To many residents of Washington Heights and Inwood, communities going across the Hudson River, Harlem River Ship Canal or Harlem River may be a bit out of the way. Across the Hudson River, Fort Lee, New Jersey has a lot in common with this area other than the bridge that spans the river between our two states.
On a bluff overlooking the Hudson River on the rocky cliffs of the Palisades in Fort Lee, just south of the George Washington Bridge, is a historic park that is a tribute to the soldiers of the Continental Army. During the American Revolution, these men held a bastion which gave the town its name.
The concept of the strategic value of Fort Lee, with its sister fortification, Fort Washington in Manhattan, was to protect the Hudson River from being taken by Royalist forces that were expected to divide the American colonies and to quell the insurrection against the British Crown. The forts were built to provide bombardment on any naval vessel that sailed upriver, thus thwarting any control by Royalist occupation.
The setting of the main fortification in Fort Lee was bounded by Parker Avenue, Cedar, English and Federspeil Streets. Soldiers’ huts were located to the southwest of the fort (approximately 825 feet), near Whiteman Street. These huts usually consisted of eight men: a sergeant, a corporal, and six private soldiers. These huts were 12 feet long and 9 feet wide and were constructed of log timbers with stone fireplaces and chimneys cemented with clay or lime mortar. The remains of these huts could be seen as late as 1900 as stone heaps.
Originally called Fort Constitution, the fort was erected by General Hugh Mercer under plans designed by General Nathaniel Greene, commander of both forts. In July 1776, General Howe’s forces started landfall on Staten Island for the occupation of New York. A few months later, the fort was rechristened Fort Lee to honor General Charles Lee, General Washington’s cavalry commander.
During this period, an elaborate Chevaux-de-Frise was designed by General Rufus Putnam to span the Hudson River between the forts. These were a series of sunken ships with their masts sharpened to stop any ship from passing the forts. The Chevaux-de-Frise consisted of two sloops, two brigantines and two large ships. These proved to be effective until the British managed to go through the gauntlet.
On the cliffs overlooking the Hudson, two batteries had been constructed. The main battery consisted of five 32-pound cannons. The Mortar Battery contained a 13-inch brass, a 10-inch iron, an 8-inch iron, and a 13-inch iron sea mortar.
The range of these artillery pieces were approximately 1,200 to 1,500 yards, which was enough to provide a firing field reaching across the river to the other side. The mortar batteries joined with the heavy guns on both sides of the river made hazardous running for the British ships.
At the outbreak of hostilities, Burdett’s Ferry had been a vital link in transferring troops, ammunition, dispatches, information, orders, and supplies between the forts. The ferry had the distinction of being involved in two engagements during the war. The first was on August 18, 1776, against the HMS Phoenix and the HMS Rose, and again on October 27th facing two other British frigates.
November 16, 1776, had brought a major defeat for the Rebel forces in New York City. As General Washington watched from Fort Lee, Royalist forces surrounded Fort Washington and forced its surrender. Washington was saddened at the fact of the loss of men and military hardware.
Three days later, 5,000 troops under the command of General Cornwallis went up the Hudson River in flatboat barges and landed near Alpine, New Jersey, at what is now Lower Closter Landing. The British had to make the difficult climb up the Palisades with equipment and cannons. With its usefulness ended, Washington ordered a retreat from Fort Lee only to go south to Trenton.
The first of the British troops reached Fort Lee at about 1 p.m. and found the blockhouse and redoubts empty. Blankets, provisions, artillery, muskets and other possessions were scattered about, where the retreating rebels had left them. Tents were left standing and food kettles were left boiling over fires. Dinner tables spread out for the rebel officers had been found as well.
With the conclusion of the American Revolution, Fort Lee’s population had grown. Homes at the water’s edge as well as on top of the Palisades were being constructed. Fort Lee was originally part of Hackensack, New Jersey when it was founded in 1693. On March 29, 1904, Fort Lee officially broke away from Ridgefield township. A government was formed, and John Abbott was elected the first mayor of the new town.
Steamboats along the Hudson River became a familiar sight, and the town became a resort with a landing. Fort Lee was the first community to benefit from trolley service as a result of the connection. Bergen Transit and the Public Service Railway transported customers from the dock to the top of the Palisades and also to other neighboring towns.
The City of Fort Lee constructed a memorial to the soldiers who fought in the Revolution and held the bastion at the top of the Palisades. This memorial was the work of Carl E. Tefft, whose design was chosen in a competition. The base consists of Palisade rock, on which bronze figures of Continental soldiers are scaling the crest of the Palisades. The statue is located on a monument place between Palisades and Parker Avenues. This was the site of Parker’s pond, which was the main water supply for the American soldiers who occupied Fort Lee in 1776.
