Old Bergen

Chapter XLIX.

Daniel Van Winkle

Published 1902

Web version, edited by GET NJ
Copyright 2002

Edge's Windmill
UNTIL very recently at Communipaw, on the high, projecting bank near the Old Mill Creek, hard by the site of the Indian massacre of the early days, stood the Van Horne farm-house. From its prominent position, affording a full view of the waters of the bay and surroundings, this house became a favorite "lookout" for the Americans during the Revolution, and a system of signals was agreed upon to be given from this point, as a warning to those of the settlers who had ventured across the bay to sell their produce to the British army, whenever any danger was to be apprehended from the Tories or refugees lurking in the neighborhood. It was the habit of the enemy to lay in wait for the returning burghers and rob them of the proceeds of their sales.

Northwest from the Van Horne house was the Race Track, established in 1769 by Cornelius Van Vorst. It was laid out on the sand hills, then standing between York Street and Wayne, and above Varick. It was one mile in length, and was a noted place of resort for the lovers of sport from New York and the surrounding country, until the Revolutionary War. After peace was declared, it was again opened, but was discontinued in 1808, when a new track was established at Harsimus, near the Erie Railroad at Henderson Street.

Near the corner of Green and Montgomery Streets, (at that time the river bank), at a point now occupied by the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks, Isaac Edge in 1815 built a windmill, which was taken down in 1839 and removed to Long Island. In 1856 Lewis A. Edwards of Orient, Long Island, wrote in relation to it:

Your old windmill though 'demolished' is not 'defunct.' It was placed on board of vessels and conveyed around the eastern extremity of the North Branch of Long Island into Town Harbor, and from thence taken to Mill Hill in the town of Southold, in Suffolk County, where it was again placed upon its pins, as natural as life.

We live in a migratory age, but a migratory windmill, even at this day, may be considered a novelty. The old mill is now in an excellent state of preservation, notwithstanding its forty years' wear and tear, and one hundred and twenty-five miles of travel, and I venture to say would stand as severe a tilt with `Don Quixote' as any mill I ever came in contact with.

A short distance south of the Old Mill, between York and Grand Streets, and about one hundred feet east of Green, was the ferry landing, alluded to elsewhere. April 1st, 1839, this was moved to the corner of Hudson and Montgomery Streets, and at the time of the extension of Exchange Place, was changed to its present location.

The ferry facilities at first consisted of a gallows frame, painted green, supporting iron pulleys, over which a chain was passed, one end of which was attached to the floating bridge, while to the other end balancing weights were fastened, so that the bridge could accommodate itself to the rise and fall of the tides, thus facilitating the loading or unloading of the boats.

The row boats, and periaguas or sail boats of the early days were succeeded by what was called the horse boat on the Paulus Hook ferry. In this the propelling power was obtained by means of an endless moving platform, after the manner of a tread mill, on which a horse walked, and which turned a paddle wheel by a combination of cogwheels. Sometimes slaves were employed for this purpose, and the weird songs in which they frequently indulged greatly relieved the weariness of the passage.

The first steamboats used on this ferry were composed of two hulls fastened strongly together, leaving a space between, in which was suspended a paddle wheel. One side of the boat, over one hull, was intended for the accommodation of vehicles and cattle, and the other side was furnished with seats for passengers. Both sides were uncovered, but below the passenger side, a cabin was fitted up, so that in case of stormy or inclement weather, the passengers might seek protection from the elements. There were two of these boats, named respectively York and Jersey.

Early one Sunday morning in February, 1816, during a season of extreme cold, there were seen on an ice floe floating in the middle of the river, two men seemingly engaged in fighting. One would knock over the other, and, taking him sometimes by the hands, and again by the heels, drag him over the ice some distance; then standing him up, would knock him over, repeating the process continually. The affair created great excitement, and finally a row boat with four men put off to ascertain the cause of the strange conduct. Reaching the floe, they discovered the men to be the U. S. Mail Carrier and his negro, who had left Paulus Hook the previous evening, but were caught in the floating ice. They had rowed up and down seeking for a passage through to the New York shore, but were unsuccessful. Feeling the effects of the extreme cold, they determined to take to the ice, and by vigorous exercise, escape being frozen to death. The poor negro, succumbing to the intense cold, wished for nothing but to be allowed to sleep. The carrier, knowing that this would prove fatal, adopted the drastic treatment that had fortunately attracted attention, and in doing so, not only saved the negro's life, but probably his own, by indulging in this violent exercise. The negro was found by his rescuers with nose, ears and fingers frozen, and they were obliged to lift him into the boat and carry him to shore.

At this time the Southern Mail consisted of two bags, carried over to New York by row boat.

