Using history in fiction

In “The Swamps of Jersey,” I borrowed liberally from the history of Morris County and its iron mining industry.

Here, Detective Frank Nagler ponders that history to analyze where he stands in an investigation into murder and the political corruption:

Ironton, like most of the canal and iron towns of the county at one time, was a boiling cauldron of ethnic pride, drunken rage and   lawlessness. Neighborhoods, more like coverquotes2 encampments of Cornish, Irish, Swedes, Germans, Italians, Slavs and others, made up the towns. After days of hard work in the iron mines or at the forges and foundries, they met at the bars, and drunk and filled with homeland pride and a poor workingman’s rage, it was never surprising that often the next day a body was floating in the canal. Nagler’s grandfather told him the stories, he recalled. The work underground in damp, sweating mines. The rhythm of iron pounding on iron as they carved out holes in the sweating walls for blasting caps and dynamite; nervous fingers. Then the coolness of fresh air as they again broke the surface, once more alive. “We grabbed civilization out of those rocks with our fists,” his grandfather said.

And so they had. Nagler thought. Old Hurd’s forge, and soon Oram’s and a dozen mines. Canal boats tied for the night at the basin, warehouses of goods flowing east to west,   mules in rope pens, braying; campfires, and roasting meat; soft songs floating on the smoky air; then soon the towns grew along the river, brick streets and iron rails as trolleys rolled through to Lake Hopatcong where the swells built their summer homes. And shops and ice cream parlors and vaudeville at the Baker Theater, the iron money rolling in, transforming the village, while the rich men built their mansions and the poor men huddled in cold water flats.

Then George Richman built his fabulous department store and sold the beautiful women fashions from Paris, and handmade silk suits for their men and marveled their children with mechanical toys and sparkly things that had just arrived by rail from New York City; the department store that filled the streets with a squadron of white horse-drawn delivery vans and draped starry red-white-and-blue banners from its three floors of windows, the place for that first suit for the young man, Maria’s white confirmation dress, a pair of hard-soled shoes and the wedding gown with the long train for the family’s first daughter.

Nagler, like anyone who grew up in Ironton, knew about George Richman. He was credited with transforming Ironton from a grimy, one mill town to one of the largest manufacturing centers in North Jersey. He owned iron mines and iron mills and the railroads that connected the two. But more, he attracted companies that could turn his iron into other products and soon the city was home to a dozen mills making kitchen pots and farm implements, stoves, then shoes and coats and ladies’ stockings; everything the growing world could want.

George Richman was also the politician to marshal Ironton’s city charter through the Legislature, creating the modern city from a section of a neighboring township.

There was nothing that George Richman couldn’t do, it seemed.

Except predict the future.

The mines played out and steel replaced iron as the building material of choice, and soon superhighways, shopping malls and subdivisions buried the old mines; weeds grew up through the rusted rails, the canal was filled in and paved over, its existence noted by a brass plaque screwed to the back side of an old warehouse. The fall, oh great Troy, is deep and far.

Nagler never knew how sorry he was supposed to feel for Gabriel Richman. His grandfather had left a legacy that would never be repeated; never again in New Jersey would there be so much virgin territory to claim, so much to invent, create, or destroy and exploit. Once there was a place that paced the world, a place center to the commerce and culture, a place that thrived and grew and redoubled again and again, a place so special strangers smiled when they heard its name, businessmen spoke in awe of its industrial might, asked how could it be done, and wondered how they might get their share; a place of laughter and dreams.

That was not the place where Gabriel Richman dwelled. He was stuck alongside the road with the wooden wagon with the broken wheel, trapped in the place of hollow eyes. He didn’t have the smoky, noisy mill upon which to build his city’s dream, he only had its memory; he didn’t have the great shopping center with its transportation hub to boast about, he only had the faded billboard. He didn’t have a grand department store with horse-drawn delivery vans and starry banners, he only had the Old Iron Bog and it sucked below its dark surface all his dreams and visions, only to leave him standing on its muddy, overgrown road haggard and lost, staring into its dark waters asking why.

Nagler laughed. And here I am, asking the same swamp the same question.

Where have you buried your dead?

“The Swamps of Jersey” was published by Imzadi Publishing LLC on Nov. 1.



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About michaelstephendaigle

I have been writing most of my life. I am the author of the award-winning Frank Nagler Mystery series. "The Swamps of Jersey (2014); "A Game Called Dead" (2016) -- a Runner-Up in the 2016 Shelf Unbound Indie Author Contest; and "The Weight of Living" (2017) -- First Place winner for Mysteries in the Royal Dragonfly Book Awards Contest.
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