25 December 2019

When the Naga Visited West Trenton

West Trenton is an unincorporated neighborhood in the township of Ewing, Mercer County, New Jersey. Called Birmingham at the time of the American Revolution (George Washington divided his troops in the heart of town on his way to the Battle of Trenton), it was later known as Trenton Junction, thanks to the arrival of the trains in the 1870s. It held this name until the early 1930s when it was renamed West Trenton, the name it carries today.

At the turn of the century, Trenton Junction was a semi-isolated hamlet of farmland, country houses, and a few dirt roads. You could catch a train to Philadelphia or New York or even into Trenton and, after some wrangling, a trolley service came into the village from downtown Trenton.

In 1905, Trenton Junction had a most exotic visitor, from far away Nagaland, a province found in the jewel of the British Empire's crown, India.

Located in the northeastern corner of the country, Nagaland borders Burma (Myanmar) and it is one of modern India's smallest states. Surrounded by Hinduism and Buddhism, it is mostly (88%) Christian (Baptist, specifically).

Around 1887, a boy named Eramo Shanjamo Jungi was born in Nagaland. He was of the Lotha tribe and in 1905 he became the first Naga to come to the United States and receive a foreign education.

Mrs. S.A. Parrine was the wife of a Baptist minister and the daughter of Rev. and Mrs. M.T. Lamb of Grand Avenue, Trenton Junction. She and her husband were missionaries to Nagaland. On December 27, 1904 they brought Shanjamo to the United States. He spent 1905 living with her parents, the  Lambs, in their farmhouse on Grand Avenue and he spent the school year studying at the Trenton Junction public school, just down the road. On October 27, 1905, the Rev. Judson Conklin, of the Clinton Avenue Baptist Church in Trenton, arranged to have Shanjamo lecture about his home. Mrs. Parrine interpreted for him.

The following year, Sanjamo transferred to a school in Port Norris and finally, in 1907, he transferred to the Mt. Hermon School in Warren County. He returned to Nagaland on November 27, 1908. He was very active in the Baptist Church in India, was ordained, established churches and preached at many churches throughout Nagaland. He died in 1956.

Today in Nagaland, there is a monument to Eramo Shanjamo Jungi, highlighting the fact that he was the first of his people to receive a foreign education. On the monument is a plaque with his photograph and a list of all of his accomplishments in life and as a Baptist minister and missionary. Listed under his education is the little two-room schoolhouse 7,802 miles away, on Grand Avenue, in Trenton Junction.

I wrote the preceding paragraphs on my blog in 2016 and later adapted them for my book, One Square Mile: A History of Trenton Junction New Jersey. (iUniverse, 2017). And then I forgot about Shanjamo and Nagaland.

They remained forgotten by me until the day after Thanksgiving 2019. Early in the morning of Black Friday, I received a Facebook message from someone in India named Dorothy asking to get in touch with me. I naturally assumed it was yet another scam so I immediately blocked her. I don’t know anyone in India and Dorothy doesn’t sound like an Indian name. After I blocked her, I thought I’d read more of what she wrote and then Google it to see what others were saying about this scam. As I read her message, I realized that it wasn’t a scam. Actually, it was Dorothy’s aunt, Jan Nienu, who wanted to contact me. Jan is also from Nagaland and she now lives in Oakland, California. She recently published the first biography of Shanjamo Jungi. Jan wanted to contact me because she had read my book, One Square Mile. Curious, I immediately unblocked Dorothy and messaged her back saying that yes, of course, her aunt could contact me. After a short period of difficulty getting emails to work, we made contact.

Jan explained to me that she came to New Jersey earlier in the year to retrace the steps of Shanjamo and gather information for her biography. While here, she tried to find Trenton Junction, but to no avail. Not knowing that the village had changed its name in 1931 to West Trenton, she assumed it no longer existed and gave up. She was very disappointed knowing she was going to have to leave a gap in Shanjamo’s story, especially since Trenton Junction was his first stop in this country.

Jan went on to explain that it was her niece in Nagaland who discovered my book online. Both Dorothy and Jan were stunned to see that someone wrote about Trenton Junction and mentioned Shanjamo Jungi. That’s when she had Dorothy reach out to me, all the way from India. You can imagine Jan’s further surprise (and excitement) when I explained that yes, Trenton Junction still exists, just under a new name, as does the old schoolhouse, and the farmhouse where Shanjamo once lived. She found the missing piece to her puzzle!

The two-room Trenton Junction schoolhouse, I explained, burned in 1916. Shortly thereafter, my paternal grandfather, Vincenzo Falzini, bought the building and converted it into a two-family house. My family owned the house from 1916 until 1983 when it was sold after my grandmother passed away.

I told Jan that I would be more than willing to show her around West Trenton and in particular the old school and farmhouse. Before I knew it, Jan and her good friend Takio flew in from Oakland. We spent the weekend touring West Trenton (which took all of 10 minutes…it is, honestly, just one square mile) taking photos and copious notes. I also took them to see the Clinton Avenue Baptist Church in Trenton where Rev. Conklin arranged for Shanjamo to lecture. Once again Jan was shocked to learn of my personal connection to the story: Rev. Conklin had married my maternal grandparents in 1927 and my family attended Clinton Avenue Baptist Church from the early 1920s until it closed its doors in 1969.

