Happy Birthday NJ! Celebrating Our 350th

There's no birth certificate to prove it, but 1664 is considered New Jersey’s official birth year. Just for luck, we offer 13 significant milestones in the state’s history. Blow out the candles and read on.

Photo Illustration by John Ueland

The Two Jerseys: 1664
It is somewhat arbitrary to pick 1664 as New Jersey’s birthdate. Native Americans had been here for thousands of years, and various Europeans, including Swedish and Dutch colonizers, had settled here before that date.

Still, 1664 is the year an area approximating today’s state began to be called New Jersey. This was in recognition of Sir George Carteret’s successful defense of the Isle of Jersey during the British Civil War. Half of New Jersey was given to Sir George, the rest to another favorite of the crown, Lord John Berkeley.
But there was a problem. The crown had already awarded the territory to another Englishman as part of a vast grant “from the Connecticut River to the Delaware.” When the issue was settled in favor of Carteret and Berkeley, there remained the question of how the two would divide the land. After considerable discussion, two colonies were created, East Jersey and West Jersey, though uncertainty over the line between them continued for years.

The dividing line finally agreed upon ran diagonally 114 miles from what is today Little Egg Harbor near the Atlantic to Dingman’s Ferry on the Delaware River. Perth Amboy became the capital of East Jersey, with Carteret as the landlord, and Burlington the capital of West Jersey, with Berkeley at the helm. Control of the territories was passed on to Carteret and Berkeley’s descendants, known as the Proprietors. They slowly sold off their lands but continued owning minor parcels right up to modern times—albeit with neither private nor public title. However, in 1998, the East Jersey Proprietors, facing a ruinous lawsuit over a disputed parcel, turned their remaining lands over to the state. But the West Jersey Proprietors soldier on. “There’s no real money in this,” one told me. “We do it because it’s history and tradition and a lot of fun.”

New Jersey Gets Its Own Governor: 1738

The governors of the East and West Jersey colonies lived in New York and Philadelphia respectively, the influence of those cities hanging over New Jersey even then. Tension between them was common.
Britain’s Queen Anne endeavored to end the squabbling in 1702 by prohibiting printing presses in New Jersey—the origin of the relative paucity of media, especially television, in New Jersey and continued dependence on news emanating from the two great neighboring cities. The same year, the queen appointed Edward Hyde, Lord Cornbury, as the first governor of New Jersey as a whole. But Cornbury (best remembered as a cross-dressing oddball) also served as governor of New York. He lived in Manhattan, rarely, if ever, venturing into New Jersey. The two Jerseys continued largely intact and distinct from New York, with a single legislature meeting alternately in Burlington and Perth Amboy. Just as Cornbury ignored New Jersey, New Jersey ignored him.

With the passage of years, solidarity grew between the Jerseys, and a consensus emerged that a single colony would have superior bargaining power in commerce. The crown was petitioned to appoint a governor exclusively devoted to a united New Jersey. Lewis Morris, a native son, was chosen in 1738. New Jersey’s consciousness of itself as a single entity had begun.

Raising Hopes of Victory: 1776

A disconsolate George Washington stood on the Palisades in Fort Lee in November 1776 watching the British capture Fort Washington on the New York side of the Hudson River in the area of Manhattan now called Washington Heights. While he held both forts, Washington could control the Hudson with cannons. But Washington and his bedraggled army had been forced to leave New York and escape across the river to Fort Lee, arriving at the exact spot where the bridge that bears his name now stands. Soon he would retreat across New Jersey and into Pennsylvania, the British army in hot pursuit.

The Colonial army was growing desperate, suffering defeat after defeat. Hungry for some kind of victory, Washington, on Christmas Eve 1776, recrossed the Delaware, cleverly circumvented the main British army and inflicted a surprise defeat on the King’s Hessian troops at Trenton. For an encore, Washington again eluded the British army the following week to vanquish another small force of enemy troops occupying Princeton.

These victories raised the hopes of patriots that the world’s most powerful army might be defeated. Ultimate victory did not occur until 1783, and there would be many disappointments along the way, but the triumphs in New Jersey had much to do with Americans persisting in their cause.

