A New Theory on the Origins of Fanwood

Even a small town like Fanwood has a lot of history. And since the origin of its name has been both a mystery and a local source of amusement for nearly a century, let’s start by reviewing the three prevailing theories.

1. The most famous tale is that it was named after a young woman named Fanny (sometimes Fannie) Wood. A May 5th, 1904 article in the Central New Jersey Home News is the earliest version of this origin story that I can find. The article describes how “one of the many embarrassments that railway managers encounter is that of finding names for stations, roadways, trains or colors. The late John Taylor Johnston, when president of the Jersey Central, had a happy faculty of using individual names: from Ellen Dunn, Fanny Wood, Ella Moore, Ella Rose–then Jersey belles–and L.B. Brown, a shore capitalist, Mr. Johnston twisted, respectively, Dunellen, Fanwood, Elmora, Roselle, and Elberon.”

The idea of Fanny Wood as a belle was later refined to one in which she was a writer who was so charmed by the area’s beautiful environs that she wrote glowingly of it in whatever publication supposedly employed her. The origin for this tale seems to be information related by Charles Sheelan, son of Fred Sheelan, one of the pioneers of Fanwood, and recorded in a February 15, 1930 Courier News article, “Fanwood Got Name From Fanny Wood, Famous as Writer.” Miss Wood supposedly visited the area every summer around the 1860’s, and wrote of it so glowingly that her descriptions were eventually used in advertising literature by the nascent railroad company to attract New Yorkers to the area. Unfortunately, none of the literally millions of digitized pages of newspaper available to us in the 21st century (including the archives of Plainfield, Scotch Plains, Westfield, Summit, Cranford, and various New York City papers) has turned up a single reference to Miss Wood in any 19th century periodical, nor any local story about a visit by this supposedly illustrious personage.

2. A more common story is that it was named after the wife of John Taylor Johnston, president of the Central Railroad of NJ from 1848 to 1877. Originally the tracks laid down by the Elizabethtown & Somerville Railroad (the precursor to the Central RR) in 1837 went down Midway Avenue through Scotch Plains. They reached Plainfield in 1839 and Somerville in 1842. New York Tribune ads from as far back as 1852 indicate that it stopped at the “Scotch Plains Station,” the name by which the depot at the corner of Midway and Park Avenue was known until 1867, when it was renamed Fanwood.

By the mid-1850’s the railroad company had decided to move the tracks to their present location due to grade concerns, and the North, or westbound, track was opened in 1866, while the South track opened in 1874. The opening of the North track solidified Johnston’s plans for the town around the new depot: it was he who conceived the idea of planning towns alongside the railroads he was building, and his sister company, the Central New Jersey Land Improvement Company, bought up 350 acres of prime land near the newly-relocated (to its present spot) station. For decades after 1867, ads in New York papers tried to convince city-dwellers to move to “Fanwood Park,” as the town around the train station was named. The development company was legally separate from the railroad, but was nonetheless controlled by the same seven Board of Directors, and was based at 65 North Avenue. (One of its real estate agents, George Kyte, is known today as the “father of Fanwood,” and was instrumental in designing the town’s layout. According to legend #1 above, Miss Fanny Wood was a frequent visitor at the Kyte family residence.)

The name “Fanwood Park” first appears on an 1868 map, and over 60 years later, Emily de Forest, Johnston’s daughter, told WPA writers a more personal story about her father’s naming of Fanwood, as well as Dunellen: “Father and Mother had one or two very intimate friends, among them one Ellen Betts….He took her first name and added the prefix ‘Dun’ because he thought it would be a very euphonious name. That is how the name ‘Dunellen’ came into existence….My father even tried to name some of the stations after members of his family. For instance, my Mother’s name was Fanny, and Fanwood was named for her. Evona was named for my youngest sister, Eva” (Workers of the Federal Writers Project of the WPA: 22).

Over time, several writers have assumed Johnston’s wife’s maiden name was “Fannie Wood,” but it’s not. Her name was Frances Colles, and she was born in New Orleans in 1826. She died in 1888 and is buried in Brooklyn.

The earliest telling of the “Frances theory” of Fanwood’s origin seems to be from an August 26th, 1924 Courier article, which relates a speech on local history given by Assemblyman Thomas Muir to the local Kiwanis Club. According to the article, Muir related that, “Mr. Johnston left a remainder of the family name in the station Fanwood, named for his wife, who was Miss Fanny Wood. The name is perpetuated, also, in Netherwood, the prefix, ‘Nether,’ meaning lower, referring to the lower elevation than Fanwood, as railroad men understand by the extra power needed for trains to climb the Fanwood grade.”

