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Sailing Through History on the Fort Lee Ferry

From the Archives: The Fort Lee Ferry

Most people from Fort Lee, when they hear the word "ferry," think of NY Waterway based in nearby Edgewater, Weehawken, Hoboken and Jersey City.

Those of us of a certain age, whose nightlife began when we tried to emulate the disco moves of John Travolta, however, recall fondly the Binghamton Ferry/Nightclub, which was the first real night spot many of us ventured to when we turned 18. 

But long before the rebirth of the ferry system of transport in our area in the 1990s, there was a ferry system tied to not only transportation, but also to the birth of Fort Lee as America’s first film town and to the very birth of the United States.

Truth be told, as we sit from our perch atop Fort Lee’s Palisades, much of this history started at what today we call the Edgewater Colony, just over the border on River Road. 

This unique residential space was not, too many years ago, dotted with small cottages and bungalows but today is the site of many larger luxury living quarters with million-dollar views.

To get a sense of what the Colony was like, you can see it in the 1997 film Cop Land, as the modest home of one of the movie's characters portrayed by Sylvester Stallone.

But in the spirit of Mr. Peabody and his boy Sherman, let us take the WABAC Machine to 1776.

Prior to the Edgewater Colony, this area on the Hudson River was known as Burdett’s Landing. This spot is adjacent to the bluff that was once known as Mount Constitution and now known as Fort Lee Historic Park.

Burdett’s Landing was born out of a small cove – though the landing no longer exists, a plaque has been placed in the Edgewater Colony about a hundred feet from the original site. In 1776, General George Washington ordered the construction of a fort on the west side of the Hudson River to be called Fort Constitution (later changed to Fort Lee by General Washington in September of that year) and construction began in July of 1776. 

This area was up the hill from Burdett’s Landing and atop the bluff. The Bourdette family, a pioneer family from Fort Lee, purchased the 400 acres in the Fort Lee/Edgewater area in 1756. Stephen Bourdette founded a trading post and ferry service to New York in 1758.

Farmers sending their goods to Manhattan primarily used Burdett’s Landing.  Washington and his army had other uses in mind in 1776. The Burdette Ferry service was taken over by Washington’s army. Washington also made use of the Bourdette house (in the area Main Street and Anderson Avenue in present day Fort Lee) as his headquarters while in Fort Lee.

Burdett’s Ferry served as the only supply and communication line with Fort Washington on the eastern side of the Hudson River. General Washington ordered a retreat on Nov.20, 1776, as the British forces crossed the Hudson, and Burdett’s Landing was plundered by the British, though the Bourdette  family survived and once again operated the landing and ferry after the war, primarily as a way for farmers to get their goods to the city. The Burdett Ferry’s own company, the Fort Lee and New York Steamboat Company, operated from 1832 to about 1920.

The natural beauty of the Palisades saw the development of the area as a resort in the late 19th century, and The Fort Lee Hotel (also known as The Octagon House) was built near the landing. Ferry service from New York brought guests across the river to this luxurious, 60-room resort, which had gas lighting, picnic grounds, a roller-skating rink and outdoor shows. 

The hotel was destroyed by fire in 1898 and never rebuilt. At this time, the ferry service at Burdett’s Landing was in use for  the stone quarries that were blowing up the Palisades. This rock was used in New York to pave streets. However this use was short-lived due to the creation of the Palisade Interstate Park and the preservation of the Palisades in 1900 – this marked the end of Burdett’s Landing as 20th century ferry service operated further down river in Edgewater.

The nascent film industry came to Fort Lee as early as 1907, and the first studio in the area was built in 1910. By 1917, there were several studios in Fort Lee as it became the first American film town.

Though the studio workers primarily lived in Fort Lee, the stars and studio moguls mostly lived in New York, so they commuted each day to the Fort Lee studios via the 125th Ferry  to Edgewater, were they took automobile or trolley transport to Fort Lee. 

This became so prevalent that some of the ferries were named after the stars of the studios. One early star, Mabel Normand, used to relish picking up studio bigwigs from the ferry and race in her open car backwards up River Road, and then Fort Lee’s Main Street, to the Keystone Triangle Studio on Main Street and Linwood Avenue. 

Though Mabel loved driving her car, she, like many of us, hated the morning commute. When she was with Goldwyn Studio in Fort Lee in 1918 she was quite happy about moving out to California permanently and even mentioned the ferry in this quote from a Nov. 24, 1918 issue of The New York Tribune:

At any rate, there’ll be no more of that ungodly trip over the Fort Lee ferry.  There have been times when I could have killed the man who invented the Hudson River.  Irving Berlin can murder all the buglers he wants, but I’m against the man who slams the gates of the ferry and says. "Next Trip."

The ferry Mabel speaks of left Manhattan at 125th Street and landed in the Edgewater Ferry Terminal at Dempsey and River road. This ferry operated until the 1960s and today, NY Waterway operates a ferry not far from this very spot.

As the film industry moved to California by the 1920s and heavy industry left the area by the 1960s, the ferries of the Hudson River slowly died. However, this system of transport came back to life in the late 20th century and today is a key component of New York-New Jersey transportation. 

So the next time you board a NY Waterway ferry, think of General Washington on a ferry from Burdett’s Landing or of our Goldwyn Girl actress Mabel Normand dreading another commute

From the Father of our nation to the American Queen of film comedy, they all sailed through history on the Fort Lee ferry.

Baba O'Riley September 22, 2012 at 01:29 AM
Great information as many Fort Lee residents do not know the history of Fort Lee.
Tom Meyers September 22, 2012 at 02:08 AM
Thabks Baba - the ferry is an interesting piece of history for sure!
Thomas A Bennett September 22, 2012 at 10:39 AM
Another great story Tom. After returning from the War, my dad worked at the New Jersey side of the ferry in Edgewater. When I was maybe ten years old, I rode my bike down to the slip to see dad. He asked if I wanted to take a ride on the ferry.I had to wait for the Policeman who was on the ferry to direct the vehicles to return from 125th St. I remember how exciting crossing the Hudson River was, along with the noise of the ferry's motor. After reaching 125th St all the cars and passengers got off. The Police Officer told me to stay on the ferry to return to New Jersey. Your story evoked all those great memories, thanks.
Tom Meyers September 22, 2012 at 11:45 AM
Thanks for sharing your great memories of the ferry Tom!
Tracy September 23, 2012 at 02:36 PM
Thanks for sharing that memory! The personal stories are invslusble to Ft Lee history!
Tracy September 23, 2012 at 02:37 PM
Tom- I hope in a few years you put a book together with all these articles and personal stories! Keep it up! Thank you too!
Tom Meyers September 24, 2012 at 02:13 AM
Thanks Tracy!

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