Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Anchors, birds, farmhouses and oil: the evolution of Bayonne's Constable Hook

Last week's visit to Bayonne revealed more than an interesting avian visitor and a surprisingly highbrow golf course. A small sign at the start of the Hudson River Waterfront Walkway revealed that Henry Hudson himself might have been the first to discover the site's ornithological gifts. Equally as interesting, my research revealed a truly hidden morsel of Dutch-American heritage lurking within the city's industrial heart.

Henry Hudson:
possibly the first guy to bird at Bayonne
I guess I shouldn't have been surprised to read that Hudson anchored his ship, the Half Moon, not far from the site of the current-day walkway when he first visited the area. Histories of early New World visitation by European explorers credit the English-born, Dutch-employed sea captain with discovering New York Harbor, Manhattan and the river that was later named for him. They don't say much, if anything, about the place where he parked the craft after sailing through the Verrazzano Narrows upon his arrival in September 1609.

As it turns out, it was at a bulge along the peninsula between the river and the Kill van Kull, now known as Constable Hook in Bayonne. Hudson reportedly called the area Bird Point in recognition of the prevalence of gulls at the site.

In fairness, the Dutch West India Company wasn't paying Hudson to look for birds, but for the northwest trade route to Asia. According to the First History of Bayonne printed for the 250th anniversary of the city's settlement, the local natives were both friendly and generous. Members of the Raritan branch of the Lenape tribe "visited his vessel daily, bringing furs, oysters, corn, beans, pumpkins, grapes and apples to trade." The dense forests of the area were home to an abundance of animals including panthers, bears, snakes, beavers and rabbits, making the region even more attractive for settlement and establishing trade.

Some of the encounters between natives and newcomers turned violent during Hudson's 1609 visit to the area, but I couldn't find accounts of any disputes at Bird Point -- it's possible they might have occurred on nearby Staten Island or perhaps farther south near Sandy Hook. What is known is that Hudson stayed near Bayonne only for a short time, leaving to explore the river route clear up to present-day Albany.

The Bird Point peninsula remained solely in Lenape hands until 1646, when the Dutch West India Company granted the land to constable Jacob Jacobsen Roy, who apparently never did anything with the property. Instead, the tract lay unchanged until about 1700, when Pieter von Buskirk arrived from Manhattan to build a house and start a farm. About 35 years later, he buried his wife Tryntje nearby, starting a family cemetery that reportedly grew over the years to include neighbors as well.

For 200 years von Buskirk's descendants lived on the property as the world changed around them. The family sold a portion of the land to the Hazard Powder Company in 1798, probably one of the first signs of heavy industry in the area. Real estate speculation and the attendant population growth spurred the communities of Constable Hook, Bergen Point, Salterville and Centerville to unite as Bayonne in 1861. The Central Railroad of New Jersey laid tracks into the city, bringing even more industrialization. And finally, in 1872, John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil Company became the first of several refiners to settle on Constable Hook, attracted by its key position on New York Bay.

By 1900, the land Pieter von Buskirk tended tilled had become a different kind of farm, lined with acres of oil tanks to serve what was, for a time the world's largest refinery. The family farmhouse was demolished by Standard Oil in 1906; many of the cemetery plots were emptied, their contents moved to other graveyards despite a court battle waged by family members who reportedly hadn't visited in decades. Another burial ground started by one of Pieter's descendants remains, still in some semblance of order among the massive tanks of a company that specializes in oil and chemical storage. (Look closely at the grassy area on this Google Earth view and you might locate it.)

You have to wonder if the spirits of Pieter and Tryntje von Buskirk wander the streets of Bayonne looking for their homestead, and perhaps the gulls of Bird Point. Maybe they gain some solace from the restored wetlands near the waterfront walkway, or perhaps they've found some peace in their ultimate resting place, though not on their own family property.

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