The settlement of New Netherland by the Dutch West India Company (1621-1664) on the western side of the Hudson River included today's historic district of Paulus Hook.
After the forfeiture of land holdings at Pavonia by Michael Pauw in 1633, the Dutch trading company named Michael Paulusen, or Paulaz, an agent for the settlement. The name "Paulus" is derived from his name as is Powles. The term "hook" was for the original area of Aressick--the word hoeck in Dutch meaning hook or point, thus Paulus Hook.
Paulus Hook was a small island, separated on the west from Harsimus Island by a marsh with a stream. Local historian Joan Lovero reports that during the age of settlement, " . . . Paulus Hook rose several feet above water level and was separated from the land at its west by a creek that was navigable at high tide" (9). It was later connected with the mainland by a causeway over the marsh. Local historian Walter F. Robinson adds that Paulus Hook was "then an earthen embankment (now lower Newark Avenue) across the marsh to Harsimus Island, then a road (now Railroad Avenue) westward over Harsimus to Prior's Mill bridge and the mainland. This quickly became a busy part of the main post road from New York to Philadelphia" (Old Bergen Township, n.p.).
The waterfront location gave Paulus Hook a somewhat derogatory reference as "Gammontown," derived from the Dutch word gemeen. An Internet search on Woxikon.com reveals an array of definitions from "awful" and "mean" and "malicious" to "vile." The author Helene Stapinski proffers that the term describes the origins of the area: "Since the neighborhood was close to the water, it was often invaded by rats. Not the most desirable place to live" (28).
By the 1760s, Paulus Hook was noted for its stagecoach and ferry service. A descendant of the first Cornelius Van Vorst, Cornelius Van Vorst (1728-1818), known as "Faddy," helped with the development of the ferry business. His ferry line ran from Paulus Hook to Cortland Street in New York City. It included three flatboats for wagons and coaches and smaller boats for passengers. His mile-long circular racetrack brought business from the New York and the New Jersey sides of the Hudson River. To attract patrons, Van Vorst constructed a tavern at Paulus Hook with Verdine Elsworth as proprietor. It was a one-story building with a Dutch roof and eaves and an overhanging porch that faced the river in the vicinity of Grand and Hudson Streets.
The location of Paulus Hook demonstrated its strategic advantages in the impending struggle between Great Britain and her American colonies. Even before the war, General George Washington ordered the construction of a fort at Paulus Hook to defend New York from British attack, guard the Hudson River channel, and control the Bergen peninsula to Bergen Neck (now Bayonne).
During the first six months of the Revolutionary War, General Washington faced a succession of failures. American forces were defeated at the Battle of Long Island in August 1776, and Washington's army of 10,000 men evacuated Brooklyn Heights across the East River. On September 15, the British then claimed New York and turned their warships on Paulus Hook.
As a result, on September 23, 1776, Paulus Hook had to be abandoned. Munitions and supplies were removed to Bergen Town. The fort became the first New Jersey territory invaded and occupied by the British. It remained under British control until the end of the war and was held by some 200 Tories, called an "invalid" regiment, under Lieutenant Colonel Abraham Van Buskirk of Saddle River. Raids on the fort by patriots occasionally took place. On April 2, 1779, British soldiers from Paulus Hook traveled to Bergen Neck and attacked and captured the patriot soldiers stationed there.
On August 18, 1779, Major Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee, a 23-year-old graduate of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), left Paramus. He led his 300 war-weary Continental soldiers through the marshes to Harsimus Creek and Island (now Pavonia) and launched a surprise pre-dawn attack upon the British fort at Paulus Hook.
As a result of a delay and rising tide affecting the crossing of the marshes, Lee settled on a two-column, rather than a three-column attack as planned, on August 19 at 3:30 a.m. Lee was met by the British 64th Regiment stationed at Paulus Hook. Despite problems of water damage to the ammunition, Lee's forces took most of the fort in the "hit and run" operation ordered by Washington. After approximately thirty minutes, Loyalist dominance in the area resulted in a retreat by Lee, although his 150 soldiers killed 50 and took 159 prisoners. Lee feared continued fighting would signal British arrival from New York. Lee moved his troops out past Prior's Mill, across Bergen Square, and down Middle Road (now Tonnele Avenue) to the Hackensack River.
