a brief history of leonia
As compiled by Leonia Library Archivist Harriet Burdock
The earliest settlement in Leonia dates to 1668 when Samuel Edsall bought 1,872 acres of land from Chief Oratam of the Hackensack Indians. The land extended from the Hudson River to Overpeck Creek. Other Englishmen purchasing large tracts of land around the same time were Nicholas Varlett and John Berry. These three English-owned tracts stood out in an area where the spoken language was Dutch, nevertheless it came to be known as the English Neighborhood stretching from Ridgefield to Tenafly and the whole of Leonia.
By the time of the Revolution Leonia, or rather, the English Neighborhood, was made up of Dutch and English settlers. A document, written and signed by William Paterson a few months before the Revolution, deals with a protest by a British regiment commander whose arms were seized by a detachment of Continental troops. Paterson was then secretary of the Provincial Congress, after the war he helped to write the Constitution. He eventually became New Jersey’s second governor and towards the later part of his life President Washington appointed him to the first Supreme Court.
Leonia and the American Revolution
Leonia is rich with the struggle for independence. An encampment of French soldiers was located near Oak Tree Place, and artifacts have been found indicating that British soldiers were camped where the Methodist Church now stands. On the morning of November 20, 1776, some 3,000 men marched down what is now Fort Lee Road behind their commanding General George Washington following the Battle of Harlem Heights. In 1916 to commemorate the troops that passed through Leonia that day, the Men’s Neighborhood Club commissioned Leonia sculptor Mahonri Young to design a bronze plaque depicting Washington with his troops.
This bronze plaque can be found on Fort Lee Road in front of the Presbyterian Church.
A second work marking that same day is a mural by artist Howard McCormick in the auditorium at the Anna C. Scott Elementary School. McCormick painted it as part of a WPA project in 1936.
One of Leonia’s early prominent landowners was Thomas Moore. The Moore family’s second home, built in 1815, is adjacent to the library.
Moore had been appointed a justice by King George prior to the Revolution, because of his loyalty to the American cause, the British arrested and imprisoned him in the Old Sugar House Prison in New York where he died along with Continental soldiers.
Some ten years prior to the Revolution Samuel Cole built what is Leonia’s oldest house in 1765 located on the corner of Prospect Street and Grand Avenue. Cole became infamous for cavorting with the British, and when things became too hot, he went to Nova Scotia. After the war he returned to Leonia, but was greeted with rotten eggs and lashings by his neighbors and was not permitted to vote. Leonia was a source of food and firewood for troops of both sides and was repeatedly raided for hostages or prisoner exchange. Some hostages died on British prison ships in New York Harbor.
After the Revolution Derick Vreeland purchased a tract of land extending from the Hudson River to Overpeck Creek and south to Christie Heights Street. In 1786 Vreeland built a one room sandstone cottage, and in 1818 a Dutch Colonial house was added. Descendants of the Vreelands occupied the house until 2000. It was designated a national historic landmark in 1978 and is located on Lakeview Avenue.
No description of Leonia can be complete without a mention of slavery. In 1784 slaves comprised almost one-fourth of the borough’s population. There are eight bills of sale for slaves in the archives. The latest dated document is May 20th, 1809. Richard Vreeland purchased a “negro named Isabel with three children” whom he gave to his daughter Elizabeth. Slavery was abolished in New Jersey by decree in 1846.
In 1830, Gordon’s History described the English Neighborhood as a Reformed Church, a post office, three taverns and two stores. These were located on lower Fort Lee Road below Grand Avenue. Trains came to the borough in 1859. Although the War for Independence had been over for some 82 years, Leonia would not undergo a name change until 1865 and become incorporated in 1894.
Leonia was incorporated in 1894.
An armory, built on Grand Avenue in 1859 as a place for storing munitions and mustering the local militia, came to be called the Civil War Drill Hall. It is Leonia’s oldest public building.
During the Civil War it headquartered Company E which saw action at Chancellorsville in 1863. During the Spanish-American War Leonians from Company E assembled at the drill hall, but they did not participate in active service overseas.
John McCloy, a Leonia resident who served in the Navy, was awarded two Congressional Medals of Honor, one during the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900 and the second for heroism during the occupation of Veracruz, Mexico, in 1915.
When the United States entered World War I some 160 men served in France including the Reverend Arthur Brown from the Methodist Church as a chaplain and four doctors among them Dr. James Wyckoff.
Major Wyckoff took a group of Leonia boys to France as a hospital unit.
The Second World War saw close to 800 Leonia men serving in the armed forces, among them Victor Albrecht who received a Bronze Star for action in Germany.
Documents in the archive reveal that Mrs. Vreeland operated a boarding school on the family property. One of the documents is for tuition and board for students attending the Upper School of the English Neighborhood in 1832.
The first public school opened in 1856 with one room, one teacher, and 66 pupils. It was located on Grand Avenue, and the earliest photograph of the school is from 1880.
By the turn of the century the school was in poor physical condition and enrollment had reached 107 students. A new brick elementary school was built away from the noise and the marshland of Grand Avenue opened in 1905 on the corner of Broad and Crescent Avenues.
However, there were not enough students in Leonia to economically operate a high school. By inviting pupils from the surrounding communities on a tuition basis, the Borough raised sufficient funds to purchase land and construct a building on Christie Heights Street. Leonia High School was completed in April of 1913.
Growth of the Borough
The original town was centered along Grand Avenue, known as the King’s Highway prior to the Revolution. The coming of the Northern Valley Railroad in 1859 brought mail, goods, skilled laborers, and wealthy businessmen who built large homes. A cluster of small businesses developed around the railroad, and the town center came to be known as Leonia Village.
With the arrival of the trolley in 1896 the town center moved up to Broad and Hillside Avenues and came to be called the Junction. Leonia was no longer a rural agricultural town. The trolley line to the 125th Street Ferry was extended in 1900 down Broad Avenue. The West Side Subway completed the links, making New York City accessible. A developer named Artemus Ward created the Leonia Heights Land Company in1899. He advertised his cultural mecca on New York subways as the Athens of New Jersey. Ward’s efforts brought large numbers of people to Leonia.
In the 1890s artists began settling in Leonia. The varieties in the landscape (hills, orchards, meadows, streams, farms) provided countless subject matter, and its proximity to New York’s major art galleries added to its appeal. Many of these artists made their living as magazine illustrators in New York. Leonia grew into a colony of artists further stimulated by the opening of a summer school of illustration in 1915.
The first artist to arrive was Peter Newell in 1893 who was the original illustrator of the American edition of Alice in Wonderland, his daughter Jo having been the model for Alice.
Over eighty prominent artists settled in Leonia.
By 1931, with the opening of the George Washington Bridge, Leonia underwent another period of population growth.
The archives contain biographies and photographs about scores of outstanding Leonians, representing people from entertainment, the sciences (including five Nobel Laureates), the arts, sports ( first baseman for the New York Yankees), authors, a suffragette, and the president of a small European country who graduated from Leonia High School.