Bayonne has changed over the past 150 years, but there has been one constant—its geography, surrounded by water on three sides,a few miles from New York City and right in the middle of the Eastern seaboard. These factors have shaped Bayonne and will continue to in the future.
It may be hard for us to imagine now, but Newark Bay, New York Bay, and the Kill Van Kull once were picturesque bodies of water teeming with aquatic life. In the years following the Civil War, Bayonne was a center of the oyster industry. The shallow shores of the two bays were ideal spawning grounds. Other areas in New York harbor were either too deep or the currents too strong to foster the growth of oysters. At the time of the Civil War,five percent of Bayonne’sresidents were listed as“oystermen.”This number expanded after the war.Bayonne became a leading source of seed oysters (smaller oysters that can be transplanted to other waters) for the entire country.In 1886, the Ellsworth familyat the foot of East 35th Street shipped 30,000 bushels of seed oysters to California. A second big producer was the Vreeland family of West25th. For some unknown reason, the older oysters liked New York Bay better than Newark Bay, so the Vreelandstransported the oysters across town to New York Bay for fattening up.
More than Mollusks
The scenic waters of Bayonne were a draw for the wealthy who wanted to remain close to New York City. Following the French Revolution, Pierre Dupontbought property on West 1st Street and named the house “Bon Secours” or “Good Stay.” When Pierre went to France with Thomas Jefferson to negotiate the Louisiana Purchase, his son Victor moved in. Victor reportedly enjoyed Bayonne’s “abundant fishing and hunting.” The DuPonts moved to Delaware in 1802 to pursue other endeavors, but their house continued to play a big part in the development of the city.
“Bon Secours” was purchased by Captain David La Tourette in 1845. He greatly expanded it and renamed it the La Tourette Hotel. At one timeit was said to be the largest hotel in New Jersey with 200 rooms and occupying 17 acres. La Tourette advertised that there were 60 connections a day—train and ferry—to New York City. For 50 years, the hotel and Bergen Point were the center of the social whirl of high society; the Hamptons of their day. Regular guests were the Vanderbilts, President Grant, and other celebrities including General Sherman, Mark Twain, and the Emperor of Brazil.
The waters around Bayonne were ideal for yacht racing; Bayonne became a yachting center with clubs, yacht builders, and suppliers. This was a sport for the wealthy aswell as the growing middle class. The biggest club—Pavonia, Robbins Reef, Atlas, and Bayswater—were located in the Pamrapo (Algonquin for rocks) section of the city on New York Bay from 40th to 50th Street and were quite swanky. They sponsored a whole range of balls, dances, and other social activities. Many residents built yachts and provided accessories for the sport. It was such a big part of life in Bayonne that the official seal of the city features a sailing vessel.
The geography that drew the wealthy to Bayonne to vacation soon attracted industry. In 1877, John D. Rockefeller bought a small refinery in Constable Hook. He started a trend that would turn a small, sleepy town of 4,000 people into an industrial powerhouse. —BLP