Sybil's Cave is located off of Sinatra Drive on the property of Stevens Institute of Technology, across from the Castle Point Park fishing pier. In the cave's storied history, it was a site for picnics, a source of water for health seekers, and the inspiration for an Edgar Allan Poe detective story.
Last year, Hoboken Mayor David Roberts said that after years of hearing old-timers' legends about the cave, it was worth reopening. The cave was boarded up by the newly formed Health Department in the 1880s because the water was deemed unsafe to drink.
Last month, initial digging revealed the site of the cave and the natural spring in the side of the hill.
A construction crew is scheduled to begin the excavation Tuesday, which is the first step in reopening the fabled cavern to the public.
"The possibility of opening Sybil's Cave has captured that imagination of so many people in Hoboken," said Roberts Wednesday. "It's a fun project that we're very excited to embark upon."
The first phase will include the excavation of the dirt and weeds all the way back to the rock cliff. It will also include the re-creation of the cave's archway, as well as a path that leads from the road to the cave, a number of benches, and a historical marker. All of this work could be finished as early as April, Roberts said.
Time to dig
"The actual opening of the cave is about 30 feet back from the [Sinatra Drive] sidewalk," said local developer George Vallone, who along with his development partner Daniel Gans and officials from Stevens, helped find the cave in December. "Right now we're looking at clearing a space that's about 30 feet deep by 60 feet wide, using an excavator [machine]. That should just take us back to the cliff and the cave."
According to Vallone, Castle Point is really a cliff made up of green veined serpentine rock. But over 50 years, the bluff dirt and shrubs have encroached on Sinatra Drive, hiding the actual rock cliff.
Vallone said that they need to clear out all of that earthen material, until the sheer rock face of the cliff and the mouth of the cave are exposed.
Once the face and mouth of the cave are exposed, said Vallone, the next step will be to recreate the historic archway of the cave. Originally it was made from hand-crafted stone.
Blocks of the stone arch have been found scattered at the site.
"We're going to make the arch out of wood, but we going to make it a historically accurate as possible using renderings, some of which date back to the mid-1800s," Vallone said.
Roberts said that the benches they will add will hark back to a time when the city's waterfront was a retreat for wealthy New Yorkers. Sybil's Cave was first opened as a day trippers' attraction in 1832, according to an Aug. 9, 1934 story in the Hoboken Dispatch.
At that time, Hoboken was a "country" retreat for stressed socialites to spread out a blanket on the "River Walk" and share a picnic with friends. Now that Hoboken is a residential community again instead an industrial one, the waterfront is becoming a recreational destination with waterfront parks.
According to Vallone, the preliminary budget for the first phase of the project is around $75,000. Roberts will personally contribute $10,000 and Gans and Vallone and Stevens pay for the rest.
The inside of the cave won't be open during the first phase of work. According to Vallone, an engineer must be brought in to ensure that it's structurally sound.
Also near the cave's entrance will be a historical marker that will explain the cave's historical significance.
One of the stories most often recounted is about the natural freshwater spring that bubbles up from the cave. In its early days, thousands of glasses of the spring water were sold for a penny apiece. What made this spring water special was that it was said to have medical properties. But unfortunately for the spring water entrepreneurs in the 1880s, local health boards started to be formed. At this time, according to historical documents, chemists found traces of sewage, and the water was declared unfit for human consumption.
This past December, when the location of the cave was found, the flowing spring was also rediscovered. The city will have the water tested by an environmental firm to determine if it's still contaminated.
Obviously, the ruling in the 1880s was a step backward for the popularity of the cave, but according to the Dispatch story, Fred Eckstein opened a tavern near the cave, which continued to attract visitors. The cave was used as storage and was locked behind a huge metal door.
As the 1800s turned into the 1900s, Hoboken was turning from a place of leisure into an industrial town littered with factory workers and rowdy longshoremen. The tavern became a "gin mill" for dockworkers. It was torn down in the 1930s. The vacant site quickly became a favorite location for squatters.
Because the cave was not kept up, it was deemed a safety hazard. It was filled with dirt and concrete during the 1930s. Since that time, the cave only existed in local gossip and old wives' tales. As each year passed, it fell further from the public's consciousness.
A Poe story
Edgar Allan Poe actually based a detective story on true events that happened in front of Sybil's Cave.
On the hot, steamy afternoon on July 28, 1841, James Boulard and Henry Mallin were strolling along the Hoboken waterfront near Sybil's Cave when they saw what appeared to be a body floating in the river.
It turned out to be the corpse of a young woman and boarding house owner Mary Cecilia Rogers. Mary, a young and beautiful 20-year-old, left her home on the morning of July 25, 1841, telling her boyfriend and boarder, Donald Payne, she would be visiting her aunt uptown. She would never return.
According to the account of one of the first reporters on the scene, "...she was laying on the bank, on her back, with a rope tied around her.... Her forehead and face appeared to have been battered and butchered to a mummy."
Rogers' death became one of the biggest stories in the New York area. Rogers had run a boarding house on Nassau Street in New York. She also worked as a sales girl in a nearby tobacco shop. Nassau Street at that time was the center of the growing publishing and printing business, including the new "Penny Press," the equivalent of our tabloid newspapers. Rogers' death was well known by many of the writers and publishers of the fledgling papers, and they picked up the story.
This gave Hoboken and Sybil's Cave a boom of publicity and tourism. Every weekend, visitors, amateur sleuths and journalists would come to Hoboken to try and solve the case.
One of the avid followers of the story was an unknown and struggling writer named Edgar Allan Poe. Years later, he turned Rogers' story into a detective yarn called "The Mystery of Marie Roget." He changed the setting to the streets of Paris, but the rest of the details remained the same.
The case was never solved. Every one of Rogers' former suitors was publicly charged, but officially cleared. In fact, the stress and pressure drove Payne to swallow a flask of poison, and he died at the footstep of Sybil's Cave.