While clearing the grounds of a former pig farm on the Secaucus/Jersey City border in preparation for building two new warehouses, a worker from Hugerich construction stumbled across a huge block and hauled it out of the dirt.
“The guy scoops with the backhoe and a square rock come out,” said Walter Hugerich, owner of the company. “It’s not normal. Rocks don’t happen in squares.”
For a month it sat to one side before Hugerich scraped away some of the caked-on dirt. Although some of the surface was damaged, there was writing etched into the surface, and it was clearly significant.
Hugerich immediately called his old classmate, Mayor Michael Gonnelli.
“I thought it was like a cornerstone from a first settlement or something. That was my first impression,” said Gonnelli. “When Walter called me and I Facebooked it I must have had 30, 40 emails with different articles, stories, and people’s actual recollection of what took place.”
Responses quickly identified the block as part of a base that used to hold a statue of Peter Stuyvesant in Jersey City. After Gonnelli reached out to Jersey City, two representatives came out to verify the provenance and relate the history of the rock.
Commissioned in 1910, lost in the 1960s
The monument was originally commissioned by the state legislature in 1910 to commemorate the 250th anniversary of New Jersey. “Stuyvesant authorized the first permanent settlement in 1660,” said John Hallanan, assistant counsel for the City of Jersey City and former president of the Jersey City Landmarks Conservancy.
“[Stuyvesant] was not a friendly guy,” explained Hallanan. “But maybe that’s what the colony need. One of the problems was the colony did not have much order. Peter Stuyvesant, being a former military officer – that’s how he lost his leg, fighting the Spanish in the Caribbean – he provided order and discipline. It was his idea that we really need to have a fort and we need to have a permanent settlement, we need to really hunker down on the west bank [of the Hudson River]. He said if we really want to branch out we have to make sure we have permanent settlements. We need ports, we need roads, things like that. So Bergen Avenue, Summit Avenue, these roads existed because Stuyvesant mandated they had to be built.”
“Secaucus was the dumping ground for a lot of landmarks.” – John Hallanan
“That location was the site of a school since 1661,” said Hallanan. “The first civic building that was built in Bergen was built right behind that monument and it served as a church, a court, and a school. And there’s been a school on that site consistently since 1661. Before it was PS 11 there was something called the Columbia Academy. PS 11 was probably built in the 1890s. That burned down in the 1960s and now the new school is PS 11 – Martin Luther King School.”
It was when the school burned down in the late ‘60s that a mystery arose about the base. The original monument was an imposing structure consisting of the nearly 10 foot tall statue of Stuyvesant atop a granite pedestal or plinth, with two curved wings or excedra stretching to either side around a pair of benches. The base in total probably weighed about 70 tons, according to Hallanan.
“I’m not sure how badly the monument was damaged or if they just decided to modernize it, but they razed the building and the monument,” he said. The statue was removed and a new base was built, similar to the original pedestal but without the excedra. The new base consisted of a two-inch granite veneer over a concrete core.
The original plinth and excedra vanished, with no record where they went, until Hugerich dusted off the pedestal.
“I’m guessing the other two pieces are buried there too, but we’re never going to find them,” said Gonnelli.
Currently the statue itself is embroiled in an ongoing and well publicized controversy. School officials loaned it to Hudson County Community College in 2010. Workers removed it from the original location, destroying the second plinth. Since then, there have been continuing efforts to return the statue to its original location, with some arguing that the statue is a monument to the specific site and never belonged to the school to begin with.
Many things dumped in Secaucus
Two questions remain. How did the pedestal wind up in a pig farm in Secaucus, and what happens to it now?
“Secaucus was the dumping ground for a lot of landmarks. Penn Station is out there,” said Hallanan, referring to the original building that was demolished to make way for Madison Square Garden. Columns and other pieces of the transportation hub can still be seen scattered in the old swampland.
“This was what they call a landfill,” said Hugerich about the former pig farm. “When you needed to reclaim Meadowlands, which was unrestricted years ago, you would have your local excavator just come in and dump his waste. This is the ‘60s. At that time there was a climate here in town to get rid of the pigs because the pigs were a blight on Secaucus. All of a sudden the pigs are gone and look at all this land here.”
All sorts of items were dumped in the swamps and fields. When Hugerich came in to reclaim the land for construction, the first step was to remove the piles of dirt and debris on the property. It was inside one of those piles that the block was found.
“It was actually a ramp that they used to transfer material,” said Hugerich. “They would take a truck up the ramp and they would dump from one truck into another truck. The ramp was built out of any common fill, and this was part of that common fill.”
As it turns out, the timing of the find couldn’t have been more fortuitous. The bronze Stuyvesant statue was recently restored and a new pedestal built by Jersey City and the conservancy, while talks continue about where to place the monument.
“We are grateful that this piece of history has been recovered and that Mayor Gonnelli notified us of this discovery,” said Jersey City Spokeswoman Jennifer Morrill. “While unfortunately the pedestal has suffered damage and may not be suitable to hold the Stuyvesant statue, we will look to see if the stone could be repurposed and included within the monument. At a minimum, having the original pedestal will allow us to replicate the material, the engraving and the exact measurements for a new pedestal.”
The original inscription read: “In the year of our Lord 1660, by permission of PETRUS STUYVESANT, Director-General, and the Council of New Netherland, around this Square, was founded and built the Village of BERGEN, the first permanent settlement in NEW JERSEY.”
“We’re always talking about trying to keep historic fabric because it has a certain integrity that you just can’t reproduce today,” said Jersey City Historical Preservation Officer Dan Wrieden. “Even if you can’t use it in the monument, even if you can’t reface it, you can find out things like color, stratus, you can find outt he finish. All these little details.”
“I just want to see it go home,” said Gonnelli.
Art Schwartz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.