Unfortunately, as with legend #1, there is no corroborating contemporary evidence for this story, although admittedly neither had a reason to lie, except for the sake of posterity. The fact that de Forest and Muir were telling this story 60 years after the fact (when she was in her 80’s, no less; she lived to be 91) again makes it impossible to verify, since no 19th century sources exist to confirm it.

We can at least weigh the existing evidence. According to an April 28, 1936 Courier News article, “Fanwood was named after Frances Johnston and Netherwood was the name of the old Johnston homestead in Scotland.” This latter fact checks out, as there was a Lieutenant-Colonel John Johnstone of Netherwood, Scotland in the early 17th century. (The Johnston[e] family was a prominent one in Scotland, and has been traced back to a Gilbert de Johnstone in the 13th century.)

And the rather nonsensical story that Johnston simply took the name of a family friend, Ellen Betts, and randomly prefixed it with “Dun,” also seemingly undermines the “Frances as Fanny” theory. Both of Johnston’s parents were born in Scotland, and he was sent there for schooling when young. He kept close ties to his Scottish heritage throughout his life, as seen in his membership in the Saint Andrew’s Society of New York, a charitable organization dedicated to helping impoverished Scots. And, as with Netherwood, there’s a Dunellen section in Craignure, Scotland. The name is said to mean “fort on a hill or roundhouse.”

The real-life Ellen Betts was likely Ellen Porter Betts (1829-1899), wife of George Fredric Betts (1827-1898), a Lieutenant in the Civil War, lawyer, and later a Trustee of the New York Institute of the Deaf and Dumb, which might be worth remembering later.

For her part, local ur-historian Marion Nicholl Rawson got the details of the legend wrong in “Under the Blue Hills,” claiming Fanny was Johnston’s daughter, and not his wife.

The railroad stopped at Scotch Plains in 1852

3. The third theory is the most curious of all. In a 2012 nj.com article about Fanwood’s naming, former Fanwood police chief and councilman Anthony Parenti provided his own theory.

The answer may be simple, said Anthony Parenti, a councilman and the borough’s former police chief. Looking at maps from the late 1700s — long before Johnston was around — he spotted some interesting terms. “You’ll see where it says the west fields, the plain fields and it says the fan woods,” Parenti said. “That’s most likely the truest story you’ll find of how Fanwood got it’s name.”

Determined to see this map, I went to the Fanwood Historical Society and asked if they had a copy. They do not, not had anyone ever seen it, and several members expressed doubts that such a map exists. So I asked Parenti myself, and he told me he’d seen it in the local archives of the Plainfield Public Library. I then went over there and met with Sarah Hull, the Archivist and Head of Local History, Genealogy & Special Collections. After searching for an hour, she was unable to find any pre-Civil War maps designating Fanwood (or “fan woods”), and after an additional week of searching told me:

Unfortunately, I was not able to locate the map for you. I believe the map in question is not one of the maps that we hold in our library collection. Instead, I think Mr. Parenti found it online, while he was here, through one of three possible sites:
The Digital Public Library Project of America (DPLA)
The New Jersey Digital Highway (NJDH)
Or, possibly, Princeton University
I have checked all three of these sources, but was still not able to locate the map. However, I do recommend your checking them, as you will likely be able to spend more time doing so.

I did check those sites, but was also unable to find it.

So what happened? It could be that it has simply still evaded me. Or it could be that the map Parenti saw had been dated or filed incorrectly. Odder still however is the fact that late 18th and early 19th century maps already named Scotch Plains and Westfield, and the naming of uninhabited areas like woods, as opposed to streams or other identifiable landmarks for travelers, was uncommon.

map 1795 carey.JPG
1795 map, by Carey

I also feel that if an early map had listed “fan woods” as a place name, it would have been retained in subsequent maps, the way the Meadow Brook was.  But I have over 20 maps of the area between the period 1795 and 1868, none of which designate the land between Scotch Plains and Plainfield in any way, not even the 1861 one that gets so granular as to identify the Willow Grove and Cherry Corner neighborhoods.

map 1861 kitchell GOOD ONE.JPG
1861 map, by Kitchell

We now have multiple theories on the naming of local places. Dunellen has two (Ellen Betts and a place in Scotland), Netherwood has two (one railroad-related and Johnston’s ancestral seat), and Fanwood has three (Miss Fanny Wood, Mrs. Johnston, and an archaic, pre-settlement name).

For Fanwood, let me propose some evidence for a fourth.

James Monroe was the fifth President of the U.S. His great-grandfather had come over from Scotland in the mid-17th century. And President Monroe had a nephew who was also named James Monroe. Monroe the nephew (1799-1870) was born in Virginia but lived in New York beginning in 1832. He married Elizabeth “Eliza” Mary Douglas, and together they had three children: George, William, and Frances, also known as “Fanny.” Fanny was born in 1824 and died in 1906.

