Hoboken: a tiny town with a huge history

Overlooked by tourists and snubbed by New Yorkers as the place located on the other side of the Hudson, Hoboken boasts quite a remarkable history that goes well beyond being the birthplace of Sinatra and home to the best freshly-made mozzarella this side of the Atlantic.

17th century to the American Revolution  

Located on the bluff of green-colored serpentine rock, Hoboken was first spotted by Henry Hudson’s navigator in 1609. 

The origin of the name Hoboken is unknown, but you are welcome to pick a theory. One is that Native Americans referred to the area as Hobocan Hackingh, meaning “Land of the Tobacco Pipe” since the stone was used to carve pipes for smoking tobacco. Or it’s simply a corruption of the Native American place name Hopaghan. A third theory is that settlers named it after the Flemish town Hoboken outside Antwerp.

The land came into possession of William Bayard, whose country estate on Castle Point was burned down during the Revolutionary War. Since Bayard was a loyalist, he fled the country, and the State of New Jersey seized the property.

From the 1780s to 1820s  

This is the point when the story of Hoboken starts in earnest. In 1784 the land confiscated by the Revolutionary government of the state of NJ was sold at a public auction to Colonel Stevens. 

Stevens — a revolutionary hero, the Treasurer of New Jersey, and an inventor extraordinaire — moved his family to a new mansion on Castle Point in 1814, making Hoboken his permanent home.

Before the 18th century was over, Colonel Stevens established America’s first patent law, imported camellias and chrysanthemums from England to be cultivated in America, and launched “Hoboken Turtle Club” — the first American social club,  whose members included John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and Aaron Burr.

Colonel Stevens met the dawn of the 19th century by designing the first steamboat and sending it on the first-ever ocean voyage. He followed it up by establishing the world’s first commercial steamboat ferry running from Manhattan to Hoboken. 

By the 1820s, Stevens transformed the Hoboken waterfront from a rustic promenade into one of the largest pleasure grounds in the country, visited by as many as 20,000 people a day!

From the 1820s to 1855

Hoboken of the first part of the 19th century became quite a destination: its riverfront with its Sybil’s Cave drew thousands of pleasure-seekers, John Jacob Astor built a summer home in Hoboken, and Napoleon III, the future emperor of France, chose Hoboken as his American residence in exile. 

Colonel Stevens founded the Hoboken Land and Improvement Company, which laid out a regular system of streets on an orderly street grid punctuated with parks.

At this time, the first ferry slip, which became a standard worldwide, as well as the first steam railroadwere designed in Hoboken. Another notable: the first yacht club in the US  – New York Yacht Club – was formed in Hoboken. 

The event that put Hoboken in the national spotlight was the baseball game played on June 19, 1846. For the first time in history, the game, which later became the most favorite American pastime, was organized and played according to the rules and is since considered the birth of modern baseball. 

From 1855 – the End of WW1

The city entered a different chapter from a vacation spot/pleasure ground to a bustling industrial port. Continental European shipping lines, competing with British ones for the New York market, found abundant space along the Hudson in Hoboken. Hoboken established itself as a major transportation center and a port for trans-Atlantic shipping lines, including such giants as Holland America, North German Lloyd, and Hamburg-American. 

Hoboken’s harbor became an essential dock for German shipping vessels carrying goods and bringing immigrants. A German immigrant population became so significant that people referred to Hoboken as little Bremen. The Irish and later Italians followed the Germans.

The primary industry during Hoboken’s industrial days was shipbuilding, but at various times the city was home to major industries with household names: Lipton Tea, Maxwell House Coffee, Wonder Bread, and Hostess. The Tootsie Roll, slide rule, zipper, and ice cream cone were all born in Hoboken. 

Hoboken was incorporated as a city in 1855, and its population exploded from under 3,000 people in 1850 to 10,000 in 1860 to 20,000 in 1870. By virtue of its role as a gateway to America and the presence of so many small factories, Hoboken snowballed to 70,000 in 1910!

