Hoboken’s History

“Heaven, Hell or Hoboken by Christmas.”

wilsonThose were the options Gen. “Black Jack” Pershing gave many of the more than two million servicemen who embarked from Hoboken to Europe on their way to fight in World War I.

The lucky ones were greeted back at Hoboken’s waterfront by President Woodrow Wilson upon their safe return.

Needless to say, Hoboken has a colorful, rich and important history.

In the beginning, Hoboken was a bucolic island of trees and green pastures, separated at the west by marshes and ponds. The land was inhabited by the Lenni Lenape Indians who camped on the island in the summers.

In 1609, Henry Hudson’s ship, the Half Moon, took harborage in Hoboken Cove, by the border of Weehawken, where the navigator noted the island and its green serpentine rock. Hudson and his crew were the first Europeans known to have seen Hoboken, but soon after, others followed, including Peter Stuyvesant, the Dutch governor of Manhattan, who bought all the land between the Hackensack and Hudson rivers in 1658.

More than a hundred years later, in 1783, the “island” was purchased by Colonel John Stevens for 18,360 pounds sterling, about $100,000 today, and settled on the name Hoboken. From 564 bucolic acres, he and his descendants led in the creation of this thriving 21st century city.

Colonel Stevens developed Hoboken as a resort. As early as 1820 he began transforming the wild but beautiful waterfront into a resort. He created a path called River Walk, which meandered along the waterfront to what were then Elysian Fields. The spacious meadow became a popular center for recreation. On June 19th, 1846 the first organized baseball game was played on the site. The New York Nine defeated the Knickerbockers by a score of 23 to 1.

The rich and famous flocked to Hoboken during this era. Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr were active members of the Turtle Club which met near Elysian Fields. In 1851, Lillian Russell, Jay Gould and William Vanderbilt entertained at Duke’s House near the ferry station. Horace Greeley and Henry Ward Beecher frequented Nick’s Bee Hive. John Jacob Astor built a resort house on Washington and Second streets and John Cox Stevens began America’s yacht club in Hoboken in 1844.

By the end of the 19th century, Hoboken had evolved into the major transportation hub that it is today. With its position at the mouth of New York Harbor, in the early 20th century piers for passengers and freight quickly grew along Hoboken’s waterfront. The city prospered as a major trans-Atlantic port. Among the shipping companies to settle here were North German Lloyd, Hamburg-American, Holland-American, Scandinavian and Wilson.

In 1907 the Erie-Lackawanna Terminal was built to replace the original terminal, which was destroyed two years earlier by fire. A registered historic site, the terminal served commuter ferries to New York City and trains traveling west. In 1908, the first subway train linking the terminal and Manhattan opened at the site.

Development brought immigrants to Hoboken and immigrants brought their varied cultures. The Germans were the first wave of immigrants, followed by the Irish, the Italians, the Hispanics and the East Asian. With each group came its own languages, foods, music, festivals, clubs and institutions.

stevensparkMany of the immigrant’s buildings still stand interweaving Hoboken’s present and past. The Stevens family founded churches and schools. Stevens Institute of Technology was founded in 1870 with a land grant bequeathed by Edwin A. Stevens. The Stevens gatehouse, built in 1859, survives the Stevens Castle, a magnificent 34 room family mansion which topped the bluff until its demolition in 1959. The Hoboken Land and Improvement Building at River and Newark streets is reminiscent of the company that was formed in 1839 to take over the management of the Stevens family docks, ferries and other business properties.

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church at 820 Hudson Street is the oldest religious congregation in the city having been established in 1836. The former St. Mary Hospital (now Hoboken University Medical Center) dates back to 1863. The Clam Broth House opened in 1899 and the Keuffel and Esser building, constructed in 1906 for the manufacture of precision instruments, has been converted into residential housing.

Hoboken’s past has been touched by many artists. Stephen Collins Foster lived at the corner of Sixth and Bloomfield streets when he wrote “I dream of Jeannie.” Crooner Frank Sinatra was born on December 12th, 1915 at 415 Monroe Street. Dorothea Lange, noted for her documentary photography during the Depression era, was born in Hoboken in 1895. Edgar Allen Poe’s “Mystery of Marie Roget” was based on the Hoboken Murder of Mary Rogers. Academy Award winning film “On the Waterfront” was filmed entirely in Hoboken. Hetty Green, one of the wealthiest women of her day and a Hoboken resident was the main character in a book titled “The Witch of Wall Street.”

Colonel Stevens, Hoboken’s ‘grandfather,” was best known as an inventor. In 1791, he received one of the first patents issued in America for a steam engine design. Thirteen years later his “Little Juliana’ plied across the Hudson River between the Battery and Hoboken making it the first steamboat driven by twin screw propellers. In 1808, Colonel Stevens launched the “Phoenix” which became the first steam-driven vessel to make an ocean voyage.

StevensFrom boats, Colonel Stevens turned to rail. By 1825 he designed and built the first experimental steam-driven locomotive in America and ran it as a demonstration on a circular track. The locomotive was 16 feet long and traveled at 12 miles an hour. Even before this accomplishment, Colonel Stevens received the first American railroad charter in 1815; he literally began the American railway system which played a prime role in the building of this country.

Today, Hoboken is known as a vibrant urban destination, embracing its rich history and offering considerable cultural, recreational and commercial development. The city is known for its many festivals and breath-taking views of Manhattan. It is an educational mecca, thanks to the Stevens family who chartered Stevens Institute of Technology. Hoboken has been shaped into a city of unique character; a character that will live long into the future.