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Historic Houses
Hoboken
Castle Point
Where Colonel John Stevens planned “Hobuck, the Beautiful,” the pleasure resort of early New York.
Castle Point, Hoboken, Showing River Walk Leading Past The Residence, 1832

From Historic Houses of New Jersey by W. Jay Mills, 1902
Edited by GET NJ, COPYRIGHT 2002

On the highest eminence of “Point Castile,” whose “greene and white cliffes” were supposed to be “copper or silver mynes” by the followers of Henry Hudson, on his memorable voyage up the river which bears his name, Colonel John Stevens, the famous inventor, built a handsome mansion soon after his purchase of Hobuck Island, in 1784, and called it the Castle. By many of his generation John Stevens was looked upon as a mild madman, so far ahead was he of his age, and his purchase of such a large area of land as Hobuck Island created a sensation in the society of the times. Hobuck Island, or Hoboken Island, formed the largest part of the confiscated Bayard estate, and was much sought after when it was noised about that it was to be put upon the market. That noble gentleman, Baron Steuben, set his heart on obtaining it for the services he had rendered the government during the Revolution, and wrote to Governor Livingston for right of pre-emption; but Colonel Stevens was ahead of him, and became the owner of the whole property in March, 1783, for the sum of eighteen thousand three hundred and sixty pounds.

The Stevens residence, mentioned by newspapers of the day as “Stevens Villa,” was one of the most noted American homes of the last century, frequented as it was by the wealth and fashion of New York City, and indeed of the whole country. Mrs. John Stevens, nee Rachel Cox, the first lady of the Castle, was a daughter of the charming Mrs. John Cox, of “Bloomsbury Court,” near Trenton, whose family of beautiful girls made a series of the most brilliant matches recorded in the annals of old New Jersey and Philadelphia society. The lovely Coxes, as they were sometimes called, were noted for their vivacity and high spirits, and after reading their letters, many of which have been published in historical works, we can readily believe it. It was Sarah Cox, (Sarah Cox became the wife of Dr. John Redman Coxe, of Philadelphia) a younger sister of Mrs. Stevens, who wrote to a friend before going to a Washington Birthnight ball, that she would take two pairs of shoes, for, she says, “I danced one pair nearly out at the last assembly, and I am sure if I could do that when it had nothing to do with the President, what shall I do when I have his presence to inspire me.

While on a visit to his future wife’s home in Southern Jersey, Colonel Stevens’s attention is said to have been first attracted to steamboat navigation, which came so near giving him a greater fame than Robert Fulton. Driving along the Delaware, near Burlington, in 1787, he saw John Fitch’s boat pass up the river against the tide. His interest was so excited that he whipped up his horse and followed the boat in his chaise to its landing, where he closely examined the engines and the mechanism of the pushing paddles. After years of labor in his workshop at Hoboken, he constructed a small open boat worked by steam, far in advance of Fitch’s idea. It was such a decided success that he was encouraged to go on and build he”Phcenix,” a large boat after his own plan and model She was completed but a few days after the world renowncd “Clermont,” designed by Fulton.

Of Colonel Stevens’s first steamboat an in description has come down to us from the pen of the late Frederick De Peyster, of New York. He wrote:

In the month of May, 1804, accompanied by a friend, I went to walk in the Battery. As we entered the gate from Broadway we saw what in those days was considered a crowd running towards the river. On inquiry, we were informed that ‘Jack Stevens’ (John Cox Stevens), son of Colonel John Stevens, was going over to Hoboken in a queer sort of boat. On reaching the bulkhead by which the Battery was then bounded, we saw lying against it a vessel about the size of a Whitehall row-boat, in which was a small engine, but there was no visible means of propulsion. The vessel was speedily under way, my late, much valued friend, Commodore Stevens, acting as coxswain, and, I presume, the smutty-looking person who filled the duties of the engineer, fireman, and crew was his more practical brother, Robert L. Stevens.

Although Colonel Stevens’s inventions occupied nearly all his time at this period, he still found leisure to devote to the improvement of his large estate, and in this he is said to have been greatly helped by the taste and good judgment of his wife. T heir castle of a simple colonial style of architecture contained over twenty rooms, and it was Colonel Stevens’s boast that each of its windows afforded a prospect of surpassing beauty. Both the New Jersey and New York shore lines above the harbor presented a very rural appearance in those days. Back of the slim line of wharves were low houses and church spires, and stretches of green fields and undulating meadow-lands rolled away into a gradually rising and wilder landscape. Mrs. John Adams had a few years before this period written that the country about her home, in what is now Varick Street, between Charlton and Vandam Streets, New York City, could be compared to hills and vales of lovely Devonshire, and the views from the higher eminence of Castle Point must have been superb.

