It's hard to miss as you are going north on Knickerbocker Road from Tenafly toward Cresskill and Dumont. There is a traffic circle. Amidst the trees is a 65 foot obelisk, like a mini Washington Monument in the Northern Valley of Bergen County, NJ. This is the Camp Merritt Monument and it is a reminder of a how very different Bergen County was 100 years ago.
In 1917, Bergen County had a population about 1/10th of today (170,000). Cresskill had about 800 residents, Dumont has about 1,500. Much of the land was farms, orchards, and woods.
Yet when the US entered World War I, it became necessary to build an Army embarkation camp capable of supporting as many as 45,000 soldiers in the middle of Bergen County. Let's look at the memorial in closer detail to see what it can tell us.
On the North side of the Memorial is a low-relief sculpture by Capt. Robert Aitken. It is a World War I doughboy in a pose reminiscent of a Greek warrior with an eagle at his back.
Let's talk a bit about the soldiers themselves. Over 578,000 soldiers departed for Europe via Camp Merritt; that was 1 out every 5 soldiers who were shipped to France. This camp was by far the busiest of the embarkation centers. And after the Armistice ended the war on November 11, 1918, Camp Merritt welcomed home over 509,000 soldiers returning from Europe, before they went by train to their home base. In all, over 1 million soldiers passed thru Camp Merritt going to and returning from Europe, all in about a 2-year period.
Most of the transient soldiers stayed from 3 to 5 days in camp. Marching and drilling. Drilling and marching. Most importantly, each soldier underwent a medical examination and two equipment examination. They were then ready to leave for Europe.
Often, the ferry to take the soldiers to the departure ships in Hoboken would be waiting for the soldiers at Alpine Landing at 8 am. In order to be on time for boarding, the soldiers began their march from the camp at midnight, under cover of darkness. One mile down the hill into Cresskill, a long walk up Hillside Ave to the top of the Palisades and then down the other side of the Palisades to Alpine Landing. People would line the streets to cheer them on, regardless of the hour. Children would take letters from the departing soldiers and deliver them to the local Post Office.
On the ground in front of the North side of the memorial is a map showing the camp and its buildings. North is on the right side of the map. The green dot is the site of the current memorial. Running north to south is Knickerbocker Road; running east to west is Madison Ave.
Upon the United States' entry into World War I, the Army needed a series of embarkation camps near railroads and near the departure port of Hoboken as a final stop for soldiers before being shipped off to Europe to "fight the Kaiser". The Camp Merritt location was ideal. The area was a flat plain about 10 miles from NYC. Come down off the plain to the East and you find the Erie (Northern) Railroad in Cresskill. Go West and you find the West Shore Railroad in Dumont. And just over the Palisades was the ferry pier at Alpine Landing.
So troops would be trained at Army bases around the country and then transported by railroad to Camp Merritt for final preparation before shipping out to Europe.
There was a lot of work to turn these open areas into an embarkation camp for departing soldiers! Tracts of land, houses and barns were leased around the camp. Various homes on Dumont's Osborne Hill were leased and reserved for officer's quarters. A special track siding was built off of the West Shore railroad line for materials delivery. Rail line was often laid in back yards or in front yards. In some cases, whole houses would need to be moved to make way for the rail line.
Construction began in September 1917 and proceeded rapidly. Roads were quickly filled with delivery of construction materials at all times of the day. Skilled workers could make top dollar working for the contractors. When completed, the camp covered 580 acres on the flat plain north of Tenafly, and included areas of Tenafly, Bergenfield, Cresskill, and Dumont. Another 190 acres were used for warehouses, railroad sidings, and vegetable gardens. The camp eventually contained 1200 buildings. This included 611 two story barracks, each capable of housing 60 soldiers, a hospital with 2500 beds, 143 miles of concrete road and an enlisted man's service center donated by the widow of General Merritt. At its maximum, the camp had 500 officers and 7000 enlisted personal that were permanently assigned. After a second addition, the camp had capacity for 45,000 transient troops. On the single largest day, over 15,000 troops would ship out via Alpine Landing. 19 miles of pipe delivered water from the Hackensack Water Company in New Milford to the buildings throughout the camp. To provide for all the personal, there were 164 kitchens in operation and a barber shop with 24 seats.
