Old Bergen

Chapter L.

Daniel Van Winkle

Published 1902

Web version, edited by GET NJ
Copyright 2002

BUT time has wrought many changes, not only in manners and customs, but in the whole topography of the country. Hills that were long sacred to the sports of childhood, are now levelled, and the many ponds over whose glassy surface steel-shod feet glided for many years, have been filled up so that not a trace remains. Tuers Pond, located along the line of Water Avenue, was in the winter, by a little judicious management, made to overflow the surrounding fields, producing a magnificent expanse for skating.

By a comparison with present conditions some idea may be formed of the changes that have occurred along the whole shore line, of the old township of Bergen. From Weehawken on the north to Constable Hook on the south, not only have the coves and bays that formerly indented the coast been filled and utilized for manufacturing and commercial purposes; but they have been encroached on to such an extent that thousands of acres have been added to the growth of the lowlands, which through natural causes accumulated at the base of the rocky heights, against whose walls, through passing years, the waters of the Bay dashed, as driven by the strong east wind, or gently murmured, as the ripples broke upon the shore. The spots from whence the Indian launched his canoe, and the shores first trodden by the feet of the early traders, are now hidden forever beneath the accumulation of filling that has placed them thousands of feet inland. At Communipaw, the only spot where the shore has been left on its original line until the present, operations have been initiated which will in a short time completely obliterate the original ferry landing place of colonial days. Here almost a mile to the eastward may be seen the outward bulkhead line that marks the limit to territorial expansion.

Just north of the Pennsylvania Railroad cut, east of Baldwin Avenue, one of the giant monarchs of the forest was standing as late as 1860. This point was resorted to by many lovers of nature, on account of the unsurpassed view presented from that spot. Being .of unusual prominence, it commanded an exceptional view of the whole Bay, with its surroundings. On the one hand, could be seen the distant gateway to the ocean, guarded by the wooded heights of Long and Staten Islands, while Governors, Bedloes, and Ellis Islands, like emeralds in a silver setting, added to the beauty of the scene. Around this spot, and in the neighborhood of the old tree, Lafayette with his command encamped on August 24, 178o, and although in full view of the enemy, conducted from thence successful raids through Bergen and Bergen Neck. To the northward, Castle Point jutted out, standing like a sentinel watching the approach to the Highlands.

Feb. 24, 1820, an act was passed by the state legislature which gave freedom to every child born of slave parents subsequent to July 4, 18o4, males at twenty-five, and females at twenty-one years of age. The inhabitants of "Old Bergen," however, had been for some years gradually freeing the slaves left to them under the old conditions; on the death of an old resident, it was generally found that he provided in his will for the manumission and at least partial support of his dusky retainers. But notwithstanding this fact, many of the old house-servants refused to avail themselves of the privilege, and continued as voluntary dependants until their death. Provision was made, however, for their descendants, and through the liberality of their old employers quite a settlement was formed along the Old Mill Road between Academy and Montgomery Streets. Many of these were for a time distinguished by the prefix of the family name of their old owners before their own, and they emphasized their approval of this custom by fully expecting, and in some cases demanding, support, when through their natural improvidence they had failed to make provision for "a rainy day." Some time in the Fifties a church was erected for their exclusive use on the line of the Old Mill Road south of Academy Street, and for many years was the scene of energetic and enthusiastic services.

A little farther south, or between what is now Mercer Street and Fairmount Avenue, east of Summit, and extending over the brow of the hill to the edge of the marsh below (now Cornelison Avenue) was a dense woods of pine and cedar, in the recesses of which, during the existence of slavery, runaways were accustomed to hide. They were here provided with food by their fellows; or if, by reason of extra watchfulness on the part of their masters, this source of supply was cut off, they issued forth in the darkness of the night to procure food or other plunder. When these depredations became too frequent or especially flagrant, a regular hunt was organized, and the outlaw captured and subjected to punishment, which was sometimes very severe.