In 1917, the Federal government chose Hoboken as the primary port of embarkation for the troops in World War I. As some two million American troops boarded the vessels headed to the front, General Pershing declared: “Haven, Hell or Hoboken by Christmas .”

President Wilson declared war on Germany and seized German liners and German property on the waterfront under eminent domain. The Hoboken Germans were deported or sent to Ellis Island. 

From the 1920s – 1970s

After the Germans left Hoboken, its population was dominated by the Irish, but then came the Italians…

The most famous Hoboken son, an American icon, the most celebrated Italian American — Frank Sinatra, was born and started his legendary music journey in Hoboken.

In the 1920s, Hoboken’s character changed to somewhat more frivolous. The town attracted bohemian crowds and developed quite a theater scene. One New York producer proclaimed Hoboken the “Last Seacoast of Bohemia.” During the 1920s, when Prohibition was the law, it was happily ignored and essentially unenforced in Hoboken, gaining our little town a reputation as a den of vice. According to a contemporary newspaper, “Jazz bands spoil a ‘quiet glass of beer’.” 

The Decline of the economy caused by the commercial freeze of its piers during World War I led to a lack of employment and horrible corruption in Hoboken’s shipyards. This unfortunate chapter in the city’s history, once again, put Hoboken in the national spotlight. Film director Elia Kazan shot his masterpiece “On the Waterfront” in Hoboken. Not only was it the first American film shot entirely on the location, but it also received twelve Academy Award nominations and won eight, including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Director for Kazan.

The 1960s 

In the late 1960s, after the shipping industry left Hoboken, many major factories such as Lipton and Keuffel & Esser also left. The Erie Lackawanna Railroad ceased its ferry service across the Hudson to New York. Hoboken waterfront fell into disrepair, and many of Hoboken’s industries moved away or closed up shop. The city was considered something of a post-industrial wasteland.

Fortunately, such places are beloved by creative types. Hoboken was discovered by artists escaping high Manhattan prices. An intact 19th-century city with an easy connection to NYC by the path and cheap rents was quite a find.

The 1970s to the Present

In the 1970s, people began to notice Hoboken’s then-affordable, beautiful brownstones in such close proximity to the city. In the 1990s, a major waterfront renovation project turned old abandoned piers into beautiful parks. Manhattan-based companies began to see the city as a viable alternate office location. 

Now Hoboken is a vibrant little town with the energy that matches its neighbor across the Hudson. No longer a bargain, it has fancy hotels, a plethora of eating establishments, and its real estate has become rather expensive.

This is a not-so-brief story of Hoboken, a truly unique little town that went from a quiet village to an exclusive summer resort to pleasure grounds to a major bustling port. The tiny town was once the most densely populated place in the United States and a major industrial center. Hoboken was a point of embarkation of American troops to WWI, a city of immigrants, and the birthplace of Frank Sinatra. It was called the gateway to America and was thrown into the national spotlight more than once. A stone’s throw away from Manhattan with its sweeping views, gorgeous waterfront, and with its brownstone-lined streets, it still retains its 19th-century charm.

Hoboken timeline

1609 – First mentioned by Henry Hudson, noticed for white/greenish stone color

1630 – The land across from New Amsterdam was acquired from West India Company for private ownership. Called Hopoghan by Indians (the “land of the tobacco pipe”) and Hoboken by the Dutch

1643 – A Dutch farmer built a house and a brewery, North America’s first.

1665 – Hoboken became the property of Peter Stuyvesant’s sister Anna’s son Samuel Bayard. Bayards lived in NY and had a country home in Hoboken

1784 – The land which belonged to William Bayard was confiscated by the Revolutionary government of the state of NJ and sold to Colonel Stevens at the public auction

1786 – Colonel Stevens built a summer house in Hoboken while spending his winters at 7 Broadway in Manhattan. The family made Hoboken their permanent home in 1814

1787 – Robert Stevens was born. The future president of Camden and Amboy Railroad, he became known for developing American first steam locomotive and designing a new T-shaped rail

1788 – Colonel Stevens started experimenting with steam engines.