The camp was nicknamed "The Camp Beautiful". Soldiers had been training at bases all across the country. These bases were typically flat, barren locales with buildings made of raw unfinished wood. During construction at Camp Merritt, many of the old trees in the area were spared and even some existing orchards remained. The camp quartermaster was even able to do the impossible: obtaining funds to paint the exterior of the buildings in the camp. Imagine how the troops felt upon arrival at this very different looking camp.
The camp was also considered "glamorous". The area of the Palisades in Fort Lee was the location for shooting the popular silent movie films being produced by the motion picture companies in New York. And adding to the glamor of the movie locations, New York City was relatively close by and the destination of anyone fortunate enough to get a 24-hour pass before departing for Europe. Catch a train to Fort Lee and then on the ferry to 125th Street pier. On their day off, nurses from the hospital would visit Coney Island.
Embarkation camps are built quickly, used as needed, and then put out of service just as quickly. Houses and land was returned to the original owners. Some buildings were torn down for lumber, while others were moved and repurposed as houses. What ever was left was put up for auction. No longer needed, the camp, which has cost the government over $10 million to build, was sold in January 1920 to Harris Brothers Salvaging Company of Chicago for $554,000.
On the South face of the Memorial is the inscription: "In memory of those who gave their lives for their country while on duty in Camp Merritt. This monument marks the center of the camp and faces the highway over which more than a million American soldiers passed on their way to and from World War I, 1917-1919. Erected by the State of New Jersey, the County of Bergen, the Bergen County Historical Society, officers and men of Camp Merritt, many patriotic citizens and the Camp Merritt Memorial Association."
The monument was dedicated on Memorial Day 1924. Over 10,000 attended the dedication. That included General John J. Pershing, Commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, and the widow of Major General Wesley Merritt, for whom the Camp was named.
And then there are the names. On both the east- and west-facing sides of the memorial are a total of 579 names. Many died while preparing to go overseas. These included officers and enlisted men, doctors and nurses, and even a civilian employee. Of those listed, 467 died from the flu. 1918 saw one of the most dangerous viral epidemic. While World War I killed over 16 million people, the 1918 Influenza epidemic killed over 50 million people worldwide. Some people died within hours of displaying their first symptoms. The crowded conditions and transient nature of the camp's population made it an ideal location for the epidemic to spread. The camp self-quarantined itself and a half mile radius beyond in an effort to contain the disease.
The stones themselves make natural breaks for identifying locations for the names. Thus the areas are referred to as E1, E2, and E3 from top to bottom on the east side and W1, W2, and W3 on the west side. The number after the area identifier is the count of that name within that area. Thus, E2-025 is the 25th name in the middle area on the east side.
The list of names begins on the east side and lists the officers by rank, starting with Major N. C. Bunch (ES-001). After the officers come the nurses, then the sargents, followed by the corporals and then the privates. The last name on the east side is Private William Hiert. The first name on the west side is Private Lem H. Hill. The last name at the bottom of the west side is civilian employee Winifried Morris.
Please note that some of the names in the stone are incorrect. For example, Major N.C. Bunch (name in the stone) is really Major Henry Edgar Bunch. Check the 'aka' column of the Names List PDF for corrected names.
There are 579 names listed on the Camp Merritt Monument in Cresskill/Dumont, Bergen County, New Jersey. These are the people that died at the camp base hospital while leaving and returning from fighting in World War I in France.
But who were they, really? I am trying to add more background details, to help us better see the people behind the names. How old were they? Where were they from? What family did they leave behind? How did they die?
(Most people believe that they all died during the Influenza Epidemic of 1918. From the research already completed, it appears the majority of people died of influenza, but there are also examples of other causes of death.)
Research for each name begins with looking for each person's death certificate at the New Jersey State Archives. It then expands to the usual resources, such as FamilySearch.org, Ancestry.com, Fold3.com, and FindAGrave.com.
Special thanks go out to my research angels: Lucille Bertram, Carol DeMott, Ree Hopper, Jo Anne Makely, and Michelle Novak.
4 Nov 2020: 477 people have been identified via their death certificate. This PDF is a summary of the research at this time. Comment and/or corrections are welcome; send email to "camp at tweedriver dot com".