First to Ratify the Bill of Rights: 1789

New Jersey ratified the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the United States Constitution, on November 20, 1789, the first state to do so. It’s a distinction that’s barely remembered. Some wonder whether densely populated New Jersey should be called the Garden State when there are other states far more green and growing. Might the Bill of Rights State be more appropriate?

It was in the late 19th century that New Jersey began to refer to itself as the Garden State (though with increasing industrialism, it was becoming something other than a garden). This nickname was adopted officially by the state Legislature in 1954, despite the objections of Governor Robert Meyner, who especially opposed adding it to vehicle license plates. Meyner argued that the state was not “peculiarly identifiable with gardening”­—but his veto was overturned.

And so millions of motor vehicles registered in New Jersey ply the state’s miles and miles of pavement displaying the words Garden State. Too bad. The Bill of Rights State would be more accurate and would constitute something in which all New Jerseyans could take pride.

Two Great Canals: 1820s-1830s

Many New Jerseyans are unaware of the two canal systems that once crossed the state: the Delaware and Raritan, and the Morris. The canals served as passageways across the state for commerce between New York and Philadelphia. The D&R paralleled and was fed by the Delaware River, then turned inland to traverse the state’s narrow waist, from Trenton to the Raritan River. In its prime, it was the nation’s foremost canal in tonnage transported, mostly Pennsylvania coal. The Morris, which crossed from Phillipsburg to Jersey City, employed rails where it was blocked by hills. Utilizing water power, barges rose or descended 902 feet to and from Lake Hopatcong, its highest point and source of much of its water. Transporting iron ore as well as coal, the Morris was considered an engineering marvel, a must-see for foreign visitors, sometimes referred to as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World.

Both canals were built in the 1820s, dug by hand by Irish immigrants. They were operational by the early 1830s and remained in use for almost 100 years. Eventually, the canals were abandoned for railroads, which in turn were supplanted by trucks traveling superhighways.

Today, the D&R supplies fresh water to much of Central New Jersey and is designated a state park, its 60 linear miles ideal for canoeing, hiking and biking along its old mule path. The Morris, on the other hand, has been largely demolished. Searching for its remains requires detective work. One may encounter low places in thick woods that run straight for miles. Or you may discover rusting machinery on hillsides. The best place to see a portion of the canal is at Waterloo Village in Sussex County.

Rejecting Abraham Lincoln: 1860 &1864

Although New Jerseyans may not wish to acknowledge this, Abraham Lincoln failed to carry the state in both of his campaigns for the presidency. Indeed, in the second election in 1864, Lincoln was opposed by General George McClellan of West Orange, whom Lincoln had removed from command of the Union Army after he failed to deliver the decisive victory that the president craved. That was on the battlefield. At the polls, McClellan won New Jersey with ease. He would later be elected governor of the state.

New Jerseyans in the White House: 1884, 1892, 1912 and 1901 (almost)

Grover Cleveland, born in Caldwell, is the only native New Jerseyan to occupy the White House—and he did that twice. Cleveland was elected in 1884, defeated in 1888, and won again in 1892, the only president in our history to serve two non-consecutive terms.

Cleveland’s connections to the state are tenuous. His family moved to New York State when he was four, and prior to the presidency, his political career transpired wholly within New York, where he rose to governor. However, Cleveland returned to New Jersey upon retiring from the White House and lived the rest of his life in Princeton, where his home still stands (it’s privately owned) and where he is buried in the town’s historic cemetery.

Woodrow Wilson, though born in Virginia, was far more involved in New Jersey life and politics than Cleveland. Wilson went from student to professor to president of Princeton University. He was then chosen governor of New Jersey. Elected President of the United States in 1912, he served two terms. A Virginian or a New Jerseyan in the White House? You decide.

Another New Jerseyan almost became president. Garrett Hobart, born in Long Branch and educated at Rutgers, served as speaker of the Assembly and president of the Senate in New Jersey, and for many years was also mayor of Paterson, where his statue stands in front of City Hall.

