History of West New York

By Estela Longo, Reference Librarian, West New York Public Library and Patrick Cullen, Historian, Town of West New York

Before West New York was settled, and long before it became incorporated in 1898, Native Americans of the Lenni Lenape Tribe, known locally to Dutch settlers as Hackensack and Tappan tribes, were the first known peoples to live here. The first known European in the area was Henry Hudson in 1609, an English explorer employed by The Dutch East India Company. In 1658, Peter Stuyvesant, the last Director-General of New Netherlands, purchased the land of North Hudson from the Hackensack and Tappan Native American Tribes. In 1663, he began to convey lands of what would much later be known as West New York to various freeholders (landholders) of Bergen, New Jersey’s oldest settlement. In 1664 these lands were ceded to the English.

Before that occurred, Stuyvesant issued on November 21, 1663, what appears to be the two oldest patents, or land grants in what would become West New York, to Cornelius Ruyven, Paulius Lindertz, Allerd Anthony, and Johannis Ver Bruggen: tract 145 along the waterfront, (the southern fifth of which became part of Weehawken) which was known as Jacob Slaugh’s Meadow, (after the person who attempted to kill Stuyvesant’s predecessor, Willem Kieft and was himself killed and his head placed on a post); and tract 207, a nearly rectangular, approximately 24 acre parcel that borders Slaugh’s Meadow to the east and Bergenline Avenue to the west. The earliest (but not confirmed) settlement in West New York may be that of Jacob Brower. He purchased 14 acres of land from lot #316 from John Sickles on April 29, 1786. Two historical maps (Map of the City of New York and Surrounding Country, by John Randall, Jr., 1821; Topographical Map of Hudson County by Robert C. Bacot, 1854) refer to ‘Brower’s Point’, with the earlier map also referring to very proximal land as ‘Brower’ and the later map inserting under Brower’s Point ‘or Gregory’s Dock.’* The respected historian and Memorial High School teacher, the late Walter Eickmann, Ph. D., in his seminal work, History of West New York, New Jersey: In Commemoration of Its Golden Jubilee (1948) demonstrated by way of an overlay of the Bacot map that Brower’s Point – which the author affirms is named for Jacob Brower – is definitively within the city limits of West New York. It is reasonable to conclude that the West New York Port Imperial places of Jacob’s Ferry and Brower Court, in very close proximity to the historical location of Brower’s Point are probably named for Jacob Brower.

In 1798, the lands of the future West New York became part of Bergen Township. In 1840, Hudson County was formed from part of Bergen County. In 1841, Thomas J. Dobbs, son of Frederick F. Dobbs and Leah Carling, was born on March 7th near the Hudson River in what would become West New York. In 1843, the future West New York became part of North Bergen Township. In 1853, Conrad Bickhard, a carpenter and cabinet maker, settled in the future West New York west of Bergenline Avenue. He was a member of West New York’s first fire department, Friendship Engine Company and planned and built the original School No, 1 in 1866. The origin of West New York as a geographical reference has been traced back to 1854, where it appeared on Robert C. Bacot’s Topographical Map of Hudson County. In 1861, Guttenberg, Union Hill (later to become part of Union City), and West New York became Union Township. In 1864, Union Hill withdrew from Union Township, followed in 1878 by Guttenberg (formalized the following year by a petition of Union Township citizens, freeholders and taxpayers to the New Jersey Assembly, which sanctioned the move). This action left only West New York in Union Township until July 8, 1898, when its request to change its official name to West New York was formally recognized by the State of New Jersey.

On August 27, 1898, at a gala parade and celebration of the newly incorporated West New York, one of our schoolteachers, Matilda ‘Tillie’ Brill, dressed as the “Goddess of Liberty” and holding the American flag, gave a rousing speech. The first mayor of West New York was John E. Otis, who served from 1898 to 1903. West New York’s form of government was mayor/town council until 1931, when it became governed by commissioners (who select a mayor) under the Walsh Act. After the Dutch, Germans began coming to the area in the mid 19th century. In the early 1880’s when a tunnel was built through The Palisades at the West New York Town Line to New Durham in North Bergen, the railroad played an important role in the economy, offering employment and attracting more settlers (most of them Irish) looking for work related to the railroads. After the Dutch, German, Swiss and Irish came Italians, Swedes, Slavs, Jews, and Armenians, among other groups. Many of our older one and two family homes, as well as numerous walls that boarder our parks on Boulevard East and elsewhere are made from bluestone, an abundant rock that was mined from several quarries in and near West New York.

In the early 1900’s Swiss immigrants began bringing the embroidery industry to West New York. So numerous were the Swiss-American and German-American embroidery shops that opened in North Hudson, that by 1948, the 428 manufacturers constituted 90% of all embroidery made in America with the 183 such businesses in West New York comprising the largest share. America’s entry into World War I in 1917 saw 1,622 West New Yorkers enter military service. These men are documented in a World War I Honor Roll that appears at the back of a booklet published in 1943 entitled: World War II Honor Roll, and well as approximately 600 of them in photographs in several binders, all of which is available for viewing at the West New York Room on the second floor of The West New York Public Library. At least 26 West New Yorkers died in service as a result, and are documented on a Roll of Honor on the outside of our Municipal Building steps, as well as the 1930’s white stepped Veteran’s Monument in Veterans Park, 54th Street and Boulevard East.

During World War II, well over 3,500 West New York men and women served in the military. Retired West New York Firefighter Alan Ballester has organized over 1,950 names of these men and women, and the newspaper articles in which their names have appeared, available for reading on this site. At least 164 of these men and women died in World War II. Four from West New York died in the Korean War and nine from our town died in Vietnam. At least one resident served in the Persian Gulf War. On September 11, 2001, West New York lost three residents: one on flight 93 and two at the World Trade Center. The 9-11 Memorial at Donnelly Park was built during the Mayor Sires Administration to pay homage to the tremendous loss suffered that day.

As a result of the post World War II prosperity that embraced America, many returning West New York veterans took advantage of their new GI Bill, obtained college degrees or technical diplomas, and started families. With the auto industry now retro-fitted to produce cars again, and President Eisenhower’s ambitious highway construction under way, many West New Yorkers began to leave town for the rapidly growing suburbs. At the time of the Castro Revolution in Cuba, West New York had lost thousands of residents and had many vacant units for rent or sale. Thus began a massive Cuban exodus of refugees to Miami and points north. Thousands of Cubans came to West New York. Among the first to come was Albio Sires in 1962. Mr. Sires later became West New York’s first Cuban-American mayor, (followed by fellow countrymen, Mayors Silverio “Sal” Vega and Felix Roque, M.D.) later, first Cuban-American Speaker of the New Jersey Assembly, and is currently our Congressman. The first three Cuban-American Commissioners for West New York are Mario Hernandez, Luis Suarez, and Sal Vega.

Bergenline Avenue, known as the “Miracle Mile” in West New York is our main business hub, with over 300 businesses ranging from apparel, jewelry, beauty services, electronics, travel and real estate agencies, pharmacies, supermarkets, restaurants, medical services, banks, florists, cell phones, and many more. Over a dozen houses of worship, representing several faiths and a variety of denominations are active in the community. West New York has a robust public school system that includes: a comprehensive Early Childhood Program that is administered at Early Childhood School, P.S. No. 4 Annex, Public Schools No.’s 1-5, as well as at twelve childcare providers; six elementary schools for K-6th grades, a Middle School for 7th and 8th grades, and Memorial High School.

For more West New York History visit the Public Library.

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