The Fort Lee Monument Association and the Palisades Interstate Park Commission erected and dedicated the monument on September 26, 1908. There was a parade to honor the event. One of the participants was Gowongo Mohawk, a Native American playwright, and actress, who led a contingent of children in the parade. According to the New York Times, 20,000 people lined the streets of Fort Lee to see the event.
The Palisades had been the subject of various projects. Civil War gunboats used the Palisades for target practice as did their British counterparts a century before in the American Revolution. In the late 19th Century, the Palisades had been quarried for stone paving blocks for the streets of New York City. In the 1930s John D. Rockefeller Jr. purchased the land to ensure a beautiful view from Fort Tryon Park, which he had donated to New York City in 1935.
The Riviera Nightclub was a familiar haunt in Fort Lee. It was located on top of the Palisades, a few hundred yards north of the George Washington Bridge. It was originally called the Villa Richard when it opened in 1909 and was owned by Jean Richard, a former chef of Delmonico’s Restaurant. In 1929, the Villa Richard was raided on suspicion of it being a bordello.
The restaurant was leased to Ben Marden, who renamed it the Riviera. The restaurant burned down in 1936 and was rebuilt in 1937, and was billed as Bill Marden’s Riviera. The cocktail lounge was decorated with murals painted by Arshile Gorky, an artist who got work through the Works Progress Administration.
It had gotten a reputation for gambling activities, for which the Bergen County prosecutors were investigating it. At one of the raids, it was reported that the police were turned away because they were not in formal attire.
The Riviera was a venue for Frank Sinatra and Abbott and Costello. The last show was on October 4, 1953, featuring Eddie Fisher and Henny Youngman. The building was torn down to make way for the Palisades Interstate Parkway.
Fort Lee was the original home to the fledgling movie industry between 1895 and the 1920s. Mary Pickford worked for Biograph Studios in the movie “Poor Little Rich Girl.” The Wallat-Fox studio was located at Main Street and Linwood Avenue. “The Perils of Pauline,” had Pearl White playing the heroine, who had filmed her own stunts. In 1920 there was a film strike.
When the George Washington Bridge opened to traffic in 1931, it linked the locations of the former citadels of the defense of the Hudson and the battle for New York. The bridge had a positive outcome in the real estate boom of Fort Lee and its surrounding communities.
Since the 1930s, Lemoine Avenue and Main Street have become the primary vehicular thoroughfares of Fort Lee. The Fort Lee Library and City Hall are on Main Street. Restaurants, minimalls, boutiques, supermarkets and other shops are a part of Fort Lee’s ambiance and livelihood. A Borders bookstore is now open on Lemoine Avenue.
For the major part of the 20th Century, the Palisades Amusement Park provided enjoyment to the residents of Fort Lee, the surrounding towns and brought visitors from New York City with direct bus service from the George Washington Bridge Bus Station. The 35-acre park opened in 1898 and closed on September 12, 1971. Its commanding venue on top of the Palisades could be seen along the Hudson River from New York.
The Fort Lee Historic Park opened in 1976 in conjunction with the Bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence and the beginning of the War for Independence. The 33-acre park is located on Hudson Terrace and is administered by the Palisades Interstate Park Commission. The park is a reconstruction of cannon and mortar batteries of Fort Lee and overlooks the Hudson River. Within the park are winding trails that lead to the various reconstructed cannon batteries and an 18th Century soldiers’ hut with a well, woodshed and baking oven that serves as a focal point for many interpretive programs for school groups and visitors.
To commemorate the events of the fall of Fort Lee and Washington’s retreat through New Jersey to Trenton, there is a muster of the Brigade of the American Revolution that is held in November. The Brigade consists of re-enactors who dress in military uniforms of the troops that were British and American units that fought in the American Revolution.
The Fort Lee Historic Park and Visitor’s Center are open from Wednesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The Visitor’s Center has two floors of audio-video displays, detailed exhibits and a short film presented in the 204 seat auditorium. The center has a gift shop and informational services. For more information call 201-461-1776. The park has a website.
Fort Lee celebrates its centennial as a town in 2004. There are various websites that can be accessed: Boro of Fort Lee and Fort Lee Online internet directory. Fort Lee’s historical film significance can be traced to the early film days with sites like filmsite.org, greatestfilms.org, and silentera.com. The Fort Lee Film Commission can be accessed at fortleefilm.org. The website for the Palisades Amusement Park Historical Society is palisadespark.com.