When William McKinley sought the presidency in 1896, he chose Hobart as his running mate. Hobart, an activist vice president much appreciated by McKinley, would certainly have been on the ticket again in 1900 had he not passed away in 1899 at the age of 55. He was replaced on the 1900 ballot by Theodore Roosevelt, who ascended to the presidency upon McKinley’s assassination in 1901. There is every likelihood that Hobart, if not for his heart disease, would have succeeded the ill-fated McKinley.

New Jersey, Engine of Innovation: 1870-1955

Thomas A. Edison, America’s greatest inventor, developed most of his key projects, including the phonograph, the electric light bulb and the movie camera, in Menlo Park beginning in the 1870s, and in his West Orange lab after 1887. Thanks to Edison’s pioneering work in film, New Jersey—not Hollywood—was the original movie capital of America.

There are many other distinguished inventors and scientists with strong ties to New Jersey, including Samuel F.B. Morse and Guglielmo Marconi. Morse, a Boston native, tried out his telegraph and the Morse Code by sending his first message from the Speedwell Iron Works outside Morristown to the downtown home of a friend in 1838. In 1903, Marconi, the Italian inventor of the radio, sent his first transatlantic message to the Twin Lights lighthouse in Highlands.

While he was not an inventor but a theoretical physicist, Albert Einstein bears mentioning. After escaping the Nazis, Einstein made his home in Princeton from 1933 to 1955, working at the Institute for Advanced Study. In 1999, Time magazine chose Einstein as Person of the Century, deeming him the human being who had had the greatest impact on 20th century life.

Bridges and Tunnels: 1927-1957
It is difficult to imagine, but until 87 years ago you needed to travel by water to connect between New Jersey and New York City. Then in 1927, New Jersey welcomed the Holland Tunnel, its name a tribute to its chief engineer, Clifford Holland.

Four years later, the George Washington Bridge was inaugurated, unfinished. Plans had called for both towers to be encased in concrete and faced in granite, but there was no money for this in Depression-era America, and so what its chief engineer, Boonton’s Othmar Ammann, considered its skeleton, was left on display. Later this skeleton came to be regarded as one of the icons of modern architecture, its form visibly following its function. In 1962, the lower deck was attached. The GWB, still the world’s busiest bridge, transports well over 100 million vehicles a year.

The first tube of the Lincoln Tunnel, the construction of which was also overseen by Ammann, opened in 1937. A second tube, delayed by World War II, opened in 1945. A third tube was completed in 1957. Originally, the Lincoln was to be called the Midtown Vehicular Tunnel, but it was decided that it deserved a name quite as distinguished as the GWB. And what name is more distinguished and dignified than that of our 16th president? (Wisely, it was not named for McClellan.)

Hitting the Roads: The 1950s

New Jersey has two great roads that traverse the state from north to south: the New Jersey Turnpike and the Garden State Parkway. The main line of the Turnpike, the busiest road in the world, was completed in 1952; the Parkway was done five years later.

In addition to its famous exits, New Jersey is notable for its contributions to automotive traffic control and safety. The Jersey Barrier, a system of modular walls to separate traffic, was developed at Hoboken’s Stevens Institute of Technology in the 1950s. It has been adopted throughout the United States and abroad. The jughandle, also a 1950s stroke of genius, remains a Jersey thing. Perhaps it takes a New Jerseyan to fathom making a right turn in order to make a left.

Setting New Jersey’s Borders: 1783, 1834, 1882, 1998

Establishing New Jersey’s final borders has been complicated. The middle of the Delaware River became the border with Pennsylvania as early as 1783. But the New York–New Jersey borders have a long, contentious history. For a time, New York considered its western boundary to be the high-water mark on the Jersey Shore. New Jersey insisted it was the middle of the Hudson.

In 1834, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in New Jersey’s favor. However, two small land masses, Ellis Island and Bedloe’s (later Liberty) Island, were exempted, because even though they were in New Jersey waters, New York had occupied them for centuries.