1790 – Colonel Stevens petitioned Congrees for protection of inventions which became America’s first patent law

1796 – The “Hoboken Turtle Club” was formed – the country’s oldest social club.

1797-1800 Colonel Stevens imported camellias and chrysanthemums from England to be cultivated in America

1802 – Colonel Stevens designed the first steamboat to navigate the Hudson River

1804 Colonel Stevens laid out a map of Hoboken and started selling lots

1806 – Colonel Stevens designed the first Hudson River Tunnels for pedestrians and carriages. It was never built.

1809 – The steamboat Phoenix designed by the Stevenses made the first-ever steamboat ocean voyage from Hoboken to Philadelphia. It was the first steam vessel built entirely in America.

1811 – The world’s first commercial steamboat ferry made its maiden voyage between Vesey Street in Manhattan and Hoboken

1821 – The Livingston-Fulton monopoly exclusively operating in the Hudson was broken, and Stevens started running his steamboats between Manhattan and Hoboken.

1822 – Robert Stevens designed the first ferry slip, which became a standard all over the world

1825 – John Stevens designed the first steam railroad. A steam locomotive could pull several people on a circular track designed for public demonstrations.

1830 – Robert Stevens designed the first T-rail used by practically all railroads

1831The first NJ railroad running trains from Hoboken to Philly, the Camden and Amboy, was established by Colonel Stevens, called the “Father of American Railroading.” Robert Stevens was its first president.

1832 – Sybil’s Cave, the man-made cave around a natural mineral water spring, was created by the Stevenses. 

1830s? – Napoleon III stayed in Hoboken

1838 – Stevens founded the Hoboken Land and Improvement Company, which laid out a regular system of streets, blocks, and lots, constructed housing, and developed manufacturing sites.

1838 – Colonel Stevens died

1830s – The start of the German and Irish immigration

1840s – Big European shipping companies began establishing docks in Hoboken

Mid 1800s – Hoboken became one of the most frequented pleasure grounds in the country, with up to 20,000 visitors on a single day

1841 – Sybil’s Cave became a crime scene for a highly publicized and still unsolved murder of Mary Rogers, which was fictionalized by Edgar Allan Poe as “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt.”

1843 – P.T. Barnum hosted a free-admission “Buffalo Hunt” in Hoboken, drawing more than 20,000 people

1844 – New York Yacht Club was formed in Hoboken. At the time, it was the only yacht club in the US. John Cox Stevens was the first commodore. The first clubhouse was located at the foot of 10th Street by the Hudson. Around 1904, the original clubhouse was put on a float and moved. It’s on display now in the marine museum in Mystic, Conn.

1845 – The grand entrance to the Castle, the Gatehouse, was built

1845The first regatta ever in America was organized and initiated in Hoboken

1846The first organized baseball match was held in Hoboken

1847 – Hoboken became a major destination port of the Hamburg America Line, the largest German, and at times the world’s largest, shipping company

1850 – Population 2,668

1850s – Northern Italian immigration

1851The first Winner of the American Cup was schooner America of NYYC. As the club was undefeated for many years, the trophy remained in Hoboken

1854 – Stevens’s family (Edwyn and Robert) built a grand 64-room mansion (Italianate Villa) dubbed Stevens Castle atop this promontory of green-veined serpentine rock. The building stood until 1959.

1854 – Stephen Foster, composer of ‘Old Folks at Home’ and other immortal songs, lived in Hoboken during the year 1854.”

1855 – Hoboken was incorporated as a city

1860 – Population 10,000

1864Alfred Stieglitz, an American photographer, and modern art promoter, was born in Hoboken, 500 Hudson St.

1870 – Population 20,000

1870 – Stevens Institute was founded by Edwin A. Stevens and was the first engineering college in the country

1870 – The Deutscher Club. The two-story social club at 600 Hudson Street was built.

