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Jersey City: America's Golden Door

LIVING IN JERSEY CITY 1997-1998 A publication by Ruby Press, Inc., & Antonicello & Company, Inc.

HISTORY OF A WORKING CITY

Additional history of Jersey City  - more history of Jersey City

Jersey City, the second largest city in New Jersey, is the site of the first permanent European community in the state. Starting in the 1630's, fur trappers, farmers and agents of Dutch investors left their home base in New Amsterdam for new frontiers on the west bank of the deep, wide river now known as the Hudson. Conflict with the native Lenapes doomed these early settlements, but in 1660, under the aegis of Peter Stuyvesant, governor-general of New Netherland, a fresh start was made atop the Palisade Hill in a new town known as Bergen. From this beginning, farms spread throughout the region, and a school, a religious congregation, and the apparatus of self-government developed rapidly. Despite the construction of a major stage coach road in 1764, and the town’s precarious position between the forces of the British and American Revolutionists, the quiet and essentially rural nature of Bergen persisted until the early years of the 19th century. Then, in 1804, the west bank of the Hudson once again began to attract attention. A group of investors, led by three New Yorkers, purchased land along the waterfront for a new development which they called the Town of Jersey.

Robert Fulton, the investor and entrepreneur, soon bought land in Jersey for a dry dock and in 1812 began to run his steamboats to and from Manhattan. Linking with the stagecoaches to Newark and Philadelphia, the Fulton ferries were the harbinger of Jersey City’s future as a major transportation terminus, and the mainland connection for people and freight headed to and from New York. By the mid-1830's, with the simultaneous arrival of both the railroad and the Morris Canal, Jersey City’s role in the regional economy was sealed. Good transportation and access to fuel from the coalmines of Pennsylvania attracted industry which, in turn, drew a growing population. By 1838, the young town was sufficiently robust to separate from Bergen as the new and independent municipality of Jersey City. In the 1880's, Irish and German immigrants, fleeing famine and revolution in their homelands, gave the city another boost and established a pattern which endured. To this day, Jersey City remains the first home for many newcomers to America.

Expansion of the railroads along the waterfront, growing industrialization and a steady supply of workers to man the factories and run the trains continued through the Civil War. By 1870 Jersey City’s population and economy had so outpaced its neighbors that the citizens voted to merge into one larger city. Thus, Jersey City acquired its own mother town, Bergen, along with Hudson City which had become independent in 1855. Three years later, Greenville joined the merger, giving Jersey City its current boundaries. For the next century, Jersey City was known for its rail terminals---the Erie, the Pennsylvania, the Lehigh Valley and the Jersey Central---and for the endless barges, lighters and ferries which crossed the river and New York Bay carrying coal, food, manufactured goods and passengers throughout the Greater New York area.

It was also known for its factories and for products that were household names: American Can, Emerson Radio, Lorillard tobaccos, Colgate soaps, and toothpaste and Dixon Ticonderoga pencils. It was both a melting pot of nationalities* and a hard battlefield for ethnic tensions which did not subside so readily as proponents of Americanization had hoped. For much of the 20th century, Jersey City was known for its political organization, dominated for over thirty years by Frank Hague, whose legendary ability to get out the vote gave him enormous powers in both state and Washington. criticized by some as the consummate machine boss, he was hailed by others as a leader who ran a clean city and created one of the finest hospital complexes in the world, The Medical Center. By selecting Mary Norton to run for the House of Representatives, he achieved one of his goals, becoming the first Democratic city mayor to send a woman to Congress. His choice was well received by his constituents as Mrs. Norton won election for 13 consecutive terms, serving from 1926 to 1951.

In the years following World War II, Jersey City changed, partially because of the lure of the suburbs and partially because of the collapse of the independent railroad lines and death of the factories. By the late 1960's and early 1970's, the decline of the city’s economic base appeared irreversible but, to the surprise of many natives who had convinced themselves that the future was bleak, the process which began centuries before repeated itself. The now empty west bank of the Hudson, once crowded with railroad yards, was again an inviting frontier. In the mid-1980's, the waterfront became the proverbial Gold Coast as new developments arose, bringing with them new residents, new stores and restaurants, and new jobs. Now the leading names doing business in Jersey City are principally in the fields of commerce and finance. The move of shipping away from the old finger piers along the Hudson and East Rivers to the container ports at Port Jersey, Port Newark and Port Elizabeth has been followed by the arrival in Jersey City of the offices of major shipping lines. Modern freight trains still travel through the city brining orange juice to the new Tropicana plant and carrying cars from the Port Authority auto port on the site of the old Greenville Yards of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Liberty State Park, first opened for the Bicentennial in 1976, acquired the abandoned terminal and plant of the Jersey Central and gave the area a major recreational facility with breathtaking views, ferries to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, and the sparkling new Liberty Science Center. Jersey City is by no means a problem-free community. However, it has bucked the trend by showing a population growth in the 1990 Census to the present level of 228,537. With a number of new middle and moderate-income housing units, an increase in professional and service jobs, a continuing sense of neighborhood, and a vitality apparent on every street, Jersey City proclaims that the American city is still a force to be reckoned with.


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