In these woods, near where the City Hospital now stands, was a spot made sacred to the negroes as the shrine about which to gather on "Bobilation Day," the anniversary of the abolition of slavery throughout the state. Near this, on the spot now enclosed between Church and Montgomery Streets and east of Summit Avenue, was Newkirk's pond, a resort of the more exclusive, which being surrounded by a cedar grove, was sheltered from the wintry blasts. The overflow from these ponds passed down through the low ground on the line of Monticello Avenue, to about where it is now intersected by Gardner; thence diagonally across Crescent Avenue and Park Street, to a point near the Junction, fell over a ledge of rocks called the "offall," crossed Communipaw Avenue, and emptied its waters in a creek on the meadows back of Communipaw, and afterwards into the Morris Canal.

On the rocks at the head of Academy Street, near the site of the old fort, was a favorite picnic ground; and although the way over the rocks was steep and precipitous, daring riders forced their horses over a The Old Tavern near the Church also alluded to on page 178, still standing on corner of Bergen and Glenwood Avenues, built in part of the material of the old Stuyvesant Tavern of Colonial days which stood in the same spot. In the rear wall may be seen the old corner stone with the letters P. S. cut in. path leading into Railroad Avenue. But there is a consecrated spot on Bergen Avenue south of the Square, to which our memories often turn; for old "Aunt Rachel's " ranch afforded club privileges equal to the best equipped of the present day, and within its friendly shelter plans were laid and plots concocted, without any danger of interference by the outside world.

At the corner of Glenwood Street and Bergen Avenue stood an old tavern, built in the early colonial days, which was a favorite stopping place for refreshments with Washington and his officers, while their escort encamped in the Tuers orchard opposite, on part of which the Fourth Regiment Armory stands. This old hostelry was justly celebrated for its cooking, and its fame continued to a very late day. Even down to the Fifties, when, after the fatigues of the Annual Training Day, the officers were constrained to seek refreshment with which to regale themselves, this noted place was selected with a unanimity that betokened previous favorable acquaintance with its cuisine.

At Bergen Square on the southeast corner still stands the old De Mott homestead, modernized of course, where Gen. Washington enjoyed the lavish hospitality of its owner. On the east side of Bergen Square just south of Academy Street, a whipping post stood, and such was the terror inspired by the severe flagellations inflicted by the town constable, that wrong doers kept aloof, with the result that the community enjoyed an unusual sense of security. In fact, fifty years ago no locks were used on the doors, and frequently throughout the hot summer nights, the upper halves of the doors were left open, so as to afford free ventilation. Sometimes the roystering spirits of the day took advantage of the confidence exhibited by the "Old Settlers," and the good dame found in the morning that some of her luscious pies and other goodies had vanished during the night. But this, being only an occasional occurrence, was submitted to with resignation and regarded as but the result of youthful exuberance.

Sometimes, however, the improvident blacks, unable to withstand the temptation to which they were subjected, purloined the pork and corned beef that were carefully "laid awa " in the cellar for the winter's use. This seems to have been regarded as an unpardonable sin, for a general search was made, and the offender was made to realize the truth of the admonition that "the way of the transgressor is hard." When captured, he was taken to the whipping post, and, his outer clothing having been removed, was made to clasp his arms about it; his feet were then fastened at the ground and, his wrists being tied together, his arms were drawn up and fastened by means of a rope passing through the top of the post, and the punishment inflicted.

The constable then in a loud voice told of the nature of the offence and descanted upon its enormity, counselling repentance and a return to the way of uprightness, pronouncing sentence of banishment in the meanwhile. The last two persons punished in this way were two men who were detected in the act of thieving, a colored man and his dissolute white companion.

A short distance from the Square, on the west, fronting on the opposite sides of Academy Street, are the Van Wagenen and Van Reypen homesteads. To the north, about two hundred feet from the Square on Bergen Avenue, is the Sip homestead, and near by, on the opposite side, the Hornblower house, the site of Capt. Forsyth's outpost during the Revolution, before mentioned.

A burying-ground for the colored people was located in Van Reypen's orchard, between the Boulevard and Van Reypen Street, about two hundred feet southerly of a line projected west from the south side of Academy Street. There was also one about the center of the plot bounded by Bergen Avenue, Enos Place and Newkirk Street. This was formerly an Indian burying-ground, and in recent years, when an excavation was made, human bones were found that indicated the interment of a race far above the average height.