1871First chewing gum sold in a drugstore in Hoboken

1871The first Jewish Congregation in Hudson County was formed. In 1883 a temple was built at 637 Garden Street on the land donated by the Stevens family

1874The first horse-car elevator in the world was built to move people and vehicles to an elevation of about 100 feet from Hoboken to Jersy Heights

The 1880s – Southern Italian immigration stated

The 1880s – The Hoboken museum building – the oldest on the waterfront it used to be a maritime machine shop.

1890 – Yellow Flats were built by the Hoboken Land & Improvement Company

1891The first slide rule made in the US was manufactured by Keuffel and Esser Co. located at 3rd and Adams Streets.

1891The first Shipboard Band was formed on German trans-Atlantic lines in order to make the voyage more pleasant

1891 – The Columbia Club was built by a gentlemen’s society composed of one hundred men from Hoboken and New York City. 

1893 – Elysian Park was created from land donated by the Hoboken Land & Improvement Company

1894Alfred Kinsey was born in Hoboken, 611 Bloomfield Street

1895Dorothea Lange, an American documentary photographer, and photojournalist best known for her Depression-era work, was born in Hoboken

1902The first edible ice cream container is invented in Hoboken by an Italian immigrant. Started as a waffle sandwich, it evolved into an ice cream cone.

1904 – By this time entire Hoboken waterfront became devoted to shipping

1905Lipton Tea Building. Hoboken offered good port access, room for growth, and easy access to New York City (exactly what Sir Lipton was looking for), and so he built his manufacturing plant on the shores of the Hudson River. 

1906Martha Entenmann was born. She was an American entrepreneur who ran one of the nation’s largest bakeries. 

1906 – The Hoboken Elks is the only chapter in New Jersey that still occupies its original building. 

1910 – Population 70,000

1907 – Eary Lackawanna Railroad started its operations. Hoboken Terminal is built

1912 The first Oreo cookie is sold in Hoboken in a grocery store at 1026 Washington Street

1913The first zipper was engineered at the Automatic Hook and Eye Company located at 11th and Adams Street

1915Frank Sinatra was born in Hoboken

1915Alexander Calder enrolled at the Stevens Institute of Technology. Calder received a degree from Stevens in 1919.

1917 – Hoboken is an Official Port of Embarkation for American troops in WW I. President Wilson declared war on Germany and seized German liners and German property on the waterfront under eminent domain. The Germans were deported. America and Germany were at war for 18 months. 

1918 – Nov 11, the war was over. American soldiers returned through Hoboken.

The 1920s – Prof Davidson designed Vanderbilt’s winning boat “Ranger” (1937 American Cup). Every American yacht since the 1930s was designed in Stevens. Submarines – also designed in Hoboken.

1925 – First Street at Pier A and World War I Memorial dedicated by Knights of Columbus (global Catholic fraternal order.)

1938 – Maxwell House Plant opened. In 1942 – instant coffee was invented. The plant closed in 1992

The 1940s – the Stevens company left Hoboken

1954 – “On the Waterfront” is filmed. The first American motion picture shot entirely on location. Directed by Elia Kazan. It stars Marlon Brando and features Eva Marie Saint in her film debut. It received twelve Academy Award nominations and won eight, including Best Picture, Best Actor for Brando, Best Supporting Actress for Saint, and Best Director for Kazan.

1950 – 1970s – Hoboken was going through a decline. The Ferry system was abandoned

The 1970s- Artists escaping high Manhattan prices discovered Hoboken: an intact 19th-century city connected to NYC by the path system

1976The first factory conversion into family housing in America was the conversion of Keuffel & Esser Co. (1906) into 173 unit housing known as “Clock Tower”.

1989 – NY Waterways put back the Ferry system, which was abandoned in the 1960s

1999The first automated parking garage in the country

2010 – a modern kidney-shaped park built on new pilings above the site of the old Pier C.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Rivera says:

    What year was it when they had all those fires and deaths that was primarily minorities?
    I think it was about when they started building condos..70 something


    1. You are right, the 70s were pretty rough


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