Jersey City History
Bergen Square: A Walking Tour
Presented by the Jersey City Landmarks Conservancy and St. Peter's Preparatory School
|Old Bergen Church © 2001 Leon Yost|
Researched and written by Tom Murphy, Vice President of the Jersey City Landmarks Conservancy and Commissioner of the Jersey City Historic Preservation Commission, City of Jersey City.
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.
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 _ barrel of strong beer.
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 later in 1660 farmers formed a small village there.
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.
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
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 façade 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 then 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
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. 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. 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, 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. The Apple Tree House (Van Wagenen House)
This colonial stone building is one of the oldest in Jersey City. Legend has it 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 toured the United States in 1824 he was 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 Free 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.
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.
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. 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. 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.
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.