The northern border between the two states remained uncertain, largely because our old friends Carteret and Berkeley had been awarded the land “between the Hudson and Delaware Rivers,” with no northern limit designated. There was agreement on its eastern point. You can find it by parking at State Line Lookout on the Palisades and walking a mile further north to a lonely marker overlooking the Hudson. However, in the west, New Jersey claimed a point on the Delaware near present-day Callicoon, New York, in northwest Sullivan County. New York insisted the border was as far south as Salem County. It was not until 1882 that a bi-state commission reached a compromise, and the border was set at a point just south of Port Jervis, New York. It is marked by a monument almost under where I-84 crosses the Delaware.

In 1998, New Jersey returned to the Supreme Court insisting that most of Ellis Island is in New Jersey. Lawyers for the state argued that the 1834 ruling pertained to Ellis as it had been then, three acres total, not to the 24 acres added in New Jersey waters in the 1880s to build the immigrant center, using fill from the excavation of New York’s subways. The court decided New Jersey was correct and that only the original island was in New York. Thus, 90 percent of Ellis Island is now in New Jersey. Unfortunately, the only fully restored building, the Great Hall, was judged to have been built on the island’s original three acres.

Does that finally settle all border issues with New York? Possibly not. Much of Liberty Island, where the Statue of Liberty stands, was also created by fill added to Bedloe’s Island. New Jersey could still someday go after a portion of Liberty Island.

Preserving the Pine Barrens: Late 1970s

After years of debate, including a controversial executive order by Governor Brendan Byrne and a struggle in the state Legislature, the Pine Barrens, constituting 1.1 million acres, were set aside and protected from development in perpetuity. Here was New Jersey, the most overbuilt state in the nation, turning almost one-fourth of itself into a giant nature preserve, guaranteeing that the Jersey Devil would forever have a home.

Cultural Prominence: 1975 to Today

It has long been fashionable in New York and elsewhere to dismiss New Jersey as a cultural wasteland. Until recently, Saturday Night Live rarely had a program that did not have fun at New Jersey’s expense. The state also has been a frequent target for Woody Allen’s barbs. (In the movie Sleeper, Allen’s character says: “I’ve discovered there is intelligent life in the universe—except in certain parts of New Jersey.”)

But these days, New Jersey is in and the Jersey joke forgotten. The transformation began as far back as October 1975, when rising star Bruce Springsteen made simultaneous appearances on the covers of both Time and Newsweek magazines. As Jerseyan Joe Piscopo remarked, “With the advent of Springsteen, Jersey jokes just didn’t work.” Bruce, who never sugar-coated the state in his songs, made it cool to be from New Jersey.

Then came The Sopranos in 1999. The show cast an unblinking eye on organized crime in New Jersey while making its perpetrators almost loveable.

Growth of Jersey pride seems to have paralleled this candor. Some call it attitude. Examples include those T-shirts that read, “New Jersey: Only the Strong Survive.” Or Governor Christie Whitman’s response to criticism that New Jersey is nothing but exits, saying, “We love our exits.”  Then there was our much-admired resilience in the face of Superstorm Sandy. And, of course, Chris Christie’s take-no-prisoners attitude might explain the popularity of our current governor.

Rather than a cultural wasteland, New Jersey is increasingly winning well-deserved recognition as a cultural breeding ground. Meryl Streep (Summit) and Jack Nicholson (Neptune)—perhaps America’s greatest living female and male actors—are New Jersey born and bred. Arguably, America’s greatest living novelist is Newark’s Philip Roth. Need we mention Frank Sinatra and his origins in Hoboken? Or Count Basie and Red Bank?

Some years ago, I received a phone call from a BBC reporter who wanted to fly over and interview me about Springsteen and The Sopranos while riding on the New Jersey Turnpike (about which I had cowritten a book). “I love New Jersey,” he said.

I asked him on arrival how often he had visited our state. “Never,” he replied.

“Then why…?” I started to say.

“Because everyone knows that New Jersey is where it’s happening,” he said.

I recall that conversation with great satisfaction. New Jerseyans have always appreciated our state. Now it appears that much of the rest of the world does too. So what if it’s taken 350 years?

Michael Aaron Rockland is professor of American Studies at Rutgers University. He was recently awarded the Governor Richard J. Hughes prize for contributions to New Jersey history and culture. Among his many books are four on New Jersey. His latest book, “Navy Crazy,” a memoir of his military service, is due in April.

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