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ON THE JERSEY SHORE
ACROSS the river from the Battery is the ancient settlement of Communipaw where Dutch manners and customs are said to have survived longer than anywhere else in the Hudson Valley. Some persons even go so far as to declare that the true sons of Communipaw, however modern their thoughts in the daytime, still continue to dream in Dutch. According to Irving in his burlesque “History of New York,” when the first ship from Holland bringing colonists to this country came to anchor at the mouth of the Hudson, there was on the Jersey shore “a small Indian village pleasantly embowered in a grove of spreading elms, and the natives all collected on the beach, gazing in stupid admiration at the vessel. A boat was immediately dispatched to enter into a treaty with them, and approaching the shore, the skipper hailed them through a trumpet, in the most friendly terms; but so horribly confounded were these poor savages at the tremendous and uncouth sound of the Dutch language, that they one and all took to their heels and scampered way over the Bergen hills.
“Animated by this unlooked-for victory, our valiant heroes sprang ashore in triumph and carried the village of Communipaw by storm, notwithstanding that it was vigorously defended by half a score of old squaws and papooses. On looking about them they were transported with the excellencies of the place. The softness of the soil was wonderfully adapted to the driving of piles, the swamps and marshes afforded ample opportunities for the constructing of dykes and dams; the shallowness of the shore was peculiarly favorable to the building of docks: — in a word, this spot abounded with all the requisites for the foundation of a great Dutch city.”
There the voyagers settled in great content, and thence, as Irving’s narrative has it, the founders of New Amsterdam migrated. “Thus was Communipaw the parent of New York, though on comparing the lowly village with the great flaunting city which it has engendered, one is reminded of a squat little hen that has unwittingly hatched out a long-legged turkey.”
One curious legend that Irving has chronicled dealing largely with life in Communipaw he calls “Guests from Gibbet Island.” The story describes the peaceful village tavern known as “The Wild Goose” and tells how Yan Yost Vanderscamp, the landlord’s nephew, suddenly disappeared with an old negro servant named Pluto. In process of time the landlord died, and the tavern remained shut up, waiting for a claimant; for the next heir was the missing nephew, who had not been heard of for years. “At length, one day, a boat was seen pulling for shore from a long, black, rakish-looking schooner that lay at anchor in the bay. The boat’s crew seemed worthy of the craft from which they debarked. Never had such a set of noisy, roistering, swaggering varlets landed in peaceful Communipaw. They were outlandish in garb and demeanor, and were headed by a burly ruffian with a scar across his face, in whom to their great dismay, the quiet inhabitants were made to recognize Yan Yost Vander-scamp. The rear of this hopeful gang was brought up by old Pluto, who had lost an eye and grown grizzled. Vanderscamp renewed his acquaintance with the old burghers in a manner not at all to their taste. He slapped them familiarly on the back, gave them an iron grip of the hand, and was hail-fellow-well-met. According to his own account, he had been all the world over, had made money by bags full, had ships in every sea, and now meant to turn the Wild Goose into a country-seat where he and his comrades, all rich merchants from foreign parts, might enjoy themselves in the intervals of their voyages.
“From being a quiet, peaceful Dutch public house, the Wild Goose became a most riotous private dwelling, a rendezvous for boisterous men of the sea, who might be seen at all hours lounging about the door, or lolling out of the windows, swearing among themselves, cracking rough jokes on every passer-by, and shooting at any unhappy dog or cat, or pig that might happen to come within reach.”
Now and then they went off on a mysterious voyage, and it gradually became plain that they were pirates. At length the British government bestirred itself, “and three of the most riotous swashbucklers of the Wild Goose were hanged in chains on Gibbet Island in full sight of their favorite resort. Vanderscamp himself and his man Pluto again disappeared. The tranquillity of the village was restored; the worthy Dutchmen once more smoked their pipes in peace, eyeing with peculiar complacency their old pests and terrors, the pirates, dangling on Gibbet Island.”
But in the course of time the black man and his master came back and the latter “brought with him a wife, who seemed to have the upper hand of him. The Wild Goose mansion was again opened, but with diminished splendor and no riot.
“Late one night Yan Yost Vanderscamp was returning across the broad bay in his light skiff, rowed by his man Pluto. It was a still, sultry night; a heavy mass of lurid clouds was rising in the west, with the low mutterings of distant thunder. The storm burst over the voyagers while they were yet far from shore. The rain fell in torrents, and the lightning kept up an incessant blaze. It was midnight before they landed at Communipaw. Dripping and shivering Vanderscamp crawled homeward. His wife met him at the threshold.
“‘Is this a time,’ said she, ‘to bring home company to turn the house upside down?’
“‘Company?’ said Vanderscamp meekly; ‘I have brought no company with me.’
