Though this past week was somewhat cool and chilly, especially when you consider the mild winter we had, it is time to think of sunshine and summer in Fort Lee.
For many residents, summer is an opportunity to enjoy our many borough parks. These parks are known sometimes by a street name like Inwood Terrace Park or Westview Park, or perhaps the park is dedicated to our borough volunteers such as Firemen’s Park.
But the one park I am most familiar with is Coytesville Park.
This reference leads to much confusion, and hopefully this piece will clear the mystery up once and for all.
Recently, while at Fort Lee High School for a meeting, I heard a secretary on the PA system mention Sixth Street Park in Fort Lee. Since 1998 this has been Coytesville Park.
But from the late 19th century through 1953 there was another Coytesville Park atop the cliffs of the Palisades just east of Hudson Terrace and Myrtle Avenue, currently the location of the Palisades Interstate Parkway and the land east of the parkway, which runs to the cliffs.
The founders of Coytesville trace their roots back to England. The Coyte family settled Coytesville in the mid-1840s. The founder, Joseph Coyte, donated land for the local school and cemetery, as well as the land atop the Palisades, which became Coytesville Park.
Here, generations of Fort Lee/Coytesville residents enjoyed the summer breezes and gathered for community events. Fort Lee incorporated as a borough in 1904, and Coytesville, a village, became part of Fort Lee, the northernmost end of the borough.
Though part of Fort Lee, Coytesville continued to maintain a very separate identity right on through the mid 20th century. The roads were narrower than in the rest of town, as the village was truly nestled atop the cliffs. Through the dog days of summer, Coytesville is still cooler than the rest of Fort Lee because of the breezes that blow down the Hudson River atop the bluffs of the Palisades.
Joseph Coyte established the first Coytesville Park, where one of the great landmarks was a monument to the Spanish-American War of 1898 – a cannon mounted in the park near the cliffs.
Nearby, the Villa Richard Restaurant, later the Riviera Nightclub, thrived until a fire destroyed it on Thanksgiving night in 1936. In this location the "Thousand Steps" begin their descent from the top of the Palisades to the Hudson below, as the steps wind along the cliff face and meander through medieval-like tunnels.
The death knell for the Riviera Nightclub also meant the end for Coytesville Park – the construction of the Palisades Interstate Parkway in 1953.
The Riviera’s last show took place on New Year’s Eve 1953. Soon Coytesville Park would also close for good, though ghostly reminders of the park, such as the cannon, remained in place at the edge of the cliffs. The Palisades Interstate Park took Coytesville Park for the parkway, and in return gave Fort Lee a tract of land between Sixth and Seventh Streets in Coytesville to be the new Coytesville Park.
However, the powers that be in the borough never saw fit to dedicate this park formally, so for 45 years it was simply known as Sixth Street Park.
The last Coyte family member in Fort Lee lived in the borough in the 1940s. By the mid 1990s, the Coytes were holding large family reunions in Fort Lee.
I was fortunate enough to meet and become friends with the Coytes in my role with the Fort Lee Historical Society in the 1990s. One thing I am most proud of is of being one of the members of the Fort Lee Historical Society that petitioned the Mayor and Council to formally re-dedicate Sixth Street Park as Coytesville Park in 1998.
Today the park has signage identifying it as Coytesville Park, though some people still stubbornly cling to the misnomer. The truth about the park came to me in the 1990s from former Fort Lee Mayor Henry Hoebel, who told me the story of the Palisades Interstate Park giving the land to Fort Lee for a park to specifically replace Coytesville Park.
Hoebel was very much at forefront of helping bring back Coytesville Park to Fort Lee in 1998, and he joined the Coytes in unveiling the new sign. Eventually one of the elder Coytes, Harry, asked to see the cannon so we took them up to the Palisades. Once there Harry asked if we could arrange to bring the cannon to Coytesville Park to be placed on permanent display.
We worked with the Borough of Fort Lee and the Palisades Interstate Park, and within the same year, 1998, the cannon was brought to Coytesville Park, where it is still displayed today.
That’s the story of the two Coytesville Parks. Though we recently lost the kiddie pool at the park, we can still boast of being the only park in Fort Lee guarded over by a Spanish-American War cannon thanks to the Coytes.