Get Your Kicks on Route 22
Maybe it was the radical change in the landscape with an abrupt rise of 500 feet that led to its reputation of mystery. Stories would be told of interesting places to visit in the mountains out west along the infamous Route 22. This road was our version of “Route 66”, a highway leading east to west across New Jersey to Pennsylvania and beyond. This was a time before the Interstate Highway system would speed travelers across the state by adding Routes 80 and 78, but bypass many local towns and areas of interest.
Before the age of shopping malls, Route 22 was a destination for shopping and entertainment. For the emerging automobile generation, there were large “discount stores” like Two Guys and E. J. Korvettes you could drive to and avoid the inconvenience of going into the city.
Route 22 had restaurants, gas stations, small and large businesses all along the road from Hillside to Somerville. There was even a night club turned into a clothing store built like a “Flagship.” . Back then, diners, drive-in theaters, bowling lanes, golf ranges and even an amusement park caused lots of driver distractions. Its unique commercial island between east and west traffic allowed right and left lane access adding to the driving danger that was Route 22. For us, the stories of accidents and fatalities on Route 22 only added to its challenging allure.
Bumps in the Road
One memorable destination worthy of a car trip out west was a road known as “13 Bumps.” To get there required about a 10 mile trip on Route 22 to the town of Scotch Plains, at the base of the Watchung Mountains. 13 Bumps was actually another name for Johnston Drive, a narrow two-lane road that paralleled Route 22 for a couple miles but rose several hundred feet above along the mountain ridge. A ride on Johnston Drive offered two unique benefits; a spectacular southern view of the suburban towns below and a place to experience a unique joy ride over 13 large bumps to the bottom.
As a teenager, with a car, a place to park with a view meant a high potential “make out” area for a date. Johnston Drive was a sparsely residential road then with houses built into the cliff and a few turnouts that could provide short-term parking with a view. With no authorized spot to linger and no shoulder, it would not be long before a cop would chase us away. That was probably a good thing. It was not uncommon for guys and girls to meet at Jahn’s in Union and adventure together on Route 22 to 13 Bumps, especially on a moonlit night ripe for the promise of adventure.
Of course, the proof of the quality of any ride was how much you would feel that tickle in your stomach as your organs try to defy gravity. Then, again and again, seconds apart. After each bump the custom was to count out loud the number of the bump until you reached “13” near the bottom of the road. 13 Bumps was our version of a DIY amusement ride which we usually repeated several times on any given night.
Falling into the Rabbit Hole
When I started thinking about 13 Bumps as a story, I decided to look online to see if others in the mid-1960’s had the same memories and experiences. But, what I found was that and more. It seems that Johnston Drive originated back in the mid 1800’s and legend has it that it used to be a unique carriage road that was always associated with mystery.
In 1845 a man by the name of David Felt built a small utopian industrial village in the Watchung’s called “Feltville” to support his printing business. To his disciplined and religious community he was known as “King David”. Feltville grew to over 175 residents in the first five years. Then, legend has it that in the next two years 11 children were captured from the town, mutilated, and died near the outskirts of the village.
As deaths appeared, most of the town believed the attacks to be animal related but the killings never stopped. Families began to turn on one other. They then blamed the murders on devils and demons. But, eventually, they blamed a family of 13 sisters who had lost both their parents at a young age. Because this mysterious family did not seem to be affected by the killings, their farm prospered and there were “13” sisters. the town claimed that they were “witches” who sacrificed the children to pagan gods for the good of their crops.
After a long trial the entire family of sisters were found guilty as witches and were hanged. As a reminder of the crimes. the bodies were buried along a local road creating 13 bumps which is now known as Johnston Drive. A rumor followed that before their death, the sisters put a curse on Feltville that would doom the village. However, no record of this murder spree is in the historical record, but remains an urban legend.
Update on the Witches of Watchung
First, let me tell you that the 13 Bumps are no longer there! I recently took a ride on Johnston Drive and there’s good news and bad. The good news is that it’s still a nice country road with magnificent houses and a great view. The bad news is that while the road is not perfectly smooth, you would not know that the bumps ever existed.
The municipalities of Scotch Plains and Watchung realized that the road was a problem over the years and attempted to flatten and repave the road multiple times. Locals claim even so, the bumps continued to mysteriously re-appear over the years. The last paving was over ten years ago. Maybe they got the paving right this time. Or, are they destined to come back? It’s possible I suppose that the curse has been finally lifted. Or, Maybe this urban legend is just an old version of “Fake News.”