The city of Hoboken was founded by Colonel John Stevens – patriot, attorney, civic-minded inventor, city planner, engineer, and patriarch of America’s first family of engineers.
John Stevens was born in 1749 in New York City. Raised in the city, he went on to get a law degree from King’s College, now called Columbia University. When the American Revolution broke out, John Stevens promptly joined the Patriot cause and offered his services. In July 1776, shortly after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, he was appointed Treasurer of New Jersey. He raised funds for the Patriots by navigating war-torn New Jersey on horseback, repeatedly evading the British and risking his life. His service earned him the rank of colonel. Towards the end of the Revolutionary War, Colonel Stevens married and turned his energies into building an estate.
Before the war, the present territory of Hoboken was a farm belonging to William Bayard. Since Bayard, a loyalist, ended up on the losing side of history, his land was confiscated by the colonial government of New Jersey and sold to the Stevens family in 1784 via auction.
Colonel Stevens, naming the place “Hoboken,” got to work redeveloping the farmland into a park-like, rural escape from the city. He built a family house on Castle Point, laid out a partial street grid, and had landscaping done to design gardens and pleasure grounds.
Until 1814 the family split its time between Hoboken and Manhattan, staying in Hoboken only in the summertime. Aside from enjoying his lovely Hoboken family summers, Stevens intended to monetize the land. But the major hindrance to selling lots of Hoboken land to other investors was the lack of transportation. Colonel Stevens solved this problem by buying out a ferry company. The Stevens ferries brought thousands of visitors to Hoboken from the 1820s to the 1850s. In the first half of the 19th century, the Elysian Fields and the River Walk Promenade were among the most frequented pleasure grounds in the country, hosting as many as 20,000 visitors a day.
Colonel Stevens was blessed with 13 children, three of whom achieved prominence in business, engineering, and science. One of his sons, Edwin Augustus Stevens, founded the Stevens Institute, America’s first college devoted to mechanical engineering.
The Hoboken Land and Improvement Company was incorporated in the 1830s as the family sold more land, with the Stevens brothers John Cox, Robert, James, and Edwin among the partners. In addition to laying out the streets, developing the city, and providing transportation, the Stevenses designed a system that supplied water, planted fruit trees entirely new to the region, and imported seeds and plants, including the first red camellia and the first chrysanthemum in the country.
Due to the Hoboken Land and Improvement Company’s numerous developments, big European shipping companies began establishing docks in Hoboken by the 1840s. Large German ships brought not only goods but also people, setting off waves of primarily German and Irish immigration.
Hoboken’s population, jumping from 2,668 in 1850 to almost 10,000 in 1860, reached over 20,000 by 1870. Hoboken was incorporated as a city in March of 1855.
As the city grew, the HLI Co and the Stevens family donated much of the land for the construction of public buildings, schools, and parks. The Stevenses divested themselves of much of the land they owned throughout the remainder of the 19th century, holding only a small plot between seventh and tenth streets east of Washington Street by 1900. Despite their enormous success and influence in business, they were content to let others build flourishing enterprises on the lands they laid out and sold.
The Stevens family had founded and launched the development of Hoboken. A simple patch of farmland transformed into a pleasure garden eventually grew into an international shipping center, then a factory town, and finally into the busy urban residential neighborhood that it is today.
- 1749 – John Stevens is born
- 1771 – John Stevens graduates from King’s College with a law degree
- 1776 – John Stevens is appointed captain in Washington’s army during the Revolutionary War. Later he becomes Treasurer of New Jersey and is promoted to colonel
- 1782 – Colonel John Stevens marries Rachel Cox
- 1784 – Colonel Stevens acquires the land which used to belong to the Bayard family and later becomes Hoboken
- 1790 – Stevens petitions Congress for a bill that would protect American inventors. His bill becomes the patent system law in the United States
- 1802 – Colonel Stevens builds a steamboat
- 1809 – Colonel Stevens’ steamboat travels from Hoboken to Philadelphia, becoming the first steamship to navigate the open ocean successfully
- 1811 – Colonel Stevens starts operating a ferry service between Hoboken and New York City
- 1821 – Colonel Stevens starts operating regular steamboat ferry service to Hoboken after Livingston’s steamboat monopoly is broken
- 1825 – Colonel Stevens designs and builds a steam locomotive, which he operates on a circle track at his estate in Hoboken
- 1838 – Colonel John Stevens dies at the age of 88