Wednesday, January 01, 2003

Bergen Square Walking Tour

Bergen Square: A Walking Tour
Presented by the Jersey City Landmarks Conservancy


I: INTRODUCTION


Hudson's Arrival

In the early 1600s the Dutch were not particularly interested in exploring North America. Instead, they turned their attention to the more lucrative tropics and Asia.

In 1609 an Englishman named Henry Hudson was hired by the Dutch to find a passage through North America to Asia. Unable to find the fabled "Northwest Passage" Hudson did report the discovery of a wide harbor surrounded by pleasant land.

New Netherland

Recognizing the value of Manhattan Island and the surrounding region, the Dutch quickly claimed all the land between the Delaware and Connecticut Rivers as "New Netherland".

Slowly the Dutch began to build settlements in their new territory, most importantly, New Amsterdam at the tip of Manhattan Island. There were a number of attempts to build a permanent settlement in present-day New Jersey, but each failed for a variety of reasons: ­ hostility from the Indians, Dutch disorganization and the relatively small number of settlers. For example, in 1633 a trading post was set up by Michael Paulus, an agent of the Dutch West Indies Company, at "Aressick" on the Hudson River ­ today's Paulus Hook.

Although the Dutch generally sought to purchase Indian land, there was considerable violence between both sides. In 1656 after a particularly violent episode (caused when an Indian girl was killed in Manhattan after attempting to eat a peach from an orchard) led to all the scattered Dutch settlers living on the west side of the Hudson to flee to New Amsterdam, the governor of New Netherland, Peter Stuyvesant, issued an ordinance declaring that all settlers must "concentrate themselves by the next spring in the form of towns, villages, and hamlets, so that they might be more effectively protected, maintained and defended against all assaults and attacks by the barbarians."

Two years later, Stuyvesant engineered the purchase of most of present-day Hudson County. For this real estate, the Indians received: 80 fathoms of wampum, 20 fathoms of cloth, 12 brass kettles, 1 double brass kettle, 6 guns, 2 blankets and 1/2 barrel of strong beer.

Bergen

In November of 1660, several families led by Tilman Van Vleck received permission for the creation of a new settlement called Bergen "in the new maize land." Jacques Cortelyou surveyed the land and planned a central square and four surrounding blocks. This was the first example in America of the design later known as the "Philadelphia Square."

There has been some speculation about the name "Bergen". There may have been Danes and Norwegians among the earliest settlers leading some to suggest that Bergen refers to the city in Norway or perhaps Bergen op Zoom in Holland. However, most authorities believe the word for "hill" or "mountain" is the likely source for a settlement built on a ridge.

In any event, most historians consider Bergen the first permanent European settlement in New Jersey, although Communipaw down the road came close when ­later in 1660 farmers formed a small village there.

Here’s one description of life in Bergen:
From their height the villagers looked over island-dotted and stream-divided meadows of tall sea-grass, swarming with wild fowl and rich with fish. Those bright, unstained expanses gave them mighty crops of salt hay for no trouble save that of harvesting it. They were crops that could not fail so long as the tides ran. Everywhere the salt tides were the Dutchman’s friend. He utilized high flood to bring craft close to his farms for easy loading or unloading. He used the ebb to help him to the bay and so to the market at New Amsterdam. He used the flood to help him home again. Indeed, his very land-roads were tidal; for the lower reaches to Paulus Hook and other shores were often under sea in the full-moon tides.

The Dutch lost control of New Netherland in 1664, yet the Dutch and their descendants retained a distinct identity well into the 19th century.

Bergen and the American Revolution

Located along the main coach road between Boston and Philadelphia, many prominent patriots passed through Bergen in the years leading to the American War for Independence ­ Paul Revere rode by at least eight times, perhaps pausing for refreshment at Van Tise's Eagle Tavern.

