Old Bergen

Chapter XLV.

Daniel Van Winkle

Published 1902

Web version, edited by GET NJ
Copyright 2002

PERHAPS no more fitting introduction to this division of our subject can be found than the address delivered by Chief Justice Hornblower on the occasion of the dedication of the new court-house in March, 1845, as published in the Jersey City Advertiser of that date. He said:

I remember the old town of Bergen, when it had very few inhabitants except old-fashioned Dutchmen, and very few houses, except those not built for show, but for domestic comfort and convenience; long, low, and unpretending in appearance, but durable in materials, and opening upon the street some two or three hospitable doors, into which the friend and stranger might enter and find a welcome, and from which they might retire, and leave a blessing behind them. Hoboken then consisted of little besides a well kept public house, and a beautiful retreat from the noise and bustle of the neighboring metropolis (The Elysian Fields, author's note).

No Jersey City then adorned your shores, nothing but a large, long ferry-house, occupied successively by an Ellsworth, a Smith, and a Hunt, with here and there a boatman's or a fisherman's cabin, that stood upon the heap of sand called Powles Hook; your settlements were scarce, your occupations agricultural and industrial, and your population small but healthy, peaceful and honest. You needed, for many years within my recollection, but one physician to administer to your physical necessities, and but one man of God to supply your spiritual want, and not even one lawyer, to satisfy your litigious propensities, for you had none to be satisfied. Peace reigned throughout your borders. Simplicity of life and manners, and honesty of purpose, were the prevailing characteristics of the good old Dutch, who almost exclusively occupied the soil of your county, in the days of my boyhood. A court at Hackensack, and a few Dutch justices at home, were all you wanted to punish the few offenders, and settle the few lawsuits that troubled you in those days. But alas! we fear those good old days have gone by, never to return. The rapidly increasing population of our county, the vast improvements in science and the arts, and the enterprising spirit of the age in which we live, have wrought a mighty change, even within the period of my memory. The facilities of steamboats and railroad cars, and the increasing spirit of trade, and commerce, and manufacture of the arts, have brought the good old town of Bergen into contact with the world, cut up her territory into small localities, studded her shores with splendid buildings, turned her farms into country seats, her cabbage grounds into pleasure gardens, and her dwelling places into workshops and manufactories. Such, in fact, has been the change in appearance and population, of that part of the old County of Bergen, that I can scarcely retrace the steps of any boyhood, when in my visits to my friends here or in the City of New York, I used to traverse these hills.

The changes alluded to in this interesting discourse of the venerable Chief justice have continued with redoubled speed, and in an increasing ratio, and the great city, which has consolidated much of the ancient territory and absorbed the numerous small municipalities, is without doubt, destined to rival the greater New York, by gathering in all of the contiguous territory, and perhaps reaching out to and including the green hills of Orange.

The early inhabitants of Bergen were strongly imbued with the peculiar characteristics of the Fatherland, and for years clung with a persistent tenacity to the habits and customs they had brought with them. Rescued from the silt and sand of the ocean, the people of the Fatherland were endowed with a love of country and attachment for the home that were but intensified by the successive struggles and privations to which they were subjected, and they transmitted to their descendants, an intense perseverance, frugal thrift and untiring industry-qualities of no uncertain value in the settlement and development of a new country, and which have made them prominent, not only in the commercial and mercantile world, but also in civil and military life.

Until about the year 1840, or thereabouts, the township of Bergen did not change much in the character or habits of its population. Possessed of the old Dutch characteristic of holding on to the paternal acres, inherited from their fathers, they would undergo extreme privations rather than voluntarily part with their patrimony so that it was almost an impossibility to secure from the original owners a plot of ground even of sufficient size on which to build a house.

In the course of time, however, owing to the passing away of the original owners, and the resultant necessary division of the home acres, or the financial embarrassment of some unfortunates, the territory was gradually opened up to the investment of outside capital. The increasing population of New York City created a demand for convenient homes, and Bergen, from its proximity and healthful surroundings, received much attention. Attracted by its quiet neighborhood, its primitive surroundings, and its pure sparkling water drawn with the old-fashioned well sweep and mosscovered bucket from rock-embedded springs, there were many who frequented this spot. A few succeeded in securing temporary board, and being thus brought into contact with the inhabitants, dispelled the existing prejudice against strangers. Many of these, in course of time, secured plots of ground, which they improved and beautified. As it was but occasionally that such plots were thrown on the market, there could be no concerted or uniform action in relation to the improvements, but as opportunity offered, these plots were laid out and built upon, to suit the tastes of the owners. Had there been, during the early development of the territory, an opportunity for such united action, Bergen Hill would have been noted as the most attractive suburb of the commercial and financial center of the world. Commanding as it does views of unsurpassed beauty, its atmosphere purified and tempered by the invigorating ocean breezes from the east, or the fresh, pure air direct from the Blue Mountains on the west, with perfect drainage facilities, and of easy access to the neighboring city, it promised to become the choice spot for the ideal home.

The tenacity with which the old settlers held on to what they determined were their rights was marked. But though unwilling to concede to an unjust demand, they yet recognized the rights of others, and Nvere always willing to effect an adjustment of any difficulties-from their own individual standpoint. Goodnatured yet decided. controversies were indulged in, sometimes being only definitely adjusted by due course of law. It is related that two of the old neighbors, becoming involved in some differences, appealed to the old Dutch justice for an adjudication. The session occurred on one of the hot days of late summer, and the court was instituted urndcr the shade of an overhanging apple tree. The legal talent of the day was engaged, and indulged in lofty flights of eloquence, stimulated thereto by copious cooling drinks of applejack. After a thorough consideration, the matter was determined in favor of one of the litigants, and a moderate amount of money adjudged to be due to him; whereupon the whole sum was placed in the hands of the justice, and he was instructed to expend the same in an old-fashioned jollification, in which all the interested parties, witnesses and spectators were invited to join. The narrator neglects to supply the final closing of the case. As the popularity of the old justice from this time rapidly increased, it may be safely assumed that he held the scales with an even hand.