The city of Hoboken was founded by Colonel John Stevens – a patriot, attorney, civic-minded inventor, city planner, engineer, and founder of America’s first family of engineers.
John Stevens was born in 1749 in New York City. He was raised and educated in New York where he graduated from the King’s College (now Columbia) with a law degree. When the American Revolution started, John Stevens joined the Patriot cause and offered his services. In July 1776, shortly after the Declaration of Independence was signed, he was appointed Treasurer of New Jersey. He raised funds for the Patriots by navigating war-torn New Jersey on horseback, constantly 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 that belonged to William Bayard. Since Bayard was a loyalist and ended up on the losing side of the war, his land was confiscated by the colonial government of New Jersey and sold to the Stevens family in 1784 via an auction.
Colonel John Stevens named the place Hoboken and started redeveloping the farmland into a park-like rural city escape. He built a family house on Castle Point, laid out a partial street grid, and had attractive landscaping done on what would become gardens and pleasure grounds.
Until 1814 the family split their time between Hoboken and Manhattan, staying in Hoboken only in the summer. Besides enjoying his lovely Hoboken family summers, Stevens also intended to monetize the land. The major hindrance in selling lots of Hoboken land to other investors was the lack of transportation. Colonel Stevens solved the problem by buying out a ferry company. The Stevens ferry brought thousands of visitors to Hoboken from the 1820s to the 1850s. In the first half of the nineteenth century, the Elysian Fields and the River Walk Promenade were among the most frequented pleasure grounds in the country and hosted as many as 20,000 visitors in a day.
Stevens’ family was blessed with 13 children, three of whom achieved prominence in business, engineering, and science. One of his sons, Edwin Augustus Stevens, founded Stevens Institute, America’s first college devoted to mechanical engineering.
As the family sold more land in the 1830s, the Hoboken Land and Improvement Company was incorporated 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 provided water to the city, planted many fruit trees that were new to the region, and imported seeds and plants, including the first red camellia and the first chrysanthemum in the country.
By the 1840s, due to developments by the Hoboken Land and Improvement Company, big European shipping companies began establishing docks in Hoboken. Large German ships docking in Hoboken brought not only goods but also people starting waves of immigration mostly from Germany and Ireland.
The population of Hoboken jumped from 2,668 in 1850 to almost 10,000 in 1860 and increased to over 20,000 in 1870. In March of 1855, Hoboken was incorporated as a city.
The HLI Co and the Stevens family donated much of the land for public buildings, schools, and parks as the city grew. Over the course of the nineteenth century, the Stevens family divested itself of much of the land they owned and by 1900 the family held only a small parcel of land between seventh and tenth streets east of Washington Street. While they had been enormously successful and influential in business, they were content to let others build flourishing enterprises on the lands they laid out and sold.
The Stevens family had launched the development of Hoboken, a city that started as a patch of farmland before transforming into a pleasure garden, an international shipping center, a factory town, and finally into a busy urban residential neighborhood.
- 1749 – John Stevens was born
- 1771 – John Stevens graduated from King’s College with a law degree
- 1776 – John Stevens was appointed a Captain in Washington’s army in the American Revolutionary War. During the War, he was promoted to Colonel and became the Treasurer of New Jersey.
- 1782 – Colonel John Stevens married Rachel Cox
- 1784 – Colonel Stevens acquired the land which used to belong to the Bayard family and later became Hoboken
- 1790 – Stevens petitioned Congress for a bill that would protect American inventors. His bill became the patent system law in the United States.
- 1802 – Colonel Stevens built a steamboat
- 1809 – Colonel Stevens’ steamboat travels from Hoboken to Philadelphia becoming the first steamship to successfully navigate the open ocean.
- 1811 – Colonel Stevens starts operating ferry service between Hoboken and New York City
- 1821 – Colonel Stevens started operating regular steamboat ferry service to Hoboken after the Livingston’s steamboat monopoly was broken.
- 1825 – Colonel Stevens designed and built a steam locomotive, which he operated on a circle track at his estate in Hoboken
- 1838 – Colonel John Stevens died aged 88