Historian Walter K. Robinson claims the Battle of Paulus Hook was "one of the most brilliant and daring exploits in the war. . . . it boosted American morale everywhere" (49). Although Lee was not successful in regaining Paulus Hook Fort from the British, the Continental Congress awarded Lee a gold medal, exceptional at the time, for his daring maneuver. The British did not evacuate Paulus Hook until the end of the war on November 22, 1783.
According to New Jersey historian John Cunningham, after the war, Paulus Hook was a sparsely settled marshland with only a ferry house, lobster shanty, and "a few outbuildings" (New Jersey 124). However, Alexander Hamilton, President Washington's former Secretary of the Treasury, saw potential in this undeveloped area. In 1804, he helped found the Associates of the Jersey Company and leased the land. Paulus Hook was subdivided into lots for sale and free distribution to churches. However, competition from New York City, poor business management, and the untimely death of Hamilton affected the future of the project.
In 1812, the engineer and steamboat developer Robert Fulton also saw Paulus Hook's advantageous commercial location. He started a ferry service between New York and Paulus Hook. His steamboat Jersey took approximately fifteen minutes to cross the Hudson River.
During the early nineteenth century, the railroads filled in the remaining marshland that transformed it into a waterfront industrial site with factories and rail yards. Ferry traffic carried raw materials brought by rail to Jersey City across the Hudson River to New York. This approximately half-square mile in Jersey City's First Ward developed throughout the nineteenth century with companies like P. Lorillard Tobacco, Colgate-Palmolive Company, and American Sugar Refining (Sugar House).
Immigrants moved into the area. They lived on blocks neighboring Grand Street, the main street, with a trolley car service for residents. Some single-family brick row houses became multi-family dwellings to meet the population growth. In the 1890s, the social reformer Cornelia Bradford opened Whittier House, a social settlement house, for the neighborhood immigrants.
Paulus Hook Today
The 35-block Paulus Hook Historic District retains many of its early brownstones, rowhouses, churches, apartments, and factories. It is bounded by Montgomery Avenue, Essex Street, Greene Street, and Marin Boulevard. New townhouses and apartment complexes have been built in the Upper New York Bay area, vying for views of Manhattan, Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. Residential properties have taken a foothold in the once commercial area, such as the Pier House Condominiums, Liberty Pointe, and Liberty Towers. The Hartz Mountain Industries built two-twelve story towers in the Colgate Redevelopment Area and the Applied Companies completed the Portside apartments. The Sugar House, along the Morris Canal basin, was renovated by Diversified Management Systems. It is now a sixty-four-unit condominium that opened in June 2001.
Other notable sites are the Guarantee Title & Trust Co. Bank, the Jersey City Main Post Office, Provident "Old Beehive" Bank, and the Hudson County Korean War Memorial installed at the foot of Washington Street in 2002. The "Light House Tavern," formed from two adjoining 1850s brownstones at 199 Washington Street, honors Lee.
The Paulus Hook Monument in the park, at the southeast corner of Washington and Grand Streets, commemorates the Battle of Paulus Hook, fought to regain the fort by the Patriots against the British in August 1779. The 25-foot obelisk of unhewn granite was installed in 1903 by the Daughters of the American Revolution in honor of Col. Lee's efforts. In the 1930s, the monument was struck by a vehicle and was seemingly lost. Decades later, it was found among some debris and reinstalled in the historic district's pocket park.
Cunningham, John T. New Jersey: America's Main Road. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1966.
"gemeen." see http://www.Woxikon.com
Historic Paulus Hook Association: http://paulushook.net
Lovero, Joan D. Hudson County: The Left Bank. Sun Valley. CA: American Historical Press, 1999.
McDonald, Corey."Paulus Hook Remembered." Jersey Journal 23 August 2016.
"Recalling Paulus Hook: Jersey City's Revolutionary Battle." New York Times 20 August 1879.
Robinson, Walter F. Old Bergen Township (Now Hudson County) in the American Revolution. Bayonne, NJ: Keystone Printing Company, 1978.
Spadora, Brian. "Vets Dedicated Hudson County Korean War Memorial." Jersey Journal 9 December 2002.
Stapinski, Helene. Five Finger Discount. New York: Random House, 2001.