In the good old days – back before industry settled into Bayonne and before rail lines and paved roads crisscrossed the city – public transportation consisted of one horse that pulled one car across town. People used that method to travel from the farms and old hotels along the southern shores of the area called Bergen Point to the northernmost section bordering the Greenville area of what would later be Jersey City.
Called “The Dummy Line,” this mode of transport was among the first to use an area of the city near Eighth Street that would become Depot Square. According to an early history, “The time of travel was from one- and one-half to five hours one way, according to how the engine felt.”
According The Evening Journal from March 26, 1869, there were numerous complaints about the service. “Yesterday, the dummy in charge of Mr. Whiteneck broke down in multitudinous localities. Passengers were obliged to walk in considerable mud,” the story recalled.
Depot Square began to take shape after this operation ceased around 1870 and the Jersey City and Bergen Railroad Company was authorized to use electric motors to propel its cars and to erect wires.
After this, the horse car was abandoned by the establishment of the trolley system, which within a decade began to provide service throughout Bayonne. It was eventually taken over by Public Service Corporation, and, finally by New Jersey Transit.
Depot Square went on to become the home of the Central Railroad’s Eighth Street Station, the first stop in Bayonne after crossing over Newark Bay – and later the place where in 2011 New Jersey Transit built a station for the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail line.
Depot Square was always a significant hub of activities, which explained why Bayonne had a hotel there.
“The appearance of a hotel at the site coincides with the establishment a wood train station for the Central Railroad of New Jersey (CNJ) during the Civil War era on the south side of Eighth Street (then 16th Street),” according to information supplied by the Bayonne Historical Society, which is now seeking to secure a historic designation for the site. “A second train station, built of stone and designed in Romanesque Revival style by Frank V. Bodine, opened in 1892, replacing the original wood station.”
The Historical Society and the City Council want to list the hotel property as historic and ultimately seek such a designation from the state, which may protect the structure in the future.
The hotel on Depot Square
Constructed by John N. Van Boskerck around 1869, and owned by Patrick W. Connolly, an undertaker, and James R. Stringham, the first hotel was a three-story wooden structure known as the Stringham’s Hotel, which was renamed the St. Charles Hotel after Charles T. Munn took over around 1887. At the time, the property was owned by Caroline M. Haskins and her husband Charles M. Haskins, a banker.
Munn had several interests in the Bayonne community. He owned the “Apple Grove” on Avenue C and East First Street and served as a timekeeper for the New Jersey Athletic Club in the Kill Van Kull Association’s 10th annual Regatta held on the Staten Island Sound. He was also a postmaster, county freeholder, and a candidate for both the state Assembly and the City Council.
The building was struck by fire on March 2, 1892 in the early morning hours, with smoke so dense that most of the occupants struggled to escape and did not have time to change out of their bed clothing, according to reports in the “Bayonne Herald” and “Greenville Reporter” the next day.
The fire department managed to save all the lives and the main structure of what was then a three-story wood building. Police Officer Elijah Russell and the fire department managed to save the occupants’ lives, as well as the structure.
“The building was covered by insurance, and the renovation of the hotel began quickly on March 19, 1892 to repair the fire damage,” the Historic Society said. “In May 1893, the renovated St. Charles Hotel had both a new name, The Bayonne Hotel, and a new proprietor, W.S. Emery, who had 20 years of experience managing hotels in Europe.”
But the Bayonne Hotel remained in operation at the site for only a short time. One news account from the time published by a newspaper in New York City reported the death of one of the hotel managers, who apparently had fallen under an incoming train at the station across the street.
William Suhl purchased the hotel from Caroline M. Haskins on Nov. 22, 1898. Born in Germany, Suhl had been a Bayonne resident since 1868. He owned a prominent restaurant a few doors down from the hotel, and some suspect he bought the hotel to eliminate competition. He hired Augustus Schmidt as the architect for a new building to replace the old structure.
The new construction with two storefronts and apartments above each would insure better revenues for him. Schmidt was the first architect to start a business in Bayonne. He had designed several residential, governmental, and organizational buildings in Bayonne.
Historic people had offices there
In 1907, Rep. Eugene W. Leake, a Democrat from the 9th Congressional District, opened an office in that building. Other occupants over the years included the United States Express Company and P.F. Botzong Esq.
Two historically significant attorneys also had offices in the building: Horace Roberson, a former school trustee, city councilman, and civic leader, and his nephew Horace K. Roberson. The nephew, who later became municipal judge, was an outspoken critic of Jersey City Mayor Frank Hague and was at one point elected to the Bayonne municipal council with the slogan “Home Rule – Not Hague Rule.”
In the 1939 election, the anti-Hague ticket headed by former Freeholder Donovan scored the most sweeping victory ever rolled up in the City of Bayonne.
Roberson went on to become one of the city’s most prominent citizens as a hospital trustee, where a pavilion was named after him. He helped found the First Savings and Loan and served on the Board of Directors of the YMCA, as well as participated in other prominent local civic associations.
A historic structure
The Bayonne Historic Commission, in reviewing the buildings, noted that the exterior of 29 West Eighth St. still shows the essence of its original Romanesque Revival style in spite of alterations.
The building has a mix of styles, including a Romanesque Revival façade. The building also has Italianate, Queen Anne, and Gothic style features.
“The mix of styles is representative of the Eclectic Era that lasted from the late 19th century to the Great Depression,” said the Historic Society’s report.
The building is part of a streetscape that included the Mechanics Trust Company’s bank building, which closed in January 1934 and is currently the home of Bayonne Head Start.