In the early days the mail communication of the people of Bergen with the outside world was very limited, and what few letters there were, were brought from the offices at Newark or New York by any one who visited those places, and distributed as occasion offered, being sometimes handed round at the church door on Sunday and sometimes left at the general store until called for. In 1807, General Granger established an office in a store in lower Jersey City, at the corner of York and Washington Streets, from whence the mail was distributed at first in the old way, or else by carriers, who collected the postage and delivery, the amount charged depending upon the distance of the place from which the letter was sent. Some time afterwards a sub-station was established at the Five Corners, where mail bags from the Jersey City station were left by the stages in passing. The mail for the town of Bergen was called for with considerable regularity by the school boys, who left any letters for the neighborhood at the store on Bergen Square.

An interesting story is told in connection with the mail distribution of the day. General Cummings was for many years one of the stage proprietors, and also contractor for carrying the mail. Many irregularities occurring in the delivery of the mails, the then postmaster, Gideon Granger, determined to personally investigate the cause, and travel over the mail routes in disguise. General Cummings, being informed of his intention by a friend, gave certain instructions to his negro driver, in case he should have a passenger answering a certain description.

A short time after, as the stage was about starting from Paulus Hook, the driver detected a suspicious looking personage entering the stage, whereupon, gathering up the reins, he started his horses off at a tremendous pace over the corduroy road, between Newark and Paulus Hook. The occupants were violently jostled about to the great danger of life and limb. Gideon called out to drive slower. "Cawnt do it, massa. I drives the United States Mail," answered the driver, as he urged the horses to still greater speed. Granger begged him again and again to slacken his speed, but was met with the unfailing response, "Cawnt do it, massa. I drives the United States Mail." On the arrival of the coach at Newark, it is said, Granger was so bruised that he showed no disposition to continue his investigations, being satisfied that at least one contract was being faithfully carried out.

Prior's Mill
Prior's Mill was built during the early colonial days and was located on the Old Mill Creek, heretofore described, near the present crossing of the junction R. R. with Railroad Avenue. It was what was known as a tide-water mill, and was operated by the force of the outflowing water upon the wheel. A dam was built across the creek, with gates arranged so as to admit the incoming tides, but which closed as soon as the pressure against them ceased. The imprisoned water was then led by a sluice-way against the paddles or buckets of the water-wheel, causing it to revolve with sufficient force to turn the mill stones by which the grain was ground.

The bolt as it was called, separating the chaff from the flour, was operated by means of an iron winch, which was turned by the slaves, giving forth first the flour, then the middlings, and lastly the bran. As the mill could be operated only on the ebbing tide, the times for grinding were very irregular, there being as it were two sessions every twenty-four hours, and these varying with the tides. The clanking of the mill wheel and the rumbling of the stones, accompanied by the darkies' songs, were calculated at nights, when the mill was dimly lighted with the flickering blaze of a tallow lantern, to send those indescribable thrills along the spine that most of us have at some time experienced.

Thatched Cottage Garden, front view

The prominent places of resort for the sporting element of the day, were the Beacon Race Course and the Thatched Cottage Garden. The former was located just north of Hoboken Avenue, between Palisade and Summit. Here several noted races were run, and attracted many of the sporting men of New York, as well as those of the surrounding country. But after a short season of activity, like its successor at Guttenberg, it succumbed to the unhealthful influences of the neighborhood.

Thatched Cottage Garden, rear view

The Thatched Cottage Garden, located at Essex Street, in lower Jersey City, was the scene of many athletic games and balloon ascensions. In this connection, it may be well to mention an episode that at the time attracted much attention. One Gillie, an aeronaut, was in the habit of making ascensions with a captive balloon, and descending by means of a parachute. Among those who witnessed this feat was a resident of "Old Bergen," who, in his desire to convey the idea to the minds of a crowd of admiring youngsters, gave what might be called an object lesson. Procuring a rope and clothes basket, they wended their way to a large barn, one rainy Saturday, and throwing the rope over a beam near the rafters, fastened one end of it to the basket, in which the would-be aeronaut seated himself, with an umbrella in his possession. Instructing the boys to hoist him up to the beam, and to cut the rope at his word, he soon reached the elevated position. Then raising the umbrella, he gave the word of command; but alas for his confiding nature, the force of gravitation proved too strong for his frail support, and he descended to the floor with such force, that he was laid up for some time, with fractured limbs. This may have been the origin of the saying, once so much used in this vicinity for cautioning against any act of folly, "Don't be a Gillie."

At Newark and Summit Avenues stood the official hay-scales, which, although not constructed on the lines observed in our delicately balanced modern machines, was nevertheless a decided improvement over the method used in Indian times, before alluded to. A stout crane was suspended in the center, from one end of which depended four heavy chains terminating in rings, which were slipped over the wheel hubs of the hay wagon. From the other end was hung a platform, on which were placed fifty six pound weights, sufficient to balance the load.