Trenton’s First Lunch Wagon

Peter G. Curtin and his pioneering lunch wagon
Born on October 17, 1859, in Brooklyn, N.Y., Peter G. Curtin was the son of a New York City harbor boatman. He obtained his early education in New York and later in Elizabeth, N.J., where he gained employment at the Singer Sewing Machine Company and learned the machinist trade. It was there that he kept a watchful eye on the city’s lunch wagon business and took advantage of an opportunity to take over a lunch wagon while its owner was on vacation, he decided to enter the business himself.

Moving to Trenton he was employed as a tool maker at Warren Kimball and Company, but afterward returned to Singer. Coming again to Trenton he established a restaurant, and noting there was not a lunch wagon to be seen anywhere in the city, he hired the carriage maker Fitzgibbon & Crisp to construct a wagon with which he realized his dream.

As the Trenton Evening Times of November 16, 1933, tells the story: “He hadn’t been in Trenton long when he took stock of the local situation and gave Trenton its first lunch wagon. It stood at State and Broad streets in front of the old City Hall for a quarter of a century, and was liberally patronized, the customers including city officials, county and state politicians, and men prominent in other walks of life.”

Trenton Old and New (Podmore 1927) adds a bit more: “Another familiar landmark which disappeared when Trenton's municipal government moved to its new building on East State Street was Curtin's pioneer lunch wagon which stood on Broad Street in front of the City Hall every night from 1894 to 1911. The original lunch wagon ... was later replaced by a new wagon, just as the original coffee and simple sandwiches gave way to a more elaborate menu. The lunch wagon hours were usually from 9:00 p.m. to 4:30 a.m., one of the busiest periods being when the crowds from the Taylor Opera House stopped by for a snack while awaiting the last trolley home.”

Curtin retired to his farm outside the city but soon returned in the employ of the Essex Rubber Company where he was once again a machinist. He suffered a fatal heart attack while at work on November 15, 1933, and was interred in Section K, Lot 240.

The Landing of Columbus, an oil painting by
John Vanderlyn, is displayed in the Capital Rotunda
Architect of the Capitol

There is, however, an interesting sidenote to the story.

The American neoclassical artist John Vanderlyn was commissioned by the U.S. Congress in 1836 to paint a scene of Christopher Columbus landing on the island he named San Salvador on October 12, 1492, and laying claim to all the New World for Spain.

Working in his Paris studio with assistance of a number of other artisans, progress on the painting was slow and meticulous, and included a voyage to San Salvador to envision the scene firsthand. Finally completed, he arrived with the painting in New York in 1846 and it was placed on display in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol in 1847.

The Landing of Columbus became one of Vanderlyn’s best-known and enduring works. It was adapted for use on postage stamps in 1869 and 1893 (the latter was released as one of sixteen stamps issued to commemorate the Columbian Exposition in Chicago), currency in 1875, advertisements, and more. Even the decorator of Curtin’s lunch wagon embellished it with a painting of Columbus landing at San Salvador and being served coffee by none other than the white-aproned proprietor himself.

Now take a closer look at Curtin’s pioneering lunch wagon.

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