HISTORY OF THE MEADOWLANDS:
Pre-Historic Conditions | European Settlement | Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries |
Nineteenth Century | Twentieth Century | The Advent of Comprehensive Planning
Twenty First Century
The nineteenth century was marked by the introduction of road and rail networks across the Meadowlands, the establishment of historic settlements on high ground, the operation of mills and clay mines, and land reclamation activities. Meadowlands communities continued to grow throughout the 19th century as more jobs were created and communities around the Meadowlands developed into centers of commerce. The mid 1800’s saw residential development in present day Carlstadt, Little Ferry, North Arlington and municipalities surrounding the Meadowlands. Little Ferry was developed as a ferry crossing along the route from Hackensack to Bergen. The construction of the Bergen Turnpike in 1804 resulted in the eventual replacement of the ferry crossing with a bridge in 1828.
The Morris Canal opened in 1831, providing a transportation route from the Delaware River to the Passaic River. By 1836, the canal was extended to the Hudson River. In the vicinity of the Meadowlands, the canal followed the course of the Newark Turnpike across the marsh at what is now Kearny before heading south.
Much of the historic development in the Meadowlands has been a product of the turnpikes constructed in the first quarter of the 19th century. The roads, along with water transport, were a vital link in the colonization of the area by allowing farm produce, lumber, copper, brick and other locally produced products to reach the New York and European markets. The roads to Schuyler’s mine and to Newark were improved during this time and became the Belleville and Newark Turnpikes, respectively. Paterson Plank Road was laid across the marsh at this time, providing a direct route from Paterson to Jersey City via Acquackanonk. Paterson Plank Road was considered a product of the “plank road fever” of the mid-nineteenth century. These roads were constructed of cedar planks about three inches thick, laid side-by-side to a width of approximately eight or nine feet. The “plank road fever” was eventually quieted by high maintenance costs and competition from more cost efficient canals and railroads. Some of these dirt and cedar plank roads have remained in their original locations, becoming the present-day Paterson Plank Road and the Belleville, Newark-Jersey City, and Bergen turnpikes.
Population growth in Meadowlands communities, together with the technological advances of the industrial revolution, fueled the development of passenger rail service through the District. Rail service, in turn, allowed people to live farther away from their places of employment. The rail lines, originally used to transport freight, included such present day lines as the West Shore, Main, Boonton, and Morris and Essex lines. The lower land costs and proximity to New York City led to the development of several rail yards in the Meadowlands.
The nineteenth century brought considerable development to Secaucus, particularly its southern terminus, Snake Hill. The Snake Hill area covers 152 acres in Secaucus, bordering the east bank of the Hackensack River. According to some accounts, the area was named by early colonists, because the bordering marshland was infested with black water snakes, many twelve to fifteen feet long. Snake Hill may have been named after Jacob Schneck, its owner in the 1860’s.
There are historic accounts of Native American occupation on or adjacent to the hill. Snake Hill was part of the Pinhorne Plantation, which was the center of the village of Secaucus from about 1680 into the nineteenth century. Penhorn Creek, at the eastern boundary of Secaucus, was named after William Pinhorne, with few aware of the original, correct spelling of the name. The site was later used as an encampment and lookout during the Revolutionary War and served as the location for various public institutions from the Civil War era to the beginning of the 20th century: in 1863, the site of the area’s first alms house; in 1870, a penitentiary; in 1873, an asylum for the insane, and in 1910 a new alms house and a school.
In the 1890’s, it is said an advertising agent passing by Snake Hill in a passenger train was inspired by the outcropping hill of rock. Soon photographs of the Rock of Gibraltar, which had a similar profile, were being used in advertisements for the Prudential Insurance Company of America. The image of the rock remains synonymous with Prudential to this day. Since the early 1900’s, the area has more commonly been referred to as Laurel Hill.
Throughout the nineteenth century, efforts at land reclamation took the form of early dikes, sluiceways, and networks of drainage ditches throughout the District. Few of these cultural resources, however, have been documented according to current State or Federal standards. The earliest recorded attempt to “reclaim” the Meadowlands actually dates back to the end of the seventeenth century, when Major Nathaniel Kingsland drained part of the marshlands in the vicinity of Kearny and Harrison by means of a sluice gate. Presumably placed across the mouth of Kingsland Creek, the sluice gate produced land for grazing.
The Swartwout Brothers attempted the first large-scale reclamation project in 1816 by draining and diking some 4,200 acres in Hudson County. The project succeeded in embanking 1,300 acres that produced vegetables, flax, and hemp. Damage from high tides and muskrat burrowing soon resulted in the flooding of the reclaimed land. The Swartwout’s abandoned their attempt by the 1840’s.
In 1867, Spenser Driggs and Samuel Pike devised a reclamation plan that involved building stronger, iron-cored or plated dikes to prevent damage from the tides and the muskrat population. Several miles of these dikes were constructed in the meadows, including locations along Sawmill and Kingsland creeks. Although the project was successful in diking nearly 4,000 acres, the crops grown on the land reportedly failed. Partly as a result of an agricultural depression in the 1870’s, financial support was withdrawn following Pike’s death in 1872.
After the failures of the various land reclamation projects, the Meadowlands remained a vast, largely vacant tract of land between the urban New York City and the developed, but more suburban areas to the north and west. Individual pockets of settlements generally centered around one particular industry located at the edge of the meadows.