As Jersey City grew and spread its arms out into the salty meadows, a Dr. Barrow, of New York City, purchased a tract of land on its outskirts, where he erected two large Ionic houses, one for himself, and the other, so tradition says for Cornelius Van Vorst, who became the owner soon after its completion. In style of architecture they were very imposing, and although their environment has greatly changed since their erection in the late thirties, one at least, the Van Vorst Mansion, which has been occupied for nearly half a century by the well-known Edge family, still retains an air of distinction.
In the days of the “courtly Cornelius” this old mansion enjoyed great local fame for the generous hospitality which greeted those fortunate ones who crossed its portals. Its beautiful garden, now only a memory, was a source of pride to the Jerseyites of yesterday. There, shaded by dusky box and tall rose bushes, reposed the most interesting kitchen step in America, whose history we are coming to. The Van Vorst family took great pleasure in the renown of their garden. During the first summer of Queen Victoria’s reign boxes of rare flowers and shrubs found their way from Wayne Street to Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle, as small tokens of admiration from an American gentleman to England’s sovereign. Like attentions were bestowed upon other famous people, notably Martin Van Buren, who was then President.
Cornelius Van Vorst was a descendant of the old Patroons. His father,” Faddy” Van Vorst, was quite a noted figure in the society of colonial days, partly owing to his ownership of a private race-course at Harsimus, then the delight of the sporting gentlemen of old New York. It must have been from “Faddy,” of whom it is recorded that he was a lover of fine horses and fine clothes, that Cornelius Van Vorst obtained his taste for lavish display, unusual at a time when everywhere in the Northern States the manner of living was comparatively simple. The interior of his- mansion, with its immense square rooms, engaged the attention of the first artisans of the country. The wide entrance hall was tiled with marble, the walls were hung with damask papers from France, the window glasses and chandeliers imported from Venice, and the doors embellished with solid silver trimmings, all of which reminders of past elegance still remain in the house.
There, some distance from Jersey City proper, and partly surrounded by luxuriant bog-land and narrow strips of forest, crowned by the hills of Bergen, the family flourished in something of the style of that vanished race known as the old Southern planters. It is said of Cornelius Van Vorst that he was very fond of the people of the South; and although it is a strange fact, it is true, nevertheless, that many residents below the Mason and Dixon line found their way to Jersey City both before and after the Civil War. Among the most prominent were the Bacots, of South Carolina, one of whom married into another branch of the Van Vorst family, and the Greenes, of Virginia, who brought quite a retinue of Black servants with them. One old-time Kentuckian, who was beautiful and distinguished enough to be a rival of Sally Ward, “the queen of the South” in her own city, remembers distinctly the appearance of the Van Vorst Mansion and its large garden in the year 1 850, as viewed from a window of one of the old omnibuses, then the popular mode of conveyance in the city. She tells of later visiting its curiosity, the kitchen step, which used to attract so many people to the Van Vorst garden gate, where, sad to relate, most of them were refused admission by the gardener.
Very little has been written of this famous stone, though it was the pedestal of the Bowling Green lead equestrian statue of King George III, which” Tory pride and folly” raised in the year 1770. The New York Journal, of May 31 of that year, mentions the fact briefly that “the ship ‘Britannia’ has arrived with statues of his Majesty and Mr. Pitt, now Earl of Chatham.” A few months later the first statue was erected at the foot of Broadway, on Bowling Green, but the aristocratic features of his Majesty, under their covering of gold-leaf. did not give much pleasure to the patriotic portion of the city’s inhabitants. His countenance, which they at first thought “simpering and idiotic,” began to look tyrannical under the glow of independence, and in the summer of i 776, the opening of the Revolution, the “Sons of Freedom,” unable longer to endure its gilded glory, assembled a band of patriotic citizens and hacked it to pieces with clubs and hatchets. General Washington greatly disapproved of this riotous melee, and directed in his general orders that such affairs” shall be avoided by the soldiery and left to be executed by proper authority.”
Lead was very scarce in that first year of the war, and all the portions of his Royal Highness’s noble effigy were collected and transported to Litchfield, Connecticut, where the ladies of the town, assisted by Colonel Wegglesworth’s regiment, converted them into bullets. The soldiers that assisted on this occasion are open to the imputation of laziness, for, according to Governor Walcott’s unique list of the number made, “forty-two thousand” are credited to the ladies, and three hundred to the regiment.
Where the base of the statue, a stone of Portland marble about five and a half feet long and four inches thick, then disappeared to is not known. A few years later it found its way to Paulus Hook as the gravestone of Major John Smith, of the British army, who was buried near the site of the old St. Matthew’s, on Sussex Street, the first English church of the city of Jersey. When this street was levelled by the Jersey Associates in 1804, the gravestone was upturned by some workmen, who sold it to the father of Cornelius Van Vorst. He is said to have used it as a kitchen step for the old Van Vorst Mansion on the waterfront. At his death it passed into the possession of his son, who appreciated its interest by making it one of the attractions of his garden, so noted in the by-gone annals of old Jersey City. Shortly before Cornelius Van Vorst sold his Jersey City property to the Edge family, he received an offer of a large sum of money for his kitchen step from a descendant of Major Smith, whose grave it had marked for a few peaceful years. The offer was declined, as he preferred to keep in America his “corner-stone of liberty,” as he was wont to call it. On his removal from his mansion he had had it dug out of the ground and sent to the New York Historical Society, in whose rooms all that remains of the gilded statue of George III. can be viewed to-day by the public. It still bears the marks of his Majesty’s steed and the epitaph of Major Smith, which is as follows:
Among the traditions of the Van Vorst Mansion, there is one repeated, without much foundation, that Henry Clay once stopped there. Henry Clay might have visited in Jersey City for a short time when on his way to New York, as there were several among the city’s Southern colony whom he numbered among his friends; but they themselves surely would have known of it. The old Kentuckian previously mentioned became well acquainted with him in the days before the war, when the South’s most distinguished son was a frequent guest of the Gault House in its golden-time under Major Throckmorton’s regime, and he tells delightful stories of him standing in the Gault House hall at dinner-hour and whispering to a merry audience the social status of the ladies as they descended the stairs, learned by the color of the stockings which showed above their satin-slippered feet; and again of the kisses he demanded from every maiden and matron of his near acquaintance when he returned to the hotel after a fortnight’s absence at Ashland; but she has no recollection that he ever came to Jersey City, and she surely would have known and treasured the remembrance.
The Edge family, who succeeded the Van Vorst’s, are descended from the owners of the oft-written-of and pictured Edge windmill, a quaint landmark of the early city, destroyed in 1839 to make room for the New Jersey Railroad tracks. The Edge windmill was erected by Isaac Edge in 1806. According to family tradition it was sent in portions from Derbyshire, England, by his father, as a present in appreciation of his son’s success in the New World. Miss M. Louise Edge has in her possession one of the old ledgers used by Isaac Edge. The accounts were kept in English currency until 1816 and many of the entries are very interesting. During the war of 1812 flour was sold at the mill for eighteen dollars per barrel, and in New York City bread brought as high as three shillings a loaf.
The interior as well as the exterior of the Edge family home has an air of stateliness which is rivaled by few houses in New Jersey, and the many antiques and historical souvenirs it contains give it some degree of the fame it once had when its now destroyed garden possessed a “corner-stone of liberty.”