Martian Landing Site Plaque.
Evil Martian, terrified family, and Orson Welles: a war memorial for a war that never happened.

Martian Landing Site Monument

Field review by the editors.

Grovers Mill, New Jersey

The sight of Americans running around acting crazy and paranoid over something that isn't real... isn't new. It happened back on October 30, 1938, when people overheard an evening radio broadcast of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds -- the story of an invasion from Mars -- and thought that it was actually happening. According to subsequent newspaper reports, people cried, prayed, claimed they saw things that didn't exist, refused to believe they were mistaken, and clogged the roads either trying to flee the Martians or to get close enough to shoot them.

50th Anniversary poster.
50th Anniversary poster.

The dramatization -- part of the Mercury Theatre on the Air radio series -- was staged by 23-year-old future Hollywood director Orson Welles. He told the New York Times the next day that he really hadn't wanted to broadcast the War of the Worlds story because he thought that people "might be bored or annoyed at hearing a tale so improbable."

What made it probable was the script by writer Howard Koch. He'd heard dramatic radio reports of the Hindenburg disaster the previous year, and decided to rewrite Wells' 1890s sci-fi yarn as a series of frantic 1930s on-air news bulletins, crashing the Martians, like the Hindenburg, into New Jersey. To find the exact spot, Koch took a road map, closed his eyes, and dropped a pencil point. It landed on Grovers Mill.

Grover's Mill map.
The Martians landed here.

"At the time, this was almost all farmland," said Paul Ligeti, head archivist of the Historical Society of West Windsor. "There were only a few trees. The view would've been more than a mile. All anyone had to do that night was to look out a window and see that nothing was going on." The citizens of Grovers Mill did that, but the people driving onto town to fight the Martians didn't.

Artist Thomas Jay Warren creating the plaque.
Artist Thomas Jay Warren creating the plaque.

The most famous casualty of the invasion was the town's old wooden water tower, reportedly shot by nervous gunslingers who mistook it for a Martian. LIFE magazine even published a photo of local resident William Dock with a shotgun, allegedly protecting Grovers Mill from extraterrestrials -- even though the photo was taken in bright sunlight the following day, many hours after the invasion had been debunked. Rather than fighting Martians, Dock was probably fending off the hoards of reporters who'd swarmed into town.

Plaque dedication, 1988.
Monument dedication, 1988.

For years Grovers Mill tried to forget its moment of unwanted fame -- but when 1988 arrived, the town knew it had to do something to mark the 50th anniversary. To its credit, the community didn't settle for a small plaque or a historical marker. It hired artist Thomas Jay Warren to sculpt a war monument worthy of a war that never happened, then unveiled it as part of a four-day celebration with posters, bumper stickers, t-shirts, a parade, and a "Martian Panic" bicycle race.

The Martian Landing Site Monument is a 7.5-foot-high slab of sculpted bronze. Its 3-D bas-relief depicts a impassioned Welles -- pipe in hand -- emoting into a studio microphone, while a family sits at home listening to their radio in terror. Above them, a sinister Martian looms in a tentacled fighting machine -- looking very much like a malevolent water tower. The monument was unlike any other in America at the time, and its strangeness still draws visitors today. "Stylistically, it fits," said Paul Ligeti. "It's big and bombastic, just like the supposed panic and terror that was sweeping the nation."

Water tower mistaken for a Martian.
Water tower mistaken for a 1938 Martian.

The monument dedication drew a big crowd of fans, including New Jersey's governor. Orson Welles didn't attend -- he'd died in 1985 -- but an elderly Howard Koch did. He told a reporter that he was pleased when his pencil point landed on a town named Grovers Mill. "I liked the sound," he said.

The West Windsor Arts Council still celebrates the anniversary every year -- they even built an impressive Martian "Scoutship" sculpture in tribute -- and when the centennial rolls around in 2038, a time capsule buried next to the monument will be unearthed. A local coffee shop proudly displays War of the Worlds memorabilia and boosts caffeine alertness for any future space attack. The water tower is still standing, although it's now hidden by trees most of the year. Paul said that visitors who have difficulty seeing it can drive to the nearby Historical Society (50 Southfield Road), which has a similar water tower on its lawn.

"The odd thing," said Paul, "is that the farm where everyone thought the Martians had landed wasn't in Grovers Mill at all." It was about a half-mile north of town, across the Millstone River, in Plainsboro.

"That," he said, "just added to the confusion."

Also see: Creatures Guide: Space Aliens

Martian Landing Site Monument

Van Nest Park

Address:
218 Cranbury Rd, Grovers Mill, NJ
Directions:
South side of Cranbury Rd just east of its intersection with Clarksville Rd. In Van Nest Park, between the play area and the pond.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Water Tower Mistaken for a MartianWater Tower Mistaken for a Martian, Grovers Mill, NJ - < 1 mi.
War of the Worlds Martian ShipWar of the Worlds Martian Ship, West Windsor, NJ - 1 mi.
Tombstone of Elsie the CowTombstone of Elsie the Cow, Plainsboro, NJ - 1 mi.
In the region:
20-Foot-Tall Trump Lawn Art, Staten Island, NY - 32 mi.

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