Alfred Speer: Passaic Vintner, Publisher and Inventor


Donald Charles Lotz

(from PCHS newsletter of Jan., Apr., 1987)

On a typical busy weekday evening in Manhattan, thousands of commuters fidget in buses snarled in traffic on Broadway. Reading their newspaper while locked in another traffic jam, their thoughts turn to dinner and the glass of wine awaiting their arrival home. This scene is an everyday occurrence for thousands of commuters in the twentieth century, but it was also quite common a century ago. A similar scene often confronted Alfred SPEER, wine merchant, newspaper publisher, inventor, and native of Passaic, New Jersey, in downtown Manhattan.

Alfred Speer was born November 2, 1823 in New Jersey to a local family of Dutch ancestry. Typical of many young men of the early nineteenth century, Alfred obtained the usual grammar school education common to that period. As a teenager, he became apprenticed to a cabinetmaker in Newark, New Jersey while his inquisitive and inventive skills developed. During his apprenticeship, William NELSON stated that Alfred “made a camera, from descriptions he had read, and took some of the first daguerreotypes seen in Newark.” Completing his apprenticeship, he moved to Acquackanonk Township, now the present day Passaic, and established his own cabinet and furniture shop. He must have valued the furniture he made because a few pieces are mentioned in his will, one piece being described as “one mahogany bookcase, that I made in 1854 with ground glass doors, which I give and bequeath to my son, Colonel Morgan.”

In 1844, Alfred Speer married Catherine Eliza BERRY of Acquackanonk, who died in 1852. The surviving children of his first marriage were William Henry and Alfred Wesley. In 1856, Speer married Polly Ann MORGAN of Cape Girardeau, Missouri. Their children included Ella Morgan, Sidney S. Nelson, Althea L., Irving, and Morgan.

The curiosity and inventiveness of Alfred Speer were once again aroused. Within a period of four years, he received two U.S. patents, receiving the first patent in 1852 for constructing a cylindrical sounding board for a piano. He went so far as to build a cylindrical piano, which he exhibited at the American Institute Fair in Castle Garden in 1853 and “described as a remarkable piece of mechanism.” Unfortunately, a fire destroyed his invention, along with his house in 1877. The second patent issued to Alfred Speer in 1856 was for a combination lock and weather-strip for windows.

Expanding his horizons, Speer exhibited an interest in the cultivation and processing of fruits for producing wine. His earliest wine making experiments were confined to the use of the elderberry and other native American fruits. A newspaper article from 1859 stated that he “succeeded in producing a method of fermenting and preparing wine from the Native Elderberry, without adding spirits, or drugs of any kind or in any form whatever.” Speer’s experiments in raising and fermenting grapes for wind began at this time.

Speer’s vineyard and wine business started on a small scale, with the vineyard expanding until it was “the largest in the State, containing over five miles of driveways, and over five hundred miles of wire.” The business operated as two separate companies known as Speer’s New Jersey Wine company and Speer’s Vine Culture Company, with offices in Passaic, New Jersey and New York, New York. One could go to the warehouse and purchase a bottle of “Speer’s Passaic Port Wine.” The companies included vineyards and vaults in Passaic, New Jersey and Los Angeles, California.

With an office in New York City, Speer became familiar with the problems of traveling on the congested streets and showed an interest in the Rapid Transit Movement for Manhattan in the 1860’s and 1870’s. His determination to alleviate the street congestion in New York City became evident when he patented another invention. In 1871, he received a patent for his “Endless Traveling or Railway Sidewalk.” Speer and proponents of other modes of rapid transit petitioned the New York State politicians for bills to incorporate their schemes of rapid transit. The bill for incorporation of his rapid transit system passed the New York State Legislature in 1873 and 1874, but “for technical reasons only,” was vetoed by Governor Dix. Although his interest in rapid transit waned, he never abandoned it, because in 1866, he received a patent for an electric elevated railroad.

Alfred Speer’s traveling sidewalk was never adopted as a method of rapid transit in New York City, but the ideas of his invention were used. For example, a moving sidewalk was in operation at the Columbian Exposition in 1893, and in 1964 the New York World’s Fair had moving sidewalks available as transportation, the ideas for which was created to Thomas Edison.

The operation of his wine business and the development of this Endless Traveling or Railway Sidewalk did not occupy all of Alfred Speer’s time. He played an active role in the advancement of his community, the present city of Passaic, including naming the city.

At various times prior to 1854, the area comprising Passaic was known as Acquackanonk, Acquackanonk Landing, and Paterson Landing. The post office designated the community Acquackanonk and the station on the Paterson and Hudson River Railroad (later the Erie Railroad) was known as Huyler’s Station. At a public meeting in 1854, a proposal was made to change the name of the community to Passaic. Alfred Speer, being a staunch supporter of the proposal, “then determined to change the name by hook or crook.” He circulated a petition and “obtained the signatures of all who were favorable to the idea, and sent the petition to the postal authorities. In April, 1854, the postal authorities designated the post office as Passaic.

Passaic Village named Alfred Speer its first street superintendent in 1866. As street superintendent, he is credited with laying the first sidewalk and erecting the first street lamps in the village. He also erected the first brick building in Passaic, Speer’s Wine Warehouse. Work started on the warehouse in 1865 and concluded the following year, “when at a public meeting called by the people for the purpose, Mr. Speer was thanked for his enterprise, and presented with an address and American flag.” In 1891, the warehouse was partially destroyed by fire and in 1966, it was torn down to make way for Route 21.

The commencement of the newspaper business in Passaic, New Jersey is another contribution Alfred Speer made to his community. Speer published and edited “The Item,” the first newspaper printed in Passaic, New Jersey. The editorial of the first issue of July 9, 1870 stated, “In assuming the responsibility for publishing the first paper from the first press ever set up in this township, we hope our readers will have no disposition to be very critical of our first attempt of Journalizing.” The Item ceased publication at the turn of the century when it was “merged into the Passaic Daily Herald,” which eventually “merged with the Daily News to form the Herald-News.”

Occupying his time with many diversified interests for the greater part of his life, Alfred Speer finally found time for relaxation in his later years. Portions of his leisure hours were spent entertaining guests and visitors in his vineyards and “he frequently gave great public parties in his park surrounding this Chateau.” A custom of his for many years was “to provide annual treats for the children of Passaic,” consisting of “excursions to Coney Island or some other resort.”

After journeying through life adhering to the proverb that “a man should not wait for opportunities, he should make them” and “luck cuts no figure in life,” Alfred Speer died on February 16, 1910. His obituary, in a local newspaper, entitled “Passaic’s Grand Old Man Called by Death,” also emphasized that he was the “Oldest Resident of This City.”

His involvement with inventing and the newspaper, furniture, and wine businesses opened many opportunities for Alfred Speer. Further, his diversification provided the nineteenth century commuter with a newspaper to read on the commute home and a glass of Passaic Port Wine. Only because of the veto of Governor Dix, was Alfred Speer unable to provide the commuter with an alternative means of traveling home. If this had occurred, he would has been known as the Traveling Sidewalk man instead of “Elderberry Juice.”

Portions of this research were made possible by a grant from the NJ Historical Commission.

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