Bergen was occupied by the British from 1776 to the end of the war. Most of the Dutch seem to have preferred staying out of the conflict. However, a few prominent citizens chose to support the American cause. Jennie Tuers (whose home was near the site of present-day Hudson Catholic High School) alerted George Washington to Benedict Arnold's betrayal. Bergen seems to have been a hotbed of spying activity as the Americans used the superb view of New York and the harbor seen from Bergen Hill.

Social Structure

At the top of Bergen’s social structure were the landowners, all or nearly all descendants of the original Dutch settlers. They rented land to tenants, who only had to pay rent and were sometimes able to save enough money to buy land of their own.

There were also field workers and household servants, often English, Scottish, Irish and German immigrants. They were responsible for supervising indentured servants and slaves, who were, of course, at the bottom of the settlement’s social structure.

In 1726, 18.4 % of Bergen County was classified as “Negro.” There were very few free blacks in the region until slavery was gradually ended by 1804. Nearly every landowning family owned slaves – both out of perceived necessity and as a measure of social status.

A 19th Century Vanishing Act

After the war, Bergen gradually began to lose its rural character as industrialization and the resulting population growth created the metropolis we recognize today. Piece by piece Bergen Township was broken up until it was absorbed into greater Jersey City in 1870.

Despite the fact that much of old Bergen has been lost, the few remaining landmarks serve as a poignant reminder that the history of European settlement in New Jersey started here.



II: THE TOUR

Enlarge Map
Disclaimer: This is an exterior self-guided walking tour only. Remain on public sidewalks and walkways. Residential, commercial and religious properties are privately owned. The JCLC will not be held legally responsible for trespassing. Furthermore, the JCLC cannot be held liable for any types of injuries incurred. Public and private construction sites abound. Venture forth at your own risk!
Please support Bergen Square businesses while on the tour. Stop at the many local restaurants, grocery stores and shops—and tell them the Jersey City Landmarks Conservancy sent you!

1. The Newkirk House (510 Summit Avenue)

This is one of the oldest structures in Jersey City. It was purchased by Mattheus Newkirk in 1690. Built of sandstone, brick and clapboard, it is a good example of 17th century Dutch architecture. The house remained in the Newkirk family for 200 years until it was sold in 1889. In 1928 the fa├žade was altered to accommodate the realignment of Summit Avenue, but otherwise the structure remains essentially unchanged.

The Pennsylania Railroad cut is located just south of the Newkirk House. Created in the 1830s and 1840s this was the first railroad cut through Bergen Hill, marking the beginning of Jersey City's long history as a railroad hub.

2. Summit Avenue and Academy Street

Present-day Academy Street served as part of the 18th century coach road that linked Boston, New York and Philadelphia. Travelers heading south would take a ferry from New York across the Hudson to Paulus Hook. The coach would then carry them up Bergen Hill, past Prior's Mill, through Bergen Square. Van Tise’s Eagle Tavern (on present-day Bergen Avenue, between Glenwood Avenue and Montgomery Street) was a popular stop for rest and refreshment. Then travelers continued west to Brown's Ferry that crossed the Hackensack and Passaic Rivers. Bergen Hill also provided a panoramic view of New York harbor.

3. Bergen Square

Laid out by Jacques Cortelyou, the square measures 160 by 225 feet. For many years there was a well dug in the center, surrounded by troughs for cattle. During the War of 1812 a liberty pole was built in the center of the square, serving as a well-known navigational aid. By 1870 both the well and the pole were gone.

4. Schools Site

On the northeast corner of Bergen Square stands P.S. 11 (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. School). In 1664 the first schoolhouse was built on this lot. From 1790 to 1857 the Columbia Academy stood here until it was replaced by the first of three public schools.

5. Peter Stuyvesant Statue

This bronze statue of Peter Stuyvesant by J. Massey Rhind was erected in 1913 and placed in Bergen Square. With the later increase in automobile traffic the statue was later moved to its present location in front of P.S. 11. Rhind was a well-known Scottish sculptor who worked regularly in the United States. Some of his other nearby work includes sculpture on Princeton University's Alexander Hall and Pyne Library, the dramatic statue of Washington in Newark's Washington Park, the bronze doors of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd at the General Theological Seminary in New York City, as well as some of Trinity Church Wall Street's bronze doors. The inscription at the base of the Stuyvesant statue includes the charter that created Bergen in 1660.

