Past Imperfect - Lost Historic Sites

The Prior House
Where “Light-Horse Harry” and his troop stopped for refreshment before the Battle of Paulus Hook

From Historic Houses of New Jersey by W. Jay Mills, 1902
Edited by GET NJ, COPYRIGHT 2002

Out on the Wayne Street marshes, a quarter of a mile from the Van Vorst Mansion, there stood until a few years ago an “unhonored and unsung” Dutch dwelling which played an important part in the history of the Revolution. Just above it, on the highest of the Bergen hills, General Washington often spent hours gazing through his spy-glass at the movements of the shipping in New York harbor when the British were in possession of that city, and he, as well as many other prominent American generals, occupied it as a temporary head-quarters during the different periods of the war.

The house, as well as the mill which stood beside it on Bergen Creek, was erected in the year 1760 by Jacob Prior, a resident of Bergen, who ground all the corn of the locality, and at flood-tide floated it on his scows to New York to be sold in the markets. It is not known whether he was a patriot or a loyalist. Unfortunately, many of the inhabitants of the Jersey frontier were apt to change their allegiance as occasion demanded. His dwelling was of rock cut from the primitive Bergen quarry and stones found in the vicinity. It was two stories and a half high, and had a thatched roof. We know that the fireplaces were embellished with delft Scripture tiles, and the second story, where the sleeping apartments were, was reached by a primitive oaken ladder, for many of the well-worn tiles and the old ladder itself were in the collection of historical souvenirs formed by the late John F. Mills, of New York. A gun made in the reign of Queen Anne, and bearing the name of Prior on a silver plate, was found under one of the boards of the first story floor when the house was being dismantled. How it came there is a mystery It is now owned by a resident of Jersey City Heights, who prizes it as a link to the Bergen village of that early period.

From the beginning of the war until our army’s retreat to the Delaware, General Mercer, the veteran of Du Quesne, who fell covered with glory at Princeton, and General Greene, his successor in command of the Jersey shore, and the commander-in-chief of the army, often shared the miller’s hospitality when in the vicinity. In 1779 Lord Stirling established his head-quarters there for a short while, and in the gray dawn of August 19, a memorable summer’s day of that year, Major Lee, the famous “Light-Horse Harry,” stopped there with his tired troop of men for a few minutes before his brilliant capture of Paulus Hook, over which Congress waxed so jubilant, and of which Alexander Hamilton wrote in no extravagant terms as “one of the most daring and insolent assaults to be found in the records of chivalry.”

British commanders, too, frequently stopped there when it was not in the possession of the Americans; and the poor miller and his wife could not have ground their flour with much pleasure, owing to the thought that some foraging expedition might be nearing their dwelling to steal the fruit of their labor before it could be safely secreted.

After the Revolution the “mill house” became a great winter-time rendezvous for the lads and lassies of Bergen Town, who came to skate on the frozen mill-stream. About the wide fireplace in the living-room the Mercelis family, relations of Jacob Prior, and then owners of the mill, passed many a jug of hot milk and many a delft plate piled high with “kockjes” or jumbles to companies of merry guests.

The boys of the thinly settled Paulus Hook also made many excursions there in both winter and summer. In the latter season the luscious apples in the orchard of the adjoining farm proved a great attraction. This farm was then owned by Aaron Vanderbilt, a first cousin of the father of William H. Vanderbilt, “Old Commodore Vanderbilt,” who founded the world-renowned Vanderbilt fortune, and who was then running his new steamboat “Bellona” from New York to Brunswick; where connecting post-chaises took passengers to Trenton and Philadelphia.

Aaron Vanderbilt is said to have had a very irascible temper, aggravated no doubt by the frequent robberies of his fine “Baldwins” and “Monmouth Reds,” and many were the wild chases he gave the urchins of his day, which, tradition almost laughingly says, resulted in his catching “neerie a one.” Every fall-time after futile attempts at punishment be vowed vengeance on the boys when he caught them skating there the next winter; but when the winter came he had always fortunately forgotten bout his past injuries, and allowed them to skate in peace.
In 1837, when the cut was made for the Pennsylvania Railroad, of which Commodore Vanderbilt’s steamboat “Bellona” and connecting post-chaises were the forerunners, the Bergen Creek, which supplied the inmates of the mill with a means of living, was filled in, and they sold the Prior property to the Kingsford family, the first makers of Kingsford starch. But the filling in of the creek did not seriously affect the skating, for the low meadows were still there to be flooded and frozen over in the winter-time, and, as the little city of Jersey grew, they were frequented by the young people. All the best element of the city skated there in the thirties’ and forties, even to the young ladies of Madame Parabeau’s Select School, which then occupied the Lyceum Building, afterwards tenanted by “Hasbrouck’s Institute.”
This advertisement appeared in the New York papers of 1819:
“The Vice-President’s steamboat Nautilus will leave New York every day (Sundays excepted) from Whitehall Wharf, at eleven o’clock A.M. From her the passengers will be received without delay into the superior list-sailing steamboat Bellona, Capt. Vanderbilt, for New Brunswick, from thence in Post chaises to Trenton, where they lodge, and arrive next morning at ten o’clock in Philadelphia, with the commodious and fast sailing steamboat, Philadelphia, Capt. Jenkins.”

One of the young ladies, who climbed the heights of Parnassus as well as the heights of Bergen, wrote in a farewell to Jersey, published about this time, a stanza on the meadow skating-pond, which began:

No more shall we skate on the beautiful lake,
O’er which Washington’s banners once floated afar;
No more shall we loiter, and then homeward take
Our way ‘neath the jewel-like first gleaming star.

The calling of the flooded Jersey meadows a lake is rather a bold stretch of the imagination, but the poetic license of the time gave a very wide latitude to all sentimental writers, and the young lady in question wanted to do honor to the town whose “sweet vesper bells” and “fair groves” she was on the verge of leaving forever.

The mill itself was destroyed in 1838, but the dwelling which had sheltered so many American and British officers, notably the dark-faced young Lee, “the pet of the army,” on the dawn of his great military success, stood until the year 1880, when Benjamin Mills, then its owner, began the improvement of the section of the city included in the Mills map.