Sometime after he moved to New York in 1832, Monroe purchased 37 acres of land in Washington Heights, around 175th Street in upper Manhattan, and built a spacious residence. The wooded area around it became known as “Fanny’s Woods,” after Frances, his young daughter. Over time, “Fanny’s Woods” became known simply as “Fanwood.”

A brief history of the Monroe family, seen through the lens of the New York Society Library, and working backwards from living descendant Elizabeth Winthrop to James Monroe, can be found here.

The earliest mention I can find of the name “Fanwood” is in the December 16th, 1850 edition of the London Observer, which announces the marriage of Douglas Robinson, Esq., to Monroe’s daughter Fanny. The wedding was held at Fanwood, New York.

Keep in mind that the marriage of Douglas and Fanny was held 17 years before Johnston named Fanwood in New Jersey, and 7 before the train line even got to Scotch Plains.

Two years later the same paper announced, on July 25th 1852, the death, “At New York, Mrs. Monroe, wife of Colonel Monroe, Fanwood.”

The first known mention of the word “Fanwood,” in 1850

By 1852, Monroe’s wife was dead and his daughter married off, so he decided to sell Fanwood. We read in the March 15, 1855 New York Daily Tribune about a boat trip to “Fanwood, about nine miles up the North River, where the buildings are being erected for the occupancy of the Deaf and Dumb.”

The elegant and spacious buildings of the Asylum are situated in a beautiful position on Washington Heights, commanding a splendid view of the Hudson river. Fifty seven acres of land, formerly occupied by Colonel Monroe, nephew of President Monroe, and designated Fanwood, in honor of his daughter Fanny, are laid out in the neatest style of landscape gardening. In these splendid grounds, worth half a million dollars, and fronting on the river, the buildings have been erected at a cost of about three hundred thousand dollars. It was purchased by the school from Colonel Monroe for $115,000.

The New York School for the Deaf had previously been located in what is now Fiftieth Street, but as the area began to get built up, it relocated north.

They [the School] accordingly, with the permission of the Commissioners of the Land Office, sold their buildings and grounds, which subsequently became the site of Columbia College, and purchased of Colonel James Monroe his beautiful country seat known as Fanwood, on Washington Heights, embracing thirty-seven and a half acres of land, and commanding a beautiful view of the Hudson River, which forms its western boundary. This beautiful demesne derived its title from the favorite child of he who gave the country the era of good feeling, and, with fitting coincidence, it subsequently became the cognomen of a beautiful little deaf child, who found in the Institution the first mother and home she had ever known. The original purchase, from municipal necessities caused by the extension of streets and boulevards, has been reduced to some twenty-six acres. The arrangements and proportions of the new edifice were made the subject of profound study and reflection, and resulted in a plan and elevation which were regarded by all familiar with the needs of such an institution as combining more points of excellence than any that had been yet adopted. This fact is evidenced by the numerous suggestions the buildings have furnished to other institutions of this class, which have copied them more or less closely in later structures. The cornerstone of this edifice was laid on Tuesday, November 22d, 1853, under the superintendence of Hon. Jacob A. Westervelt, the Mayor of the City of New York, and was an occasion of the deepest interest.”

The name Fanwood stuck. In 1860 we read that a deaf orphan “picked up in one of the worst neighborhoods in the city” was renamed Mary Fanwood, “after the title of the estate upon which the asylum is situated.” This was mentioned within the context of a visit by the Prince of Wales to the School.

Years later, Fanny Wood came back for a final visit to the house she had grown up in.

There were many interesting associations connected with the old “Mansion House” built by the former owner of the estate, Colonel Monroe, a cousin [sic] of the fifth President of the United States. His daughter Frances, from whose name was derived the name (Fanwood) of the home, married Mr. Douglas Robinson, of New York. It seems that there was a wealthy, eccentric aunt — like the fairy godmother in the old nursery stories — capable of great generosity but of somewhat uncertain disposition. Cards for Miss Fanny’s wedding were duly sent but no word was received from her. On the day of the wedding [1850], just as the bride and groom were taking their places for the ceremony, a coach and four dashed up and the fairy godmother alighted and entered the room, sumptuously art in the richest fabrics and newest styles of forty years before, dragging along the floor by a heavy silken rope a bag stuffed with gold coins as her wedding present.

A son of this marriage, also named Douglas Robinson — married a sister of ex-President [Teddy] Roosevelt.