6. Van Wagenen House (“The Apple Tree House”)

The Van Wagenen House, at 298 Academy Street between Bergen Avenue and Van Reipen Street, is one of the best-known and most significant structures in Jersey City. It was built on land owned by the Van Wagenen-Cokelet family for a remarkable 279 years.

According to New Jersey City University professor Carmela Karnoutsos, the original Dutch colonial house dates to the 1740s while the rest of the building was constructed in the 1820s. In 1947 the house was sold and was transformed into the Quinn Funeral Home, which is probably best remembered as the site of the wake for Frank Hague in 1956. The house was allowed to deteriorate throughout the 1990s, but has recently undergone a restoration.

The house gained its nickname thanks to a legend that in 1779 George Washington and Marquis de Lafayette met to discuss strategy under a large apple tree that stood in the garden. When Lafayette returned to Bergen during a farewell tour of the United States he was in fact presented with a cane made from the tree, which had blown down three years before. The inscription read, "Shaded the hero and his friend Washington in 1779; presented by the Corporation of Bergen in 1824."

7. Vroom Street Evangelical Free Church
In 1891, three couples met and organized the Norwegian Evangelical Free Church. The congregation's first home was on Third Street and Coles Street. In 1907 the congregation purchased property at 155 Vroom Street and dedicated this church in 1908. In 2003 a fire caused major damage to the church, which has since been restored.

8. Speer Cemetery

About 1857, Abraham Speer, while acting as sexton of the Bergen Reformed Church, laid out a burial ground that served as an annex to the church's cemeteries located just to the east. The cemetery has no connection with the Vroom Street Evangelical Free Church next door

9. Old Bergen Church and Cemetery

The establishment of the Dutch Reformed Church in 1662 fulfilled one of the requirements set by Stuyvesant for the fledgling colony. The church was the center of community life, providing a place for worship, fellowship and information. For many years notices from the court house in Hackensack were posted on the church door. In 1680 the first Dutch church in Bergen was constructed, near the corner of Bergen Avenue and Vroom Street. It was a small octagonal structure built of bricks, which had been brought from Holland. In 1773 a new church was built near the same site. This second church was in turn replaced by the current building, a graceful Greek Revival masterpiece at the corner of Bergen Avenue and Highland Avenue, built by William H. Kirk and Company of Newark. The walls of the current structure contain many sandstone blocks from the previous church buildings.

In 1997 the Old Bergen Church received a $540,620 matching grant from the New Jersey Historic Trust to restore the church to its original appearance.

10. St. Paul’s Church (Episcopal) in Bergen

Located at 38 Duncan Avenue, this rare woodframe Victorian was built in 1861 and significantly modified in 1888. This charming church with its unusual Norman-like tower was designed by noted ecclesiastical architect J. Remson Onderdonk, who was also responsible for the nearby St. John’s Free Episcopal Church on Summit Avenue.

Bibliography

Lovero, Joan Doherty. Hudson County: The Left Bank. Sun Valley: American Historical Press, 1999.

Robinson, Walter F. Old Bergen Township (Now Hudson County) in the American Revolution. Bayonne: Bayonne Bicentennial Committee, 1978.

Shalhoub, Patrick. Images of America: Jersey City. Dover NH: Arcadia Publishing, 1995.

Van Winkle, Daniel. Old Bergen. Jersey City: John W. Harrison, 1902

"Walking Tour of Bergen Square." A Bicentennial Project of Snyder High School, Rita M. Murphy, Social Studies Coordinator.

http://www.njcu.edu/programs/jchistory/home2.htm

Learn more about Jersey City history and preservation activities at www.jclandmarks.org