In 1 804, following in the lead of “The Jersey Associates,” the owners of near-by Paulus Hook, Colonel Stevens mapped out a part of his land and launched the enterprise under the name of “The New City of Hoboken.” Lots were offered at public auction at the Tontine Coffee-House, in the city of New York, and general interest was aroused in a spot which subsequently became the most famous pleasure ground in the United States, and the delight of the poet, the artist, the actor, and the dreamer of old New York.

So much was written about” Hoboken, the Beautiful” in the first half of the last century that it became almost world renowned. In those summers of its popularity the gentleman and the toiler crossed over the Hudson’s sparkling waters in the comfortable boat “Fairy Queen,” from Canal Street, to enjoy the Hoboken scenery and the then delightful walks and forest glades cooled by ocean breezes.

Amusements and refreshments of almost endless variety were at the call of every visitor. There was the wonderful circular railway called the “Aerial ‘Ways,” an improvement, originated by Colonel Stevens, over the “Montagnes Russes” in the gardens of Beaujon and Tivoli, France. A visitor wrote that it was pleasantly situated under a clump of tall forest trees. “There,” he said, “you might observe a gay young gallant handing to seat some timid blushing miss and gently folding in the stray portions of her airy drapery, while he plants himself by her side; and away they wheel round and round, until the fair one gently whispers ‘enough.’ They now descend and retire beneath the surrounding foliage, to whisper (all very sweet no doubt) of bright days to come, while their envied seat is again wheeling in rapid revolution another fond and fluttering pair.”

Then there was “the green” in front of the old “76 House,” a building which had been a granary in the time of the Bayards. There the mountebanks lured the passers-by to their gayly colored booths, and one could view the wax figures from Paris, and a camera obscura. From “the green” one started on the river walk, which led past the gardens of Castle Point and the Castle itself. Wier and Smillie and many other artists have left us pictures of it. Engravings are still to be found in printshops, although the beauties of Hoboken are forgotten. If the departing stranger desired a souvenir of the place, he could obtain it at the china shop on Washington Street, where the sum of ten cents would purchase a Clew’s Staffordshire plate as blue as lapis-lazuli, and embellished with a fine view of the Castle. Many found their way there, for the mansion of the owner of Hoboken was considered a handsome piece of architecture, and there are enough “Castle Point plates” in existence to warrant the belief that they were very popular.

In those bright days, when the Castle was in the heyday of its glory and Hoboken a place of poetic beauty, the lovely sisters of Mrs. Stevens, then matrons with families of their own, often came to visit her. We cannot help wishing they had left us some letters describing the gay doings at the Castle, as their early letters are so full of interest. Susan, the merry girl who wrote of going prepared to Washington’s Birthnight ball with two pairs of slippers, could have amusingly written of the great hoax of the famous baloon ascension, which through judicious advertising drew crowds to witness the ascension of a “lady,” who proved to be a much enraged tabby-cat. She could have also ably told of a great Fourth of July celebration, when hundreds of skyrockets and other fireworks were set off in the garden, and of the dance which followed at the Castle, the New York guests coming across the water in barges decorated with lanterns, like their ancestors used to go to the pleasure gardens of Old England half a century before.

Hoboken as a pleasure resort, and the early Castle itself, are now but memories. The present Castle was erected about 1845, and is a familiar landmark to the millions who cross the New York and Jersey City ferries to the railroad termini. Rising out of a grove of old trees, it is a most imposing building, and it is pleasing to think that it is always to be owned by a Stevens and can come to a serene old age, smiling on generation after generation. Its interior is very elaborate, containing a tapestry chamber and several rooms in early English style. It has always been the abode of gracious hospitality, and many distinguished people have been entertained there. The late Mrs. Martha Bayard Stevens dearly loved its many treasures and was never happier than when followed by old Peter, an aged Stevens slave, who died recently, she led the privileged guest through the elegant rooms, showing her famous old silver, the Martha Washington relics, and the collections of waistcoats, laces, and the ecclesiastical embroideries. The Stevens home to-day does not miss the wide strip of pebbly beach, now profaned by huge piers and warehouses, the immortal river walk, which has disappeared, where old New York came to promenade and recruit its wasted energy, and the forgotten green where the weary rested and sipped their sangaree punch and strong waters. These all belong to another period, but it can ever look proudly on the great institute which the wealth given by Hoboken helped the family to establish, almost on the spot where Colonel John Stevens, the planner of the forgotten “Hoboken, the Beautiful” had his workshop and conducted his mechanical experiments.

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