Not many years ago when it was decided that the old Mansion House must be torn down, Mrs. Fanny Monroe Robinson, then a very old lady, came up to see for the last time her childhood’s home. Happening to mention that she had once cut her name on a pane of one of the windows with a diamond ring, Dr. Currier pointed out the very glass, which had fortunately escaped damage all these years. When Mrs. Robinson was ready to leave, Dr. Currier handed her this pane, which he had had taken out and boxed, as a souvenir.

There’s no evidence that Fanny Wood, aka Fanny Monroe Robinson, ever visited the town of Fanwood, preferring to live most of her life in New York and north New Jersey:

The story of the Robinson Cemetery, therefore, begins with Fanny and Douglas. Fanny was born in New York City on April 14, 1824 to Elizabeth Mary Douglas (Harriet’s sister) and James Monroe, nephew of President James Monroe. Fanny’s second cousin Douglas Robinson was born in Orchardton, Kirkcudbrightshire, Scotland on March 24, 1824 to William Rose and Mary (Douglas) Robinson. Fanny’s mother Elizabeth (Betsy) and Douglas’ mother Mary were first cousins. He was educated in Edinburgh University and in 1841 came to this country and engaged in business in New York City. The pair fell in love. Douglas did not have much money and the older generation deemed it an unsuitable match and sent Fanny away to visit relatives in Scotland. However, Fanny showed the true female spirit inherent in her family and married Douglas when she came back in 1850.

The book “Miss Douglas [in New York: A Biography]” reads: “A large wedding reception was given at Fanwood, the house the Monroes had built at Fort Washington, then as a secluded suburb to the north of New York City. The young couple went to live, temporarily, at 55 Broadway, lent to them, together with a carriage and horses, by their fairy godmother Aunt Harriet.” And later, in the book, we read: “Douglas and Fanny would visit with their children, Douglas and little Harriet, from their home in New Jersey to visit the formidable old lady in the big house in Fourteenth Street in New York City. Amongst the playfellows invited to meet them there was a little boy of almost exactly their own age whose name was Theodore Roosevelt and with him his sister Corinne who later married the young Douglas Robinson.”

Fanny died at her summer home Henderson House on Aug. 22, 1906. Her husband Douglas had died Nov. 30, 1893, and were both buried on the family estate in Herkimer County.

She was not too far away, however, up in West Orange:

Douglas Robinson Sr. and his wife Fanny Monroe Robinson came to West Orange about 1872, becoming a neighbor to General George McClellan along the ridge adjacent to Prospect Avenue. In 1882, their son Douglas Robinson Jr. married  Corinne Roosevelt, the sister of Theodore Roosevelt. Douglas and Corinne soon  became frequent visitors to the 72 acre estate in West Orange known as “Overlook”  and in 1886, their second child was actually born there. Douglas Robinson, Jr. inherited the West Orange property in 1893 when his father passed away.

Even after Monroe sold the property to the School, the name Fanwood was long afterward associated with genteel, bucolic luxury. There’s a building at 112-114 E. 17th Street in Manhattan named The Fanwood, that was built in 1890. According to the blog Daytonian in Manhattan:

Upscale apartment living was still a new concept—one that required convincing moneyed families for whom respectable living had always meant a private home. No matter how expansive the flats, society often viewed them as “living on a shelf.” The Ramseys set the tone of their new building by naming it after President James Monroe’s summer estate, Fanwood, that had stood in upper Manhattan.

Considering this was nearly 40 years after Monroe sold his estate to the School, and that Johnston named his new town in 1867, only 15 years after the sale, it’s easy to see why the railroad man chose the name he did: his goal was to sell “ordinary” city dwellers a little piece of “Fanwood,” albeit his version of it, and not Monroe’s.

This is not to say that Johnston chose the name Fanwood simply because it connotated luxury. It’s more reasonable to assume he chose it because it fit his needs and had been named after someone with the same first name as his wife. Had his wife been named something else, he likely would have chosen a different name that also represented luxurious country living.

And so we come full circle. Netherwood, Dunellen, and Fanwood were all named by Johnston after preexisting places whose names he hoped would conjure up images of luxury and historical continuity in the minds of those to whom he was trying to sell property.

Is there any evidence that Johnston and Monroe knew each other? As both were wealthy New York aristocrats, it’s likely they traveled in the same circles, and both appear to have been members of St. Andrews.

Besides being the father of central New Jersey railroads, Johnston, I should note, founded The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and was elected its first President in 1870. He held the position until he retired in 1889, at which point the institution’s Trustees voted him Honorary President for Life. More locally, Johnston Drive was named after him.

And here, at long last, is a picture of the elusive Fanny Wood.



2 thoughts on “A New Theory on the Origins of Fanwood

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