Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Vanderbilts of New Brunswick: a fortune started on the banks of the Raritan

Wander around the exhibits in the removed and restored Indian Queen Tavern at East Jersey Olde Towne, and you'll find reference to several comparable inns and taverns that once accommodated steamboat travelers. Not surprisingly, New Brunswick was a busy place, with travelers transferring from boats to the overland stagecoach across the state on their way to Philadelphia, Washington or any number of other points beyond. Among the many names mentioned in the Indian Queen's exhibits, I was surprised to see a very familiar one: Vanderbilt.

Vanderbilt? As in Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt? I knew he'd been born on Staten Island and that the family was involved in the early days of the ferry system between there and Manhattan, but I had no idea their influence extended along the Raritan River. Indeed, an article in the February 8, 1901 issue of the San Francisco Call declared that the Bellona Hotel in New Brunswick was the origin of the Vanderbilt fortune.

Vanderbilt's Bellona Hotel, well after the family had sold it.
Courtesy New Brunswick Free Public Library.
It makes sense when viewed in context. By the early 1800s the growing city was becoming a viable shipping port, both for freight (as we saw from Raritan Landing) and for the increasing numbers of people traveling and simply seeking a pleasurable excursion. William Gibbons' New York and New Brunswick Freight Company ran freight and passenger sloops between the two cities in direct competition with Robert Fulton and Robert Livingston.

Vanderbilt had followed his father into the ferry business in 1810, starting his own company at the age of 16. The ensuing years were important ones for the budding mogul: first he married his cousin Sophia Johnson, and then he met Gibbons, who was determined to break the Fulton/Livingston monopoly. Having heard several accounts of Vanderbilt's feats as a boat captain, Gibbons believed he'd found his secret weapon.

Seeing the opportunity to learn from one of the wealthiest and most successful businessman of the time, Vanderbilt agreed to work for Gibbons, even though it meant a cut in pay. Included in the deal was Halfway House, a ramshackle tavern on Burnet Street, near the river. Gibbons expected the Vanderbilts to get it back in habitable shape and run it as an inn, returning 20 percent of the revenue to him. It would also be their home.

The couple divided the labor: Cornelius handling the boating while Sophia ran the lodging. She named the inn Bellona Hall (or Bellona Hotel, depending on the source), after one of the company boats, and it soon became an attraction drawing patrons from New York. President John Quincy Adams even stayed there for an evening in 1826 while traveling from Philadelphia.

Sophia proved to be a supremely able innkeeper, managing all aspects of the Bellona through the birth and raising of 13 children. In addition to cooking, cleaning and entertaining guests, she kept the books and negotiated with wholesalers for the best prices on food, liquor and other supplies. Over the 12 years the Vanderbilts were in New Brunswick, Sophia made a handsome profit, all the more necessary because Cornelius refused to contribute toward the household expenses. Reportedly, she even lent her husband a substantial sum to buy controlling interest in a steamboat.

It's not quite clear exactly when the family left New Brunswick, but it's probably safe to say that it was probably around the time Vanderbilt left the steamboat business in favor of the railroads. With the advent of the Camden and Amboy Railroad and the Delaware and Raritan Canal, New Brunswick's prospects were clearly no longer with the Vanderbilts.

The building itself seems to have fallen into less able hands over time. Some reports labeled it a tenement. A 1908 New York Times article on the sale of the property for $15 and an equal amount of back taxes noted that "In late years the hotel has been used as a boarding house for foreigners." By 1913, the building was razed and replaced with a slaughterhouse.

There's some question about the exact location of the Bellonia, but it's most likely somewhere under the pavement of State Route 18, or maybe somewhere in Boyd Park. Save for Rutgers and a few churches, New Brunswick was notoriously bad about preserving its past, and all vestiges of the old docks and wharf area have been obliterated either by the highway or the redevelopment of the past 35 or 40 years. It's a shame, really. With the proper focus and care, the city's nautical past might have been a big draw for 20th and 21st century visitors.

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