Heaven, Hell or Hoboken City

Hoboken City is in the state of New Jersey, USA. They call it the “Mile Square City” due to its scarce extension. Just 20 streets in the East-West direction and 15 in the North-South orientation. Small, but very well located: on the banks of the Hudson River, just in front of Manhattan and next to the maritime gateway to Europe. This location, highly attractive due to its geostrategic value, has become one of the most historically loaded enclaves of the American nation. On the following lines, you will find one of the most significant episodes of the city, which would drastically change the direction of Hoboken’s economy and demographics.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Hoboken was a quiet city, residence to the working class that had come to New York in search of opportunities. As in so many other cases – Brooklyn, for example – its inhabitants were a mixture of Native Americans and foreigners from the old continent, mostly Irish and Italian. Thanks to the easy connection across the Hudson, first through ferry lines and from 1908 with the opening of the railway tunnel under the river, since its inception Hoboken had a very close relationship with Manhattan. This is attested by the Elysian Fields, a regular playground for New Yorkers before the creation of Central Park, and was the first baseball game took place in 1846.

Aerial view of Hoboken, 1947

Up to this point, nothing extraordinary that did not occur in other urban areas near New York. However, Hoboken presented two singularities that would be decisive in his future. On the one hand the Erie Lackawanna Terminal, departure and arrival point of the trains of the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroads. In the absence of the Penn Station tunnels, Hoboken was one of the most important arrivals points to Manhattan by land from the south of the US East Coast. From the terminal itself, passengers could access ferries or subway trains under the Hudson to reach the Big Apple. On the other hand, the docks that were located along the entire riverfront of Hoboken. These, unlike those of Manhattan, did not serve for the transport of goods and raw materials, because in Hoboken there was no industry. These docks were owned by German shipping companies that offered luxury cruises between Europe and America. Thus, apart from the Irish and Italian communities, Hoboken was a nucleus of German expatriates who had prospered thanks to their own manufacturing businesses and all the commerce generated by the transatlantic lines. So important was the Teutonic colony that even Hoboken was known as the “little Bremen”.

April 6, 1917, is the date that marked a turning point in the future of Hoboken. That day the government of the United States officially signed its entry into the World War I, and Hoboken was designated as the main port of embarkation for the troops that would be mobilized to Europe.

Old docks in the Hudson Riverfront

“It’s gonna be Heaven, Hell or Hoboken by Christmas.” This was the prediction of Commander General John J. Pershing to his troops in the spring of 1917 and that it remained in the memory of the soldiers. Finally, the conflict lasted 19 months, but the mobilized retained the promise in their memory. Days before Christmas 1918 the first ship with soldiers returning from Europe docked at the docks of Hoboken, leaving behind a dark stage of world history.

The entire Hoboken city underwent a radical transformation in order to accommodate the more than two million soldiers who during the following years would leave and return to the country through the docks in the Hudson River.

The Erie Lackawanna Terminal

The railway infrastructure of the DL & W Railroads was implemented in order to manage and process all the traffic – human, arms and food – that arrived daily in the city. More than 17,000 soldiers and 2,400 officers made sure that the transportation system worked like a seamless gear. For its part, the other major infrastructure of the city, the docks, would undergo an even greater metamorphosis. After the designation as the port of embarkation for the troops, the docks, and ships owned by German companies were expropriated and used for military purposes. The dockworkers and crew members lost their jobs, and even part of them was locked up on Ellis Island during the course of the war. The German population of Hoboken that was not related to the port ran a different fate as it positioned itself in favor of the United States or remained loyal to its homeland. While some were considered as “foreign enemies”, dispossessed of their belongings and jobs, forced to work in the militarization of the docks or even expelled from the population, others were able to keep their businesses and put them at the service of the nation, as was the case of Willam G. Keuffel, president of Keuffel & Esser Company, dedicated to the manufacture of instruments for the US Army and Navy.

Keuffel & Esser Factory building

Parallel to the military activity, the economy of the whole city was also adapted to the new circumstances. It was necessary to provide accommodation, food, and leisure to the thousands of soldiers who operated the naval base. Inherent to the military port was necessarily a shipping industry to repair the ships of the navy and to transform the German luxury cruisers into troop transport ships. The chapel installed in the docks came to celebrate up to 35 weddings per day in the dates prior to the departure of transport vessels. Even at a family level, the economy was altered by war; From the government, slogans were sent to the women who remained in charge of the family. Thus the “heatless Mondays” were born, in which the chimneys were not lit to save coal. In the same way, it was requested that food, sugar or fuel be rationed and that the families themselves cultivate their gardens.

World War I marked a turning point for Hoboken. Once the war was over, the shipping industry became the main economic power of the city. Companies like Bethlehem Steel, Ferguson Propeller or Todd Shipyards employed tens of thousands of workers for more than half a century – in 1984 the last shipyard closed down. Other companies also saw the potential that Hoboken offered to locate their factories: proximity to a large consumption center such as New York, available manpower and ease of connections by sea and rail, to receive merchandise and transport product. Therefore, companies such as Maxwell Coffee or Lipton Tea arrived at the city. Hoboken, formerly divided between Italians, Irish and Germans, forged its new identity first from the sacrifices involved in a war and, subsequently, due to the proletarian fraternity proper to industrial cities. This identity was reinforced a few years later when Hoboken was again designated as a port of embarkation during World War II. Today little is visible from that time, as most piers have been converted into parks and factories have given way to housing. Even so, if you walk along the Hudson riverside, you will discover tributes to the fallen soldiers, moorings, wooden poles that supported old docks … brushstrokes of history that remind us what was once Hoboken.

Memorial to the WWII Veterans

Eric Angelats


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