hotel and the large property surrounding it was purchased by Samuel Tompkins. The property and the hotel stayed in the ownership of the Tompkins family for 90 years.
In 1804, Marcus Ball purchased the hotel and expanded it. In addition, he made several renovations. It is believed that a stairwell in the hotel was relocated to a very wealthy home in the Village. According to the South Orange Historical & Preservation Society Web site, Village trustees met in the hotel before Village Hall was built.
During the Blizzard of 1888, the South Orange area was hit hard, causing a train on the Erie-Lackawanna Railroad to break down. All of the passengers were escorted to the hotel, where legend has it they waited for several days until the snow was cleared.
Around the start of the 20th century, the Ball family sold the hotel to Jack Hart after nearly 100 years of ownership. Hart then closed the hotel, created apartments and sold the downstairs to P.J. Smith, who ran a blacksmith shop. Smith than went on to purchase the entire building.
One rumor suggests that a Chinese family lived in the building and worked in the laundry. Allegedly, the family was killed by coal gas. According to another legend, in the early 1910s, a trolley from Newark left the Prospect Street stop, jumped the track and crashed into the front of the hotel.
In 1960, the blacksmith sold the hotel to Etta Bellin, owner of Bellin's Department Store in the Village. The building was then the last wooden commercial building in the village. By the 1960s, Lally's Fix-It Shop was the only store left inside.
In 1969, the South Orange Fire Department declared the building a fire hazard. Bellin could not afford to make the mandated changes. According to the Newark Sunday News article, South Orange considered the building an unsafe public nuisance and condemned it. Bellin wanted to keep the hotel because of its history; however, she was forced to sign a demolition contract. On May 6, 1969, a bulldozer demolished the more than 260-year-old structure.
Jared Kofsky is an 11-year-old student in the SO-M school district, who is a local history buff and train historian.