REMEMBERING CAMP MERRITT
by John Spring
Cresskill Historian and BCHS President 1983 - 86

With America’s entry into the First World War, the United States Army needed an embarkation camp near Hoboken where troops could be assembled for ship transport to France. In June 1917, a board of officers appointed by the War Department inspected several sites in New Jersey. The two sites with the most advantages were the Phelps estate between Teaneck and Englewood, the other being near Cresskill. The board recommended the latter site on July 12 and it was approved. The selection was made, in part because, “the location afforded the speedier and less expensive construction for sewer and water systems, and because the land could be obtained with less expense to the Government.” This site was designated as Camp Merritt, named after Major General Wesley Merritt of Civil and Spanish-American War fame. Actual clearing of the location was begun August 20, 1917.
The camp was located in Bergen County, New Jersey with its center at the intersection of Madison Avenue and Knickerbocker Road, occupying 770 acres on the ridge between the West Shore and Erie Railroads with its borders overlapping the towns of Dumont, Cresskill, Bergenfield and Tenafly. This site would also allow troops to be carried by boat from the Alpine Ferry to transatlantic steamers at the Port of Hoboken. MacArthur Brothers Company received a $5,000,000 construction contract. Work began in September 1917, using materials brought by railroad. During the camp’s construction, the workers were housed in tents set up at the site of an old horse-racing track in Demarest where, today, the athletic fields of the Northern Valley High School are located. A total of 1,302 buildings were built to house and train 50,000 men at a time including 611 two-story wooden barracks, capable of quartering sixty-six each; 189 buildings 39 warehouses; 15 post offices 4 fire stations; 5 garages; 93 hospitals and 94 auxiliary buildings, (which included 7 tailor shops, a 24 –chair barber, a motor repair shop, a refrigerator plant, and a theater capable of seating 2,500 people). Camp Merritt also required the construction of 14 miles of paved roads, (including among which were, for years, the only concrete roads in the vicinity) a mile-long railroad spur connecting the West Shore Railroad to camp warehouses; eleven miles of water lines from the Hackensack Water Company's plant at Oradell; 267 miles of electric wire, requiring 1,029 electric poles, 235 street lamps; two large power plants to supply heat to 126,400 square feet of radiators and a sewage disposal plant connected to 12.5 miles of pipe. Order was maintained by a force of 300 military policemen.

Efforts were made to provide exercise and recreation facilities at the camp. There were regular athletic contests on Wednesday nights. It was the Bakers and Cooks team that won the trophy that was offered. The contests that were held were medicine ball, flag relay, tug-of-war, push ball and jumping. A basketball league was in regular operation at the camp and competition was fierce for its day. Because of its proximity to New York City, camp commanders were able to get famous athletes such as Jack Dempsey to fight exhibitions for the delight of the troops. A big occasion was when“nine or ten big truck loads, imcluding the band” were taken into New York City’s Polo Grounds where they were paraded and feted, then watched a double-header between the World Series-bound Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees.

MERRITT HALL

Mrs. Wesley Merritt, widow of the Major-General, after whom the camp was named, had long wanted to do something for the enlisted men in the army. In the fall of 1917, she provided $10,000, which Major-General D.C. Shanks proposed to use to adapt a building near the center of the camp into a club for the common soldier. Using experience at other camps in its renovation, Merritt Hall was turned into, what Shanks called, “the finest soldiers club in America”. It was opened on January 30, 1918 with Colonel Theodore Roosevelt delivering the dedication address.
Everything was done to make soldiers relaxed and comfortable in Merritt Hall.
The entrance lobby was furnished with ferns and poinsettias. The reading rooms were liberally supplied with wicker chairs, reading tables and lamps. The camp librarians and officers encouraged soldiers to read and allowed soldiers being shipped out to take books for reading at sea.
But the central attraction of Merritt Hall was the cafeteria with its own dishwashing machines, ice chests, a fine marble soda fountain and its own machine for carbonating water. The popularity of the food and drink dispensary is told in the almost unbelievable figures for food and drink consumption, “four hundred and fifty dozen eggs for breakfast on an average day between 7:30 and 10:00 am”. Nine thousand apples, 400 large crullers, 900 pies and 500 gallons of ice cream were an average day’s consumption in Merritt Hall. All this was in addition to the “regular”- and supposedly adequate - food served in the mess halls every day.
Near the cafeteria was a large room with 18 tables for “pocket billiards” and other games. There were also Victrolas and coin-operated pianos for the soldiers to use in providing their own music and entertainment.
One soldier, who had complained earlier about the muddiness and flat terrain.at Fort Dix, said in a letter to his wife. “This is a fine Camp with lots of walks and nice roads. His next letter simply says, “This is the finest camp you ever saw” A midwesterner who later wrote a book about his experiences here in the states,
on board ship and later overseas during the war, recorded this account of his time in Camp Merritt.
    “About three in the afternoon of May 3,(1918), we arrived at Cresskill station and at once shouldered our packs for the brief march to Camp Merritt near Tenafly, New Jersey where we were to wait for our sailing orders. We were extremely fortunate in being sent there, for Camp Merritt was probably the most comfortable camp in the United States. The barracks were built in two stories, stained on the outside,(which gave them an air of elegance quite unusual for the army), and were remarkably light and airy. The mess was excellent - But the thing which chiefly distinguished this camp was the extraordinary number, of places of recreation and the lavish way in which money had been spent to make things as cheerful and homelike as possible for the men in the last few days they were to spend in their native land. Besides the enormous structures of the Y.M.C.A. and Knights of Columbus which extended to all men in uniform the social
    privileges familiar to us at Oglethorpe, the general public had provided at Merritt many other agencies of relaxation and amusement quite peculiar to the camp. As Merritt was the nearest encampment to New York City, it had naturally come to be regarded as New York’s own, and a proper object of attention for all the benevolent attentions of the great metropolis. On the skirts of the camp was the Hostess House, a homelike place where men who could not get passes might meet their relatives. Within the camp was Merritt Hall, a vast,low structure, finished attractively inside, and looking something like the lobby, grill, parlors and writing
    rooms of a great hotel. With a library thrown in for good measure. One whole wing was in charge of the American Library Association. Here there were tables for writing, great easy chairs and settees, plants, vases of flowers, a splendid fireplace and, in low shelves about the walls, thousands of books, provided gratis for the soldier’s use. He was allowed to take them out to read in camp, and might even carry away a reasonable number with him to France”.

The enlisted men at Camp Merritt got a chance to display their talent and to raise money for the camp when they wrote, directed and produced a show in New York City for four weeks in November 1919. The show did not uncover a George M. Cohan or an Irving Berlin, but it was attended by Henry Ford, David Belasco and Al Jolson and produced a profit of $34,096 to be used to benefit the enlisted men at the camp.

The support given to Camp Merritt by the County communities was recognized by the men from the camp in 1919. One sergeant proposed that something be done to thank the County community for their hospitality. A committee was set up, contributions received and medals struck, some 37,674 of them. They were then distributed by servicemen to schoolchildren in all 65 towns in Bergen County.

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Camp Merritt Photos (This will load slowly!)

Camp Merritt 1924 Dedication Phamplet