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Hoboken, Hudson County, New Jersey 07030

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Hoboken History - Prior to 1900

HOBOKEN'S EARLY HISTORY

This history was taken from the book "Gritty Cities", Mary Procter and Bill Matuszeski, authors, Temple University Press, 1978.

Hoboken began as a peaceful riverside resort for refugees from Manhattan who wandered along River Walk to the Elysian Field.

Hoboken is built on one of the very few places along the Jersey shore opposite Manhattan where there is sea-level access to the Hudson River and solid land to build on. At Hoboken the Palisade Cliffs, which line the West Bank of the Hudson, move inland just far enought to accomodate an area about twelve by sixteen city blocks.

Hoboken was essentially developed by one man and his family. A remarkable entrepreneuer/inventor, Colonel John Stevens, purchased the island (separated from land by marshes on the west) in 1784 for about $90,000, and named it Hoboken from an amalgam of the Dutch and Indian words for it.

At first Colonel Stevens developed Hoboken, as a resort, beginning with the six mile path known as River Walk, later adding a mineral water spa called Cybil's Cave, a tavern, hotel, and a hundred foot high proto-Ferris wheel calle the Observation Tower. The first regular organized baseball game was played in the Elysian Fields in 1846, and the first American yaht club was built in 1844. The place must have offered powerful attractions, because Hoboken can boast large numbers of rich and famous people as early samplers of its pleasures. Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, Lillian Russell, Jay Gould, William Vanderbilt, Horace Greeley and Harvey Ward Beecher are all said to have frequented Hoboken's meeting place.

Partly to add convenience and flavor to his real estate, Colonel Stevens invented things. In 1804 the first successful steamboat driven by turn screws, the Little Juliana, went into service between Hoboken and the Battery. Despite this success, Colonel Stevens then had to invent a horse-driven paddle wheel boat to carry passengers back and forth until 1824, when he won a long legal battle to break Robert Fulton's steamboat monopoly in the Hudson. In 1825 Stevens designed and built the first experimental steam-driven locomotive in America, which he ran on a circular track in front of one of Hoboken's Inns.

After Colonel Stevens' death in 1838, control of Hoboken passed to his family. Although incorporated as a city in 1855, Hoboken's land was held by the Stevens family through the Hoboken Land and Improvement Company, known as "The Company." Gradually the company began to sell off property for industry and residences while retaining the highest land, Castle Point, for the family.

Stevens Institute of Technology, the oldest college of mechanical engineering in the country, was founded in 1870 with a land grant and endowment from Edwin Stevens. The land to the north and east of Stevens Institute, where the Elysian Fields had been, attracted upper-income buyers. The income level of residents dropped with the elevation to the south and west. In the lowest swampy areas to the west, which flooded in heavy rains until well into the twentieth century, factories were built and surrounded by worker housing. The area southwest of Adams and 4th Streets is the only section of wooden tenements in Hoboken; it was here that Frank Sinatra, Hoboken's best-known son, grew up.

By 1889 there were still only slightly more than three thousand manufacturing workers employed in Hoboken, but by 1909 the number had tripled. Shipbuilding was the primary industry; foundry products and specialized precision instruments were also important. In the late nineteenth century Hoboken began to attract large numbers of immigrants. In 1890, 40 percent of the population was foreign born and well over half of that was German. Until the start of the first World War, Hoboken seemed like a piece of Germany; Germans were the merchants and hotel owners.

"City Fathers" - Robert Frank


© Robert Frank
"City Fathers - Hoboken, NJ" 1955