Today Greenville may rank lower on the hierarchy of prime Jersey City neighborhoods. A Greenville address, not too long ago, enjoyed a much better reputation. Never a truly prestigious district, the neighborhood instead was considered desirable for its stability, prosperity, and quality of life.
Developed during the early twentieth century, Greenville was characterized by quiet, shady streets lined with relatively new and comfortable dwellings. Greenville homes generally had more up-to-date plumbing, electrical, and heating systems not standard in the older parts of the city. Most residents took advantage of the area’s extensive public transportation network, although homes had driveways and backyard garages for private automobiles. With pleasant neighborhoods there were numerous churches and schools, convenient shopping, and an easy commute to a variety of workplaces, Greenville became attractive to working families.
The transformation of the Greenville area from farmland to a mostly residential, fairly prosperous, urban neighborhood follows a pattern repeated in many American cities during the late nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Greenville’s history of speculative real estate initiatives and its changing political associations was largely driven by three factors: successive improvements in transportation technology, expanding industrial economy, and the rapid influx of new residents, largely of immigrant origins.
The southern portion of Jersey City was not always called Greenville. Local histories report that the Lenape Native Americans named the place Pamrapo or Mingakwe. Archaeological excavations along the New York Bay shoreline indicate that Lenape visited the area on a seasonal basis. They gathered and preserved shellfish for later use. References to Minkakwe (spelled in various ways) appear in seventeenth and eighteenth-century legal documents like property transfers and marriage records. Unlike many New York and New Jersey communities that retained the place names bestowed by Native Americans, only the name of Pamrapo Avenue remains today as a legacy of Lenape heritage in Greenville.
For over two hundred years, Bergen Township was the official designation for most of what is now Hudson County, NJ. The area of Greenville, for example, did not have any unique geographic identity apart from the larger community. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Dutch colonists established numerous farms throughout the peninsula, often far away from the core settlement at Bergen Village (modern-day Academy Street and Bergen Avenue). Some of these farms, located in what became known as Greenville, were just south of the Communipaw village, at Caven Point, and other advantageous places along the western shoreline of the upper New York Bay. Although they did not dwell in the compact village to the north, the families living in this area attended the Dutch Reformed church services at the Old Bergen Church and identified themselves as residents of Bergen.
The houses of these early settlers, such as Retirement Hall and Hancock House, were situated close to New York Bay for easy access by boat to neighboring farmsteads and New York City. Further inland were pastures, woodlands, and outlying fields. Original land grants, deeds, and patents reveal that the landholdings of the colonists and their descendants consisted of narrow strips of property extending from the New York Bay shoreline up the hill and over to Newark Bay. When the street grid was laid down for the Greenville area, the city blocks were surveyed within the boundaries of the old farms. In many instances, the lines and orientations of the earlier property divisions were preserved. The main north-south thoroughfare in Bergen Township followed the route of today's Bergen Avenue. At the time, it was merely an unpaved dirt road following a meandering route, largely determined by local topography. Old Bergen Road, between McAdoo Avenue and Merritt Street in today’s Greenville, preserves a segment of this colonial-era road that once ran the entire length of the peninsula.
At some point, the farms just south of Caven Point came to be called "Celeryville." Perhaps the soil and climate conditions were particularly good for growing the vegetable. Anecdotal references to Celeryville recall the growing of celery, cabbage, radishes, and other garden variety farming through the early nineteenth century. The obituary of banker Oliver Vreeland (d. 1941), and descendant of Michael Jansen Vreeland, reports that the Vreeland family settled in the area in 1637 through a Dutch grant by Queen Anne of Holland. The family grew "celery and cabbage and the farm was known as Celeryville." (New York Times 27 October 1941)
Jersey City historian Owen Grundy describes the area in the early 19th century as “largely settled by German families, who were farmers and fishermen at a time when oyster beds abounded in New York Bay” (39). Possibly, these early immigrants found a niche among the descendants of the Dutch colonists with whom they may have shared a similar way of life. In any case, the rapidly growing population of New York City generated a strong demand for the fresh and easily marketable agricultural produce of surrounding farming communities in places like Celeryville.
Changing Political Association and Independent Status
The history of Greenville as an independent municipality is part of the larger story of the evolving civil and administrative boundaries in Hudson County and Jersey City. The common theme in this history is the transformation of the two-hundred-year-old agricultural township of Bergen into the nine contemporary cities that make up Hudson County east of the Hackensack River.
The period between 1804 and 1869 was a time of fragmentation as new urban settlements broke away from the older agricultural community. Old Jersey City (Paulus Hook) became independent in 1838. Hudson City was formed in 1855. The settlements of Bergen Square, Communipaw, present-day Lafayette, Claremont, and Greenville were re-chartered by the state as a new Town of Bergen. It had a population of 4,972. The town, under a council of five members, however, had little authority hindering growth and future development. West Hoboken and Union Township (now known as Union City and West New York) and Bayonne became separate towns in 1861. Bayonne Township moved to the next level and was incorporated as the City of Bayonne in 1869.
