At present, Greenville might rank fairly low on the hierarchy of prime Jersey City neighborhoods. Not that long ago, however, a Greenville address enjoyed a much better reputation than it does today. Although never a truly prestigious district, the neighborhood was considered desirable for its stability, prosperity, and quality of life. Built up primarily during the first quarter of the 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 that were not standard in some of the older parts of the city. Most residents took advantage of the area’s extensive public transportation network, but some properties were already being equipped with small driveways and backyard garages to accommodate a private automobile. With pleasant neighborhoods, numerous churches and schools, convenient shopping streets, and an easy commute to a variety of workplaces, Greenville became a place where working families wanted to move.
The transformation of the Greenville area from farmland to a mostly residential, fairly prosperous urban neighborhood follows a pattern that was 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 over time were largely driven by three factors: successive improvements in transportation technology, an 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 Indians called the place Pamrapo or Mingakwe. Archaeological excavations along the New York Bay shoreline indicate that Lenape Indians visited the area on a seasonal basis, gathering and preserving shellfish for use later in the year. References to Minkakwe (spelled in various ways) appear in seventeenth and eighteenth century legal documents such as as property transfers and marriage records. Unlike many communities in New York and New Jersey that have retained the place names originally bestowed by their Native American inhabitants, today only the name of Pamrapo Avenue remains 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. At that time, the area that is now Greenville 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 were located in what later became known as Greenville – the areas just south of the Communipaw village, at Caven Point, and at other advantageous spots along the western shoreline of the upper New York Bay. Although they didn’t 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 to New York City. Further inland were pastures, woodlands, and outlying fields. Original land grants, deeds, and patents reveal that the land holdings 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 the Newark Bay. Later on, as the street grid was laid down for the Greenville area, the city blocks were surveyed within the the boundaries of the old farms, in many instances preserving the lines and orientations of the earlier property divisions. The main north-south thoroughfare in Bergen Township followed the route of what is today Bergen Avenue. At the time, it was merely an unpaved dirt road which followed a meandering route determined largely by local topography. Old Bergen Road, between McAdoo Avenue and Merritt Street in today’s Greenville section, preserves a segment of this colonial era road which 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 celery. Anecdotal references to Celeryville recall the growing of celery, cabbage, radishes and other garden variety farming through the early nineteenth century. Jersey City historian Owen Grundy describes the area in the early 19th century as “largely settled by German families, who were farmers and fisherman 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 while 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., and West Hoboken and Union Township (now known as Union City and West New York) along with Bayonne became separate towns in 1861. Nearby Bayonne Township, on the other hand, moved to the next level and was incorporated as the City of Bayonne in 1869.
The growth and expansion of Old Jersey City (the Paulus Hook area) was set in motion during the early 1830’s. Regular steam-powered ferryboat service between and lower Manhattan encouraged wealthy businessmen to work in New York and live in New Jersey. Able to privately afford the horse and carriage transportation necessary to reach the ferry in old Jersey City, some of these 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 a 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 found and 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 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 on 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 were named after trees; Danforth and Cator avenues, for example, were called Chestnut and Maple streets.
The first Township Committee of Greenville was composed of five members, John Wauters, Henry Van Nostrand, Peter Rowe, James Currie and George Vreeland, Sr. The members of the township committee were mostly landowners with a vested interested in the future of the area. George Vreeland (1816-1905) of 270 Garfield Avenue, for example, was a descendant of George Vreeland who in 1647 “received from the Dutch government a grant of land along the shore front, extending from Communipaw to what is now known as Constable Hook, Bayonne” (New York Times 16 July 1905). The 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.
James Currie was another of these local landowners. Woodlands at the southeast corner of Greenville were owned by James Currie. Scottish immigrant ____ Thompson of New York, uncle of James Currie who purchased property that became Curries Woods, tried to prevent the Morris Canal from cutting his property in half. He died in 1841. The extensive landholding, which became synonymous with its owner, ran approximately from City Line between Greenville and Bayonne to Newark Bay and north to the vicinity of Neptune Avenue. 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. The bucolic woods were used by local residents for recreation that included picnics and swimming in the shores of Newark Bay or the canal in the summer or ice skating in the winter 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 all voted in favor of consolidation. Since these towns were geographically adjacent to each other, there were no impediments to their unification. By 1870, these three towns were joined together as a “greater Jersey City.” Conflicts among the different interest groups in each of the now 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 awarding of contracts—problems attendant to community building. 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 with a population of approximately 5,000 held a referendum to merge with Jersey City; residents voted 261-to-45 in favor of joining the recently consolidated City of Jersey City that also included the City of Bergen and the City of Hudson since 1870. Recurring debt problems and persistent sewer problems 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 that they could not address its fiscal responsibilities as an independent entity. And Greenville decided to return 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.
Winfield, Charles H. History of the County of Hudson, New Jersey. New York: Kennard & Hay Printing Company, 1874.