The last interment in this spot was Newkirk's Sam, as late as 1853. He had been during the latter part of his life engaged specially in the care of a team of horses belonging to his employer, which were in the nomenclature of the day called, "Dick horse " and "Sal horse." Sam always entertained a warm affection for Dick; and when in the course of time, the horse succumbed to the feebleness of old age and died, Sam earnestly besought his employer to bury the horse in this old burying-ground, so that he himself could be buried along side of him, exacting a promise to that effect. It is needless to say that this promise was adhered to, and Sam's last resting place was by the side of his faithful old friend, for whom he had an abiding affection. Sam, by his integrity and faithfulness, had won the respect of many of the neighbors, and his funeral services from the old Newkirk homestead were largely attended by both black and white.

In his earnestness in the dissemination of some of his doctrines, Sam sometimes neglected to gauge his capacity for the spiritual consolation in which he indulged, with the result that on one occasion at least, he was so overcome that he was placed in a chair and borne to his home by the hands of sympathizing comrades. Some time after, on being shown the picture of an Indian prince carried in a sedan chair, he recalled his experience, and ever afterward boasted of his princely method of locomotion, claiming it as an evidence of hig royal descent.

On an eminence on the bank of the Pennsylvania Railroad cut, near the east side of the Boulevard, can be still seen the Tonnelle homestead, the scene of much merry making in the olden time. The estate extended to Summit Avenue, and from Pavonia Avenue to near the present line of the Railroad. The house is substantially built of the enduring granite of Bergen Hill, and with a little renovation may be made to last another century. The approach to this house was from Summit Avenue, and was rather imposing. Heavy iron gates suspended from massive stone pillars guarded the entrance, while on either side of the well shaded lane were grassy enclosures, well stocked with deer, while the shrill cry of gaudy, bedizened peacocks greeted the welcome visitor. At the Five Corners were sundry hostelrys convenient for the refreshment of the weary traveller, even from colonial days; and in later years these were resorted to by the socially inclined who wished to indulge in the periodical gatherings for the "D.D.'s," -- dancing and dinners-and were likewise selected as the most convenient place for the voters of "Old Bergen" township to exercise their right of franchise.

From "Lee's Memoirs" we learn that Washington's favorite position was near "the western shore of the Hudson, which was always considered by him the point of connection of the two extremes of the Union." He frequently met his generals on the hills of "Old Bergen," and there discussed the projects on the execution of which the fate of the young republic depended. And it is well authenticated that, on one occasion at least, he and Lafayette dined together under an apple tree that stood in the orchard of the old parsonage, on the northwest corner of Bergen Square.

From a letter descriptive of the visit of Lafayette to this country in 1824, I quote:

On his arrival at Jersey City, remaining but a short time, the General, with His Excellency, Governor Williamson, entered a superb carriage drawn by four beautiful bay horses, and a cavalcade was formed, which proceeded leisurely toward Newark. Arrived at Bergen, it was found that the inhabitants of the little town had assembled at the tavern, on the southwest corner of Summit and Newark Avenues, and were so anxious to pay their respects to the General, that he was constrained to alight for a moment.

Here unexpectedly, he was addressed by a delegation from the Town, and presented with a cane made from an apple tree, under which, when passing through that town during the Revolution, he and Washington dined. The cane is richly mounted with gold and bears the following inscription on the top: 'Lafayette,' and around the head, 'Shaded the Hero and his friend Washington in 1779. Presented by the Corporation of Bergen, 1824.' As the General re-entered his carriage and left this ancient town, he was heartily cheered.

At the breaking out of the war of 1812, the United States government secured a plot of ground on the west side of Palisade Avenue, between Hoboken and Newark Avenues, where an arsenal was erected. This was likewise used as a barracks for enlisted men during the Civil War. Opposite the arsenal was the Harrison estate, by which name the property is still known. It is located on the brow of the hill east of Summit and between Newark and Hoboken Avenues. It was noted for the lavish hospitality and sporting proclivities of its owners, some of whom met an untimely end by their indulgence in their favorite pastime.