The growth and expansion of Old Jersey City were set in motion during the early 1830s. Regular steam-powered ferryboat service between and lower Manhattan encouraged wealthy businessmen to work in New York and live in New Jersey. They were able to privately afford the horse and carriage transportation required to reach the ferry in old Jersey City. Some early commuters began to build large homes set among the older working farms of Celeryville. The small country estates built along the Bergen Point Plank Road (Garfield Avenue) enjoyed sweeping views of Manhattan and the entire Upper New York Bay. By 1853, Greenville appears in an advertisement for property for sale in the New York Times.
The success of an independent Bayonne may have given impetus for landowners, real estate developers, and businessmen of Greenville to promote separate township status apart from the Town of Bergen. Greenville as a separate political entity had much to offer. There were woodlands, green fields, and scattered farms available for future development. It already had a mixed population of settlers of Irish, German, English, Dutch, and African descent.
With approval from the New Jersey Legislature, the independent Township of Greenville was created on March 18, 1863. It retained the former boundaries as outlined in its charter: "That part of the Township of Bergen, formerly known as Washington School District No. Three, bounded on the east by the New York Harbor, on the south by the Morris Canal, on the west by Newark Bay and the north by a lane or road known as Myrtle Avenue." With the expansion of the Central Railroad of New Jersey (CRRNJ) to Jersey City, Grundy casts the Township of Greenville as a “suburb” in the developing transportation hub for New Jersey and New York. Streets, like Danforth and Cator avenues, were originally called Chestnut and Maple streets for trees.
The first Township Committee of Greenville had five members, John Wauters, Henry Van Nostrand, Peter Rowe, James Currie, and George Vreeland, Sr. They were mostly landowners with a vested interest in the future of the area. George Vreeland (1816-1905) of 270 Garfield Avenue was a descendant of George Vreeland. In 1647, he “received from the Dutch government a grant of land along the shorefront, extending from Communipaw to what is now known as Constable Hook, Bayonne” (New York Times 16 July 1905). The Vreeland family helped found the Dutch Reformed Church (now Bergen Reformed Church). They retained their land grant for farming and fishing until 1850 when it and their home was given up to the encroaching freight terminals of the Lehigh Valley and Pennsylvania Railroads.
Another landowner, James Currie owned the woodlands at the southeast corner of Greenville. Currie's uncle, Scottish immigrant (first name is not known) Thompson of New York, purchased the property that became Curries Woods. His efforts to prevent the Morris Canal from cutting his property in half failed with his death in 1841.
The extensive landholding, approximately from City Line between Greenville and Bayonne to Newark Bay and north to the vicinity of Neptune Avenue, became synonymous with its owner. The Currie estate was at Lower New York Bay, east of the Jersey Central Railroad tracks. The configuration at Fiddler’s Elbow, taking water to the Hudson River basin, provided an ideal location for the Greene Street Boat Club. Residents used the bucolic woods for recreation--summer picnics and swimming on the shores of Newark Bay or Morris Canal and ice skating when the canal froze in the winter
In 1869, an opportunity emerged to reverse the trend of political fragmentation and legally re-combine the smaller towns of Hudson County into a single large city. However, public opinion throughout the county was not unanimous about the benefits of such a move. Greenville was among several communities in Hudson County that voted against consolidation. However, the residents of the Town of Bergen, Hudson City, and Jersey City voted in its favor. Since these towns were geographically adjacent to each other, there were no impediments to their unification. By 1870, the three towns joined together as a “greater Jersey City.” Conflicts among the different interest groups in each of the consolidated towns were resolved with a new charter granted by the New Jersey Legislature in 1871.
The Township of Greenville lasted only ten years as an independent municipality. During that time, it had neither a mayor nor a Town Hall and held its committee meetings at rented venues. The committee had to address the challenges of requests for public services that residents of the day expected. Demands for street paving, schools, and utilities were complicated by changes in the Town Committee membership, growing costs and assessments for the street upgrades, and the awarding of contracts. The Civil War years also curtailed township development as resources for the conflict took primacy in the public interest.
In 1873, the township of Greenville had a population of approximately 5,000. It held a referendum to merge with Jersey City. The residents voted 261-to-45 in favor of joining the recently consolidated City of Jersey City, which included the City of Bergen and the City of Hudson since 1870. The recurring debt problems and the persistent sewer problems most likely prompted the voters to forfeit autonomy and merge with the nearby municipality. The Panic of 1873, affecting the national economy, may have also led the voters to believe they could not independently address its fiscal responsibilities. Faced with overwhelming problems attendant to community building, Greenville decided to rejoin Jersey City under its new charter granted by the state legislature in 1871.
Grundy, J. Owen. The History of Jersey City, 1609-1976. Jersey City, NJ: Progress Printing Co., Inc. 1976.
McLean, Alexander. The History of Jersey City, N.J. Jersey City, NJ: F.T. Smiley and Co., 1895.
"Oliver Vreeland, Jersey Banker, 88." New York Times 27 October 1941.
Winfield, Charles H. History of the County of Hudson, New Jersey. New York: Kennard & Hay Printing Company, 1874.