It was a whirlwind visit, and Jan tried to take in all that I was showing her and telling her about Trenton Junction at the time of Shanjamo’s visit. One hundred and fifteen years after Shanjamo Jungi’s visit, the second exotic visitor to Trenton Junction from Nagaland left here with a camera full of photos, a notebook full of notes, and a suitcase full of a newly discovered local delicacy – pork roll!

Mark Falzini with Jan Nienu wearing tradational Naga shawls
In front of the old Trenton Junction School

In front of the house on Grand Avenue
where Shanjamo lived.

In front of the former
Clinton Avenue Baptist Church
where Shanjamo lectured

14 January 2019

Nine Fathoms Down: the First Live Radiocast From the Ocean Floor

           Nearly a century ago, on July 31, 1924, at 3:00 in the afternoon and again at 8:00 that evening, history was made.  C.O. Johnson, an expert diver with the Philadelphia Derrick and Salvage Corporation, became the first man to talk over the radio from the bottom of the sea.

           Radio station WIP was responsible for the radiocast from Atlantic City.  Owned by the Gimbel Brothers of Philadelphia, they set up a glass enclosed broadcast control room and studio on Atlantic City’s famous Young’s Steel Pier.  Earlier that summer, they broadcast the sounds of the ocean.  By “placing a special duralumin type microphone in [a] waterproof rubber hood”, the radio engineers lowered it through a 12x12 inch trap door in the floor of the control room and hung it from the peer just above the water where it picked up the “call of the waves.”  For the first time, those living deep inland, far from the coast could hear the sounds of the ocean.

 Not satisfied with “the new and novel idea of radiocasting the surf noises of the mighty Atlantic,” WIP engineers came up with a new stunt – a broadcast from 50 feet below the Atlantic Ocean!
C.O. Johnson was taken out to sea by boat.  A special microphone was attached inside the old style brass diving helmet that was worn by diver Johnson.  The microphone, was secured inside the helmet by a special lead cable that was waterproof and flexible, was connected to the boat above.  “The boat, in turn, was connected by wire to the remote control station on the Steel Pier.  Here the voice from under the ocean was amplified many thousands of times, then transmitted over special telephone lines to the main station, located on the Gimbel Brothers’ store in Philadelphia, more than 60 miles away.”
            Radio Operator and program announcer Samuel Kale (known as “SK” by radio listeners and as “Granddad” by this author) sat at the control table “with a breast transmitter and earphone connected directly to the main [radio] station located in the Gimbel Brothers store in Philadelphia.”  A specially constructed speech input amplifier “of enormous power” was installed.  The engineers had spent months experimenting with the amplifier to ensure that any voice or music transmitted by wire to Philadelphia would be of the highest quality when it was broadcast over the airwaves.
            During the two dives, Johnson planned to broadcast a description of whatever he encountered “nine fathoms down”.  He told of seeing a ship wreck, strange fish, and other sea creatures.  He also described the appearance of “sub-sea foliage and mineral formations” in great detail.  Unfortunately, radio broadcasts from the 1920s were rarely recorded for posterity.  According to the Library of Congress, the recording equipment was bulky, expensive, and the recordings were of very poor quality.  “So much of the early broadcasts…just went into the ether.  They’re gone.”  The August 5, 1924 issue of the Daily Times of Wilson, North Carolina, however, provided a detailed description of the broadcast by announcer SK and diver Johnson:

At 3:11 PM after the announcer said Neptune was next on the program, listeners-in heard a swirling and swishing much like waves beating against a rocky shore.  That noise, it was explained later, came from the air currents in the diver’s helmet. 
           Just before the diver’s voice was heard, the WIP announcer explained that the microphone had been placed in the helmet of the diving outfit.  A small boat then took the diver out a short distance and he made his descent.  The sea-bottom broadcast lasted ten minutes.

At 3:12 came a voice:
“I’ mon my way to the bottom.”
It was a weak voice, but gradually it grew stronger.  This is the tale it told:
“On my left,” said the diver, “I see the wreck of an old boat.  It looks like a skeleton of a huge fish.  In it a school of little fish is playing.  The rays of the sun, which look green at this depth, shine on their backs.”
Then he made a great find.
“The Atlantic City bootleggers have been here!” he chuckled.  There was a pause.  “Oh, the dickens, the corks are pulled.”
He paraded around a second derelict nearby, and at 3:18 called it a day.
Today, it is easy to forget how novel and exciting this broadcast was.  So easy to forget that, if you were to search the internet today, you would be hard pressed to find anyone mentioning it, except for maybe one or two websites about the early history of radio.  Even the Wikipedia page about the history of radio station WIP fails to mention historic event.  But to the pioneers of radio – and their audience - this was a big deal. 
A century ago, the world was a much bigger place than it is now.  Unless you lived near the coast, you most likely never got to see or hear the roar of the surf.  Today, just half a century after hearing the first live broadcasts from the surface of the moon, we are living in a time when we can sit on our porch and talk to someone thousands of miles away; we can send a photograph or even a video of the sunset we are seeing to a friend on the other side of the world and have them instantaneously send a photo or video back of the sunrise they are seeing.  It is easy to forget and difficult to relate to how novel and exciting it was to hear someone speaking a mere 50 feet under the surface of the ocean. 
In the early 20th century, science fiction was just that: fiction.  It was something left to the imagination.  The August 2, 1924 issue of Radio Digest Illustrated, however, captured the excitement of the historic event: 

The marvelous tales of Jules Verne will not be nearly as thrilling as this Radiocast.  Think of it, sit in your own home, and listen to the voice of a man walking on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, telling you just what he sees.