The Wilson Military Academy was located in Finderne 1907-1912
By Bruce Doorly
Last month when this author wrote an article about historic postcards, I came across one postcard that sparked my curiosity. It was called the “Wilson Military Academy” which was in the Finderne section of Bridgewater.

Seeking more information, I found that not much has been written about it besides the fact that it burnt down in 1912. But using old local newspapers as sources I was able to piece together the story of this academy and the building that it occupied.

Old issues of the “Courier News” are available online at and old issues of the now defunct weekly the “Somerset Messenger Gazette” are available on microfilm at the Bridgewater library.
In 1892, a very successful New York City attorney John C. Shaw, whose lavish summer home was in Finderne, decided to build a deluxe hotel next to his property. No map shows the exact location of the hotel (later the academy) or his home, but secondary sources state they were located between Main Street and Route 28 on the west side of Finderne Avenue.

Written descriptions say that the hotel was on a hill. The only existing hill, small at that, is across from the People Care Center which is toward Route 28.
The probable location of the
Finderne Hotel & The Wilson Military Academy
John C. Shaw gambled that others like him would want a summer escape from city life. Old newspapers verify the fact that Bridgewater was a summer retreat for some.

The hotel took two years to build. It was an impressive hotel with (too) many rooms and entertainment facilities. In an era of few electric lights, the hotel at night was a spectacular site that could be seen for miles around. Nighttime riders on the train line (which was a half mile south) would always look for it.

At a glance, the five-story building was stunning. But the construction was said to be poor and it was such a fire threat that John C. Shaw could not find anyone to issue a fire insurance policy on it
The first known newspaper
reference to the hotel from 1894
When the “Finderne Hotel”, as it was called, first opened in 1894 it attracted much attention. The promotion of the hotel was top-notch. During the first summer on Wednesdays and Sundays the local population, not just the hotels’ residents, were welcome to join in on the nightlife. They came by the hundreds – and why not?

A brass band would entertain throughout the nights - keeping the crowd dancing. And special fascinating entertainers were hired as well. Miss Duray Leonora, a contortionist, gave nightly exhibits, demonstrating various ways that she could twist her body. Another entertainer “Youna - the Juggler Extraordinary” also delighted the crowds on multiple nights.
Despite the excitement generated by the Finderne Hotel, business was disappointing.

The local population, who flocked to attend the open houses, had little need for any hotel stay. In addition, the vision of John C. Shaw of the hotel being mainly a summer destination was obviously flawed - as what about the non-summer months?

After just one year, in 1895, the Finderne Hotel was deemed a failure and an auction was held for the contents of the place – furnishings, bedding, carpets, lamps, silverware, etc. While John C. Shaw would sell the contents, he retained ownership of the building.

By 1897 he was able to rent out the hotel on a five-year lease. But by 1902 the new version of the hotel seemed to have failed again as a newspaper announcement said that the hotel building would be now rented as a sanatorium – a home for the insane. But it is doubtful that it ever opened as there are no further documented references to it.
In 1907, John C. Shaw found a long-term tenant for his large building as the “Hudson River Military Academy” from South Nyack, New York, was in search of a new location. The school was for boys ages 8 through 18. It had been open for 42 years since 1865.

It was under the operation of Captain Joel Wilson who was a Captain during the Civil War. His second in command in recent years was his son Lieutenant L. Merle Wilson.
Upon the move the name would be changed to the “Wilson Military Academy”.

The Finderne location had immense athletic fields and drill grounds for infantry, artillery, and cavalry. It had stables with horses and ponies for use by the cadets. There was a half-mile track for horses.

The 55 students all resided there. They came from all around including South America, Mexico, Puerto Rico, England, and various states across the U.S. The cadets were equally distributed among all ages. Yearly tuition was $400.

The academy became a proud part of the local community. The older boys competed in baseball, basketball, and football against the local high schools - Bound Brook, Plainfield, and Rutgers Prep.
On May 7th 1912, disaster struck the academy. A cigarette in a student’s room started a fire. Smoking was prohibited, but some students snuck an occasional cigarette. The cadets ran to Lieutenant L. Merle Wilson’s room to notify him of the fire. He charged into the room trying to put out the fire, but he was unsuccessful.

The academy had planned for a fire with rehearsed procedures among the cadets. They had four lines of fire hoses in the building each with its own five-thousand-gallon water tank. But the fire spread too rapidly.

The newspaper said it was a frame building with an interior finish of yellow pine and it burned like a tinder box. Soon the blaze could be seen for miles around. Within two hours, all that remained of the main school building complex was a chimney.
Fortunately, no one lost their life. There were 55 students and 20 staff members and their families.

The only injury was to Lieutenant L. Merle Wilson who received bad burns on his arms when he tried to put out the fire when it was just in the one room.

It was said that the military discipline taught at the school was responsible for the orderly evacuation. The stables with the horses and the nearby home of John C. Shaw were saved due to the heroic firefighting actions of the cadets.
After the fire, the students who lived within a hundred miles were sent home and the others were sent to the Armory building in Somerville.

In the fall, the academy relocated to Madison NJ.

Today the fact that a military academy was once located in Bridgewater is known by just a small percentage of people. But perhaps this article will increase awareness that this proud institution was once located in Bridgewater.
Graduation Ceremony at the Academy