“ ‘No, indeed! They have got here before you, and are in the blue room upstairs, making themselves as much at home as if the house were their own.’
“Vanderscamp scrambled up to the room, and threw open the door. There at a table sat three guests from Gibbet Island, with halters round their necks, and bobbing their cups together, as if they were hob-or-nobbing, and trolling an old freebooter’s glee. Starting back with horror, Vanderscamp missed his footing and fell from the top of the stairs to the bottom. He was taken up speechless, and was buried on the following Sunday.
“From that day forward the Wild Goose was pronounced a haunted house, and avoided accordingly. No one inhabited it but Vanderscamp’s shrew of a widow and old Pluto, and they were considered little better than its hobgoblin visitors. It was affirmed that it still continued to be the house of entertainment for such guests, and that on stormy nights the blue chamber was occasionally illuminated, and sounds of diabolical merriment were overheard, mingling with the howling of the tempest. Some treated these as idle stories until on one such night there was a horrible uproar in the Wild Goose that could not be mistaken. It was not so much the sound of revelry, however, as strife, with two or three piercing shrieks that pervaded every part of the village. Nevertheless, no one thought of hastening to the spot. On the contrary, the honest burghers of Communipaw drew their nightcaps over their ears, and buried their heads under the bedclothes.
“The next morning, some of the bolder and more curious undertook to reconnoitre. They found the door wide open and everything inside topsy-turvy, but the most woful sight was the widow, a corpse on the floor of the blue chamber. Old Pluto had disappeared, but later his skiff was picked up, drifting about the bay, bottom upward, and his body was found stranded among the rocks of Gibbet Island, near the foot of the pirates’ gallows.”
With Communipaw’s past in mind I crossed the river hoping that some remnants of the once serene little Dutch village might still survive; but shipping is omnipresent along the shore, and the land is almost monopolized by the railways. I followed the one highway back till I tired of its grim monotony and the lack of promise that it would lead to anything better. Along either side stalked a great row of telegraph poles bearing aloft a maze of wires, there were multitudinous railway tracks, and freight and passenger cars and noisy engines, mountainous heaps of coal, and a scattering of dubious buildings, while the air was laden with odors of gas and smoke. So I retraced my steps, regretting not a little the region’s modern aspect as compared with what it had been.
A mile or two north of Communipaw is Hoboken where in the far past was an Indian village named Hobock. The first event of importance chronicled in its history was a massacre of the Indians in 1643. A party of Dutch reinforced by Mohawk Indians, crossed the river at night from New York and killed a hundred men, women, and children at the promontory called “Castle Point,” by either shooting them or driving them mercilessly into the Hudson. A feud between the Indians and whites had long existed, but there seems to have been no sufficient excuse for this wholesale slaughter. Hoboken has a more agreeable claim to fame in the fact that here lived Colonel John Stevens who built the Phoenix, the first vessel that crossed the Atlantic depending entirely on steam propulsion. The waterfront of the place is now wholly given up to piers and warehouses where numerous great ocean liners discharge and take on their cargoes.
A little farther up the river, where the Weehawken cliffs rise just back from the shore, are the ferry houses of the West Shore Railroad, and immediately south of them occurred the Burr-Hamilton duel. Burr had recently been defeated in his candidacy for the governorship of New York. Party feeling had run high and there had been a good deal of bitter antipathy and acrimonious speech. Hamilton was reputed to be the author of certain personal reflections on Burr’s character which led to a correspondence between the two culminating in a challenge from Burr to settle their differences by a duel. Their meeting-place was a narrow grassy plateau completely embowered in foliage and about twenty feet above the river, where a little ravine opens back into the bluff. The plateau was only six feet wide and eleven paces long. A great cedar tree stood at one end, and a bowlder at the other. It was reached by a steep, rocky path leading up from the water. There was no other path or road near, and the only way to get to the place was by boat. It had already become a resort for duelists, the first combat of this nature having occurred there in 1799.
Burr and Hamilton arrived at the spot early in the morning of July 11, 1804. The parties exchanged salutations, and after the seconds had made the necessary arrangements, Burr took his station near the cedar and Hamilton near the bowlder. Both fired and Hamilton fell mortally wounded. When Burr saw that his rival had been seriously hurt he advanced with a manner and gesture expressive of regret, but being urged to leave the field by his second he turned and withdrew. He crossed the river to the city in his barge, and after a short time spent at his own house in New York he travelled South. This journey was an almost royal progress, for he was everywhere greeted by crowds of enthusiastic adherents. In the North, however, where the friends of Hamilton predominated, Burr was execrated as a murderer, and Hamilton’s death the day after the duel was mourned as a public calamity. Burr was indicted by the grand jury, but the case never was brought to trial; and when Congress met, Burr, who was nearing the end of his term as Vice-President of the United States, took his accustomed place in the Senate as its presiding officer.
A monument long marked the spot where Hamilton fell. It was almost destroyed by the gradual chipping of the relic-hunters, and at last was removed to the bluff above. The plateau continued to be the resort of duelists for many years. Captain Deas, whose home was on the bluff was strongly opposed to this method of settling differences, and when he saw a party approaching the place often interposed and sometimes affected a reconciliation. The last duel occurred in 1845, and was a farce, for the pistols were loaded with cork. When the West Shore Railroad was opened in 1883 the duel terrace was torn away to make room for the tracks. But there is still left between the railroad and the bluff a ragged strip of woods with a weedy undergrowth and strewing of rocks, and the outlook from amid the trees affords a rather charming view of the mighty city off across the broad river.
At Shadyside, two miles farther north, was fought a very lively minor engagement in the Revolutionary War. Here was a ferry, and near by a blockhouse had been erected which was garrisoned by a detachment of British troops. This garrison protected the loyalists of the neighborhood who had a disagreeable habit of picking up any of the rebels’ cattle and horses that strayed into the vicinity. The Continentals attacked the blockhouse intending to drive away the garrison and get possession of such stolen property as they could for its rightful owners. But they were repulsed with the loss of sixty men, and retired after destroying some boats and securing a number of cattle.
Two miles above Weehawken, the Bergen Ridge which hitherto has fronted the river, trends inland, and in its place a new and much higher wall of trap-rock, extends northward with scarcely a break for many miles. According to the Mohicans this great rampart along the west bank of the river, rising almost from the water’s edge, was erected by the Great Spirit to protect his favorite abodes from the unhallowed eyes of mortals. The early settlers called it The Palisades, a name naturally suggested to pioneers who were so familiar with stockades made of logs set on end. The Palisades are of the same formation as the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland and Fingal’s Cave on the Scotch Island of Staffa; and consist of a lava rock that in some ancient time, while molten, filled a rift in the earth’s surface. It cooled in columnar form, and the softer rock on either side gradually wore away leaving this tremendous line of cliff with its peculiar formation.
From a distance the cliff seems singularly regular, but in a near view it is found to have many minor undulations and breaks and jutting crags that make the great mass of weather-beaten rock quite delightful in its variety of outline. Only its upper portion is wholly exposed and perpendicular in its rise; for below this final uplift is a long slope of shattered fragments where numerous trees have found a footing and adorn the declivity with their foliage. At the southern end the Palisades start with a height of about three hundred feet, and gradually rise till, twenty miles to the north where they end at the Tappan Sea, they reach an altitude of five hundred and fifty feet. The broad river dwarfs their height, and it is only when you observe the comparative size of a house or a boat at their base that you get an adequate idea of their magnitude. Breaks sufficient to enable wagon roads to descend to the river occur in only three places, and scarcely more places exist where a foot climber can make the descent.
For some two miles at the southern extremity a road runs along the top of this lofty, breezy ridge and affords a charming outlook. The opposite low, verdant shore is in view for a long distance to the north, while in the other direction the eye reaches to the far-off metropolis, and on a clear day even to its crowded bay.
The crest of the promontory where the Palisades begin was fortified with a strong redoubt, known as Fort Lee, early in the Revolutionary War, but after the capture of Fort Washington across the river it was plain that this companion stronghold was doomed. Every effort was made to remove the ammunition and stores. Within a few days, however, a large British force landed five miles above and marched rapidly in its direction to effect its capture. The Americans retreated in great haste abandoning all their cannon, blankets and eatables. Tents were left standing and camp kettles on the fires.
The site of the old fort is at present a neglected tract overgrown with trees and bushes; and amid the thin woods and rocky hollows the wild flowers flourish in spite of wanderers from New York who pluck them unmercifully.
One of the highest and most striking points of the Palisades is Indian Head near their northern termination. The rugged beauty of this outjutting shoulder of rock has always been admired and it was a favorite outlook for the Indians long centuries before any white man ever saw it. But unfortunately the kind of rock and its convenient situation made it the prey of a contractor in search of road material. Blasting operations were begun and the wild grandeur of the craggy point was much injured before the public was sufficiently aroused to demand that the mutilation be stopped. Lest the rest of the Palisades should share the same fate, and this wonderful example of nature’s sculpture be lost to future generations, the entire strip was purchased jointly by the states of New York and New Jersey, and now it is a park. Many campers resort to the Palisades in summer, and for their benefit the park authorities have made a path that creeps along in a piquantly irregular way near the verge of the river